Global Integrity’s managing director Nathaniel Heller discusses the work required to move beyond democracies-in-name-only to truly accountable governments, in an op-ed published in the Washington Times.
The Gap Between Elections and Democracy
By Nathaniel Heller
Published in the Washington Times March 5, 2008
Troubling headlines in recent months from places as disparate as Pakistan, Kenya and Russia all share a common theme: the flaws in those countries’ elections. Underlying this trend is the opinion that elections are one of the most visible and credible indicators of a country’s level of democracy.
Evidence abounds of democracy’s fragility or erosion in each nation — from the question of President Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to holding free and fair elections in Pakistan, to the bloodshed in Kenya following Mwai Kibaki’s apparently fraudulent re-election, to the Vladimir Putin regime’s cynical stage-managing of the Russian presidential election.
To state the obvious, there can be no democracy without elections. But what about the reverse: Can elections occur in the absence of democracy? Putting aside the “elections” charade practiced by the likes of Cuba or Iran, the answer is still, unfortunately, yes. As a provocative new study demonstrates, when a country successfully holds a free, fair and open election that conforms to international standards, democracy is by no means ensured.
Global Integrity, an international group we work with that monitors governance and accountability mechanisms assessed 55 countries on 23 indicators and performance categories, examining the strength of civil society and governing institutions, anti-corruption mechanisms, and government accountability. The report confirmed that elections are but one part of a complex recipe for stability and good governance.
In some cases, countries with weak, ineffective or corrupt democratic institutions can still pull off plausible elections. Twenty of the 27 countries receiving “weak” or “very weak” ratings for executive, legislative and judicial accountability — from Argentina to Sri Lanka to Kazakhstan — still received “very strong” or “strong” ratings for election practices.
No country better illustrates the dangers of allowing the elections-to-democracy gap to remain wide than Kenya. In hindsight, the 2007 assessment of Kenya flashes like an eerie warning sign in history’s rearview mirror. The ratings revealed dangerous fragility in Kenya’s democratic institutions despite the prevailing conventional wisdom at the time that the country was on an upward trajectory.
In 8 of the 21 categories unrelated to elections, Kenya was rated “weak” or “very weak,” including the rule of law, police performance and three categories of government accountability. The stage was set. Once the country’s election results failed the legitimacy test, its institutional weaknesses helped fuel — rather than cool — the ensuing conflagration.
Nor are these problems confined to developing nations. Last week, Italy’s president dissolved parliament and called for new elections after the governing coalition lost a vote of confidence. This will be Italy’s 61st government since World War II.
Critics argue that Italy’s electoral system gives too much power to fringe parties and too little attention to basic governing. Soon enough, Italy may have more “former prime ministers” than vineyards. Yet the new vote will proceed without the necessary institutional reforms.
Nonetheless, elections matter. After all, dictatorships such as North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, which don’t even hold elections, are so tightly controlled we could not gain access to local experts to do our research. And China, the world’s largest autocracy, scored in the bottom 15 percent overall and didn’t achieve a “strong” or “very strong” score in a single one of the 23 ratings categories.
Every country that the study rated in the bottom third in election practices also had “weak” or “very weak” ratings for the combined 23 categories. In other words, the absence of fair elections and widespread voter participation is almost always accompanied by weaknesses in the institutions on which a real democracy depends.
But this does not mean democratic progress is neither impossible nor destined to be slow. The study indicates that where dedicated leadership is present, positive change can happen quickly. Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania, three former Soviet Bloc nations, captured 3 of the top 7 overall ratings. These success stories suggest that a key link between elections and genuine democracy is the political will at the top to build and nurture democratic institutions that are independent from political personalities. Kenya’s political leaders should take note.
Elections can be viewed as a celebration of democracy. Yet too often, as in countries like Kazakhstan, Egypt, Russia and Cameroon, they’ve been used as an excuse for prematurely declaring the democratic experiment a success. Focusing on the tougher, lower-profile institutional reforms may offer better leverage for cementing long-term reforms.
Nathaniel Heller is the managing director of Global Integrity, an independent nonprofit organization tracking governance and corruption trends around the world.