How Fake Democracies Damage Real Ones

Madagascar shows what happens when the world treats a corrupt regime like a functioning democracy.

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In 1991, Madagascar — a large island off the coast of southeast Africa known more for its lovable lemurs than the fate of its 27 million deeply impoverished people — held its first multi-party elections. The way it came to do so was somewhat unusual: a brash general effectively kidnapped the country’s leading politicians, locked them in the Panorama Hotel, and proclaimed that they could leave only after they agreed to allow political competition. Two days later, the Panorama Convention was signed. The elections took place as planned — and what’s more, the incumbent lost and left power. It seemed like a new dawn for a country that had suffered for decades under the rule of a failed military strongman.

Shortly thereafter, Madagascar was duly declared a full-fledged democracy — receiving the same score as France — in an index that many political scientists consider to be the most accurate yardstick of regimes. Politicians, diplomats, and scholars all welcomed the country into the democratic world. In 2006, the American ambassador to the island declared that Washington believed that “Madagascar deserves its position among the community of democracies in the world.” Indeed, even in 2014 and 2015, in the wake of seriously flawed elections, the U.S. State Department continued to herald Madagascar’s alleged “return to democracy” after a coup d’état.

There’s just one problem: Madagascar is not and has never been a democracy. Regular elections are held, but they are manipulated and riddled by vote-buying. A national assembly exists, but it is deeply corrupt and unresponsive to the people. A democratic constitution is on the books, but those with informal power routinely ignore it. As in so other many places around the globe, real power in Madagascar belongs to a small cadre of elites that rely on informal personal networks to wield it.

There is more to democracy than elections. True democracy requires the rule of law, a free press, and accountability for elected officials, no matter how powerful they may be. Madagascar has none of the above. But far too often, we allow counterfeit democracies like it to pass as the real thing.

That’s because the international community treats democracy like a light switch: a regime is either elected democratically (on), or it is “elected” in a blatantly undemocratic sham contest (off). Elections themselves are also frequently judged in a binary way — they’re either completely free and fair or they are not. The problem is that most regimes in the world, like Madagascar, lie somewhere in between. Many may emit some democratic light — particularly during elections — but remain depressingly dim for the thousands of days in-between. The current system gives them little incentive to get brighter because the West calls them “democracies” too easily. That, in turn, degrades the value of democracy itself.

There are two dynamics at play here. First, the inevitably low bar created by the on/off mentality creates an effect that I’ve previously called “the curse of low expectations.” When undemocratic rulers get a diplomatic high-five just for holding a passable election, it creates a strong incentive to continue doing only the bare minimum. The European Union called Madagascar’s 2013 election “free, fair, and democratic,” even though millions were left off the voter rolls, illicit campaign funding was used, and vote buying was rampant (a finding that the European Union even acknowledged openly in its final report). After the election observers packed up and left, the international community took far less of an interest in the island. So long as the West sets an absurdly low bar for what constitutes democratic elections and views those as the endpoint of establishing democracy rather than its beginning, the light of democracy around the globe will continue to flicker.

Second, when a country’s citizens live in a “democracy” that holds elections but doesn’t really give them a voice, the result is governance that doesn’t deliver. Even the best election doesn’t put food on the table, provide security, or ensure basic health care. If elections are all people have, but genuine democracy doesn’t take root, they soon begin to resent the concept of democracy itself.

Perhaps for that reason, even the counterfeit democracy introduced in Madagascar in the early 1990s didn’t prove especially durable. In 2009, in one of the more bizarre episodes in modern international politics, the country’s sitting president Marc Ravalomanana — a rags-to-riches yogurt kingpin — was overthrown in a coup d’état by Andry Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former radio disc jockey. The toppling of an elected leader was, finally, enough for the diplomatic community to flip the switch and acknowledge that the country had lost its status as a democracy. International aid dried up. Madagascar became an international pariah.

But it didn’t take much to turn the switch back on. Four years later, Madagascar held elections again. The country was quickly reinstated in a preferential U.S. trade program, a decision prompted by “the nation’s return to democratic rule.” Crucial foreign aid flowed back in. But day-to-day international interest in the country plummeted. Madagascar had done the bare minimum to be seen as a “democratically elected” government, and that seemed to be good enough.

The elected government does not actually rule democratically, but its violations of democratic principles are not considered “bad enough” to elicit international consequences. As a result, elites in Madagascar and countries like it can have their cake and eat it too — ensuring that their informal power networks remain king while basking in international praise for a post-election “return to democracy.”

