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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.

Post

Are flawed elections better than none?

Published 11th April 2010 - 11 comments - 3357 views -

Chaotic, corrupted, violent, biased in favour of the ruling party, not expected to cause any desirable political change at all. Seems that Sunday’s elections in Sudan, first in 24 years, will not take this hapless country anywhere near democracy.

 

The situation is typical for the region – elections in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia look alike – as well as for the world in general, where the number of democracies is substantially lower than countries having pools.

Only free, democratic elections are uni-vocally beneficiary to the people (let’s skip the risk of electing bad government in place of a good one). The outcome of illiberal or stolen elections is dubious. Winning the voting has become a goal of wars and ethnic cleansing. Afghanistan deeply flawed presidential polls have eroded public confidence in the electoral process. In Zimbabwe, hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands suffered torture and intimidation when they tried to vote out their autocratic president. Manipulated elections serve to the dictators as a fig leaf and allow Western governments to deal with undemocratic regimes – especially if they are powerful as Russia, wealthy as Qatar or of key strategic position as Pakistan.

Still the United Nations has mounted a public relations campaign aimed at assuring that even a flawed election may be worth having. “We shouldn't look at this as a negative; we should look at this as a positive," said a senior U.N. official. According to Ibrahim Gambari, U.N. special representative, while the election may take place in an "imperfect environment" it would alter Sudan's political landscape for the better.

 

This is in line with the view of most democracy experts, who believe that flawed electons are better then none. Electioneering mobilizes the opposition, creates new leaders, put a country in the international spotlight. Despite the government’s restrictions on opposition campaigning, the Sudanese had been able to speak openly about political matters for the first time in years.

Even flawed elections bring hope for a change. Sometimes it is visible only after a while. Look at Iraq. The voting last March again was far from democratic standards – but showed that the new political culture and new class of politicians, independent from Washington, are being born there. This is a chance for further normalization and development

Next autumn elections in Burma (Myanmar) are planned. They will be 100 % manipulated by the junta. However the International Crisis Group report says that “the [new] constitution and elections together will fundamentally change the political landscape in a way the government may not be able to control”.

A couple of times in history stolen elections led to the fall of regimes, enough to mention F.Marcos in the Phillippines or recent people’s revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. With Sudan may be similar, though the odds are that Mr. Bashir will be reelected and relegitimised. Calmed this way, he might allow South Sudan to gain independence in the next year referendum. Or return to violence.

Would democracy help Sudan to get out of vicious cycle of poverty and violence? Not much doubt about it. Democracy and development are interconnected – plus there can not be any serious development without a peace. And the widely condemned regime of Mr. Bashir is a main obstacle, esspecialy to the development of southern part of the country (see chart below). Democracy is not a magic wand that change Sudan into Swiss, but would open the country more widely for aid, peacekeepers and investors.

Polish readers may read my full article on this issue here.

 

Pictures: guardian.co.uk, obamanialand.com, bbc.co.uk

 



Comments

  • Maria Kuecken on 11th April 2010:

    Interesting piece, Robert!  I’m by no means a democracy expert, but I definitely agree that democratic institutions and development are usually linked, although I’m not sure that the facade of elections can pave the way for good institutions. In some cases, I think flawed elections can be dangerous if a country is violently fractured into different groups since they provide the opportunity for parties preaching hate speech to acquire more clout.  I suppose that saying an imperfect election is good depends on how we define the “acceptable” flaws?

    With the case of Sudan, I imagine those in the south are just biding their time until the referendum vote next year to split from the north.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Maria.The facade of elections do not pave the way for good institutions, that’s for sure. However elections may (may, not must) lower the tension by providing legitimacy to the autocratic leaders - and this may be helpful, at least in creating environment favorable to the work of international institutions. We are talking of lesser evil, not of perfect world. The best scenario for North Korea would be fall of Kim Jong Il regime, but even if he tried to gain electoral legitimacy, that would be a big something and could mean that change is in the air. On the other hand there are many countries that elections mean nothing at all - that was the case with communist Eastern Europe before 1989.


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Robert. Interesting thoughts. Yes, flawed elections have led to the downfall of leaders including Mr. Marcos. (Though, I was too young to remember that, the stories about his regime continues).
    We will be holding our elections in May…I’m crossing our fingers. Wondering what will happen. The Philippines has yet to mature as a democratic country.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Iris. I will be watching your elections for sure, love Philippines’ politics due to its mysticism and colorful populism, though probably would not like to have someone like Mr. Estrada as my president. Years ago I wrote a story from Luzon on the vivid cult of Ferdinand Marcos, it is still one of my favorites. Is Max Soliven still alive?


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Robert. Max Soliven died a few years ago…


  • Maria Kuecken on 12th April 2010:

    Thanks for that distinction, Robert.  I would expect that most autocratic governments are able to control elections, regardless.  However, as you say, I think it depends on the context.


  • Luan Galani on 12th April 2010:

    Insteresting thoughts, indeed, Robert. I’ve never considered that. Still chewing this idea over, I think I agree. However, it is needed to keep an eye on the whole process when the country is split in different groups, as Maria mentioned. Discussion is ok, but too splenetic? I do not think so.


  • Bart Knols on 12th April 2010:

    Good story, Robert. I think that few of us will disagree with the merits of democracy. However, it is not a prerequisite for development. Look at Vietnam. This brings us back to Moyo’s book (Dead Aid; see the post on this). She argues likewise - European Aid has constantly pressurised governments with the conditionality of giving based on steps towards deomocracy. But with a faltering economy this may not be the starting point for development, because ‘bringing democracy’ is not an end initself…


  • Robert Stefanicki on 12th April 2010:

    Absolutely, Bart. Not just Vietnam, the most vivid example is China. I am also against democratization under pressure, especially with US army as a tool. But the alternative is - as we see - China model spreading around the world. There is a need to find some middle way - and I think this is already going on, IMF and WB are changing their policy, though I am not sure about the results.


  • Clare Herbert on 12th April 2010:

    I read a great piece today from a man who was over the moon that he had gotten the chance to vote. He’s realistic, realizing that change is highly unlikely, but he got a chance to vote and that ain’t nothing. Elections are important. I think they’re another step along the development road, whether or not they lead to direct change.


  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Very insightful post, thank you!


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