In April, Madagascar’s president announced that the prime minister had resigned, only for the startled prime minister to inform the press that he had done no such thing. His unconstitutional and unwilling departure ushered in the island’s third prime minister in as many years. At the same time, credible allegations arose that several ministers had paid bribes to secure their spots in the president’s cabinet. In May, the Minister of Public Service and Government Reform was discovered with 1,000 kilograms of drugs in his personal vehicle — rather a lot for recreational use. He has not been arrested, nor has he resigned.

These repeated embarrassments have prompted the general who originally ushered in multi-party elections 25 years ago to speak out. General Desiré-Philippe Ramakavélo, a distinguished elder statesman who has taken up writing political poetry in his retirement, laments that the country’s elites tend to act like royalty once attaining office, rather than as public servants constrained by democratic rules. During my last meeting with him at his home in Antananarivo, he shared his latest stanzas with me. The title of the poem he read, La loi, c’est moi (“The law, it’s me”) is a reference to the quip L’état, c’est moi (“the state, it’s me”) famously attributed to the French King Louis XIV, who embodied absolutist rule. In the poem, Ramakavelo bemoans the degree to which his country has impersonated Versailles by allowing powerful kingpins and kingmakers to rule without regard for the formal trappings of democracy.

Before I left, the general asked me to send him anything I wrote about him. In a vivid demonstration of the continued dominance of personality as power in Madagascar, the mailing address he provided to me read in full: “General Desiré-Philippe Ramakavélo, Madagascar.”

The problem with informal rule is simple: it allows bad governance. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world not least because its corrupt — albeit elected — politicians serve themselves rather than their people. Though it has tremendous mineral wealth and one the most tourist-enticing landscapes on the planet, its GDP per capita is stuck below $500. A third of the population is illiterate. And it’s the only place on earth where outbreaks of the bubonic plague are a regular occurrence. It is, unquestionably, one of the worst tickets you can be dealt in the global lottery of birth.

Labeling such a country a “democracy” is not just ridiculous — it’s downright dangerous. Lowering the bar for what deserves to be called a democracy degrades public support for the concept. After all, if Madagascar really represented what a democracy looks like, nobody would want to live in one. Over time, this only makes the false prophets of authoritarian strongmen or military rule more appealing.

Madagascar may be an island, but it is not alone in this risk. When tens of thousands of Africans living in similarly sham democracies were asked whether they were satisfied with democracy in their country, only 965 out of more than 50,000 respondents replied that their countries were not, in fact, democracies. Most accepted the premise that they lived in a democratic country, but lamented that fact: Four in ten said that they were “not at all satisfied” or “not very satisfied” with this form of governance.

This erosion of support for democracy has a knock-on effect. Calling countries like Madagascar democratic provides powerful rhetorical ammunition to despots in other countries, helping them make their case for continuing to resist reform. After all, if coups and corruption and drug-running ministers are the hallmarks of so-called democracies, maybe authoritarianism isn’t so bad.

In other words, mislabeling countries as democratic can cause people to lose faith in the concept while amplifying the voice of unresponsive leaders eager to spread an undemocratic gospel. This one-two punch may help explain why the world has become modestly, but steadily, less democratic since 2006.

The solution is not simply to condemn Madagascar and countries like it as pariah states. Madagascar’s president is no dictator, and some minor and modest progress toward democracy has been made since the 2013 elections.

Instead, there needs to be a higher bar for what warrants the label of democracy. For countries like Madagascar that do not deserve the label, aid and international acceptance should be tied to steady progress towards genuine democratic governance rather than being conditioned on holding passable elections every few years. If no progress is made, it should not take something so drastic as a coup d’état to hammer home the lesson that undemocratic governance between elections has diplomatic consequences.

Today, Madagascar’s people are mired in poverty and political dysfunction two and a half years after the last elections, and with two and a half years to go until the next ones. Amid the country’s economic and political stagnation, there are persistent whispers of nefarious attempts to instigate a constitutional crisis in order to force an early vote. Earlier this month, Senator Rene de Roland Lylison — a colonel who previously headed a paramilitary group — was arrested amid rumors that he was plotting another coup d’état. Unfortunately, because Madagascar’s people have been told that they have democracy but believe it has failed them, some would welcome a military takeover. That is the peril and the price of a system that conflates the act of voting with genuine democracy.

In the photo, the EU’s chief observer of Madagascar’s 2013 election, Maria Muniz de Urquiza, speaks to the press outside a polling station in Antananarivo on October 25, 2013.

Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College, London and the co-author of How to Rig An Election. Twitter: @brianklaas