Elections have become a crucial tool in attempts to achieve broader democratization of the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union stirred up drastic changes around the world, among them the appearance of new actors and coalitions seeking a democratic future. Inspired by the crash of the “authoritarian beacon,” the Western community, in turn, attempted to pull itself out from the “son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” approach to propping up foreign allies, and began helping emancipated states achieve a better life as the West perceived it.
In this drive, elections have become the basis, the criterion, the tool and often the end in itself of a political process.
Westerners accustomed to elections as an indispensable feature of their life, tend to overlook other crucial components of democracy such as strong civil groundwork and a responsible government. But some foreign regimes that are unaccustomed to political competition have quickly grasped the inversion of this. By conducting recurrent elections in name only, they are recognized as legitimate by the Western community while maintaining the political configuration they want to preserve.
Westerners assume that elections are the only crucial ingredient for a democratic “startup,” yet elections by themselves mean little. This has been proven even in American history.
Though the Founding Fathers had carefully conceived the balance of power, fears of the president stifling the other branches of government arose nonetheless, particularly during the times of Andrew Jackson, and both Roosevelts, not to mention Richard Nixon and, most recently, George Bush. If such concerns arose in the United States with its mighty legislative and judicial “checks and balances,” what distortion must other countries experience whose institutions are much flimsier?
This civic weakness points to another crucial aspect of democratic existence, namely whether the people of a country have a chance to influence their governors in the interim between voting. This is taken for granted by Westerners with their formidable free media, strong non-governmental organizations and grassroots activists. That is not so with other nations with no extensive societal structure and, thus, no tools to maintain accountability of the government, resulting in a lack of public influence between elections.
Prominent American thinkers, for instance Samuel Huntington and Immanuel Wallerstein, have warned since the mid-1970s of elections with no influence. Wallerstein wrote about “the important difference between formal and substantive democracy.” The scholar wrote: “The liberal concern with procedures lends itself towards a formal analysis of democracy where procedures and institutions exist in order to make democratic processes theoretically possible, while in practice inequalities of social power render them largely empty processes.”
Another aspect of election is the rotation of ruling elites and its impact on a nation.
For Americans who never faced the menace of a figure “growing into the throne,” it’s hard to realize that in a great number of countries elections are conducted not to facilitate the replacement of political leaders but to prevent this. Elections for the sake of voting helps increase the legitimacy of a governor or a clan, giving them an additional argument to remain in power “till death do us part.”
The absence of a strong opposition can give a governor additional arguments to stay on for another term. He throws up his hands and utters that were he given the opportunity to quit, he would gladly do so, but until someone more reliable shows up, he must reign over the nation.
The availability of an opposition can lead down different paths. On the one hand, legitimate and strong opposition helps sustain communication with voters and, thus, an accountable government. On the other hand, elections, particularly conducted under Western supervision, may reveal an opportunity to gain power for those whose governance may in fact have a graver long-term impact than the absence of an election altogether. This reality would little resemble the rosy anticipations of a stable transparent democracy. In recent years, many electoral campaigns in turbulent regions have given evidence of what was described as anti-systemic groups “demanding more democratic control of political and economic decision-making.”
The result is the same number of “sons of bitches” in the world, but now they are legally elected.
The excessive attention to elections has become, hence, a trap of the modern world. There is no other more efficient civic means to establish democracy. On the other hand, this tool allows ambiguous and often shady figures to rule indefinitely, or vice versa to seize power from a weak ruling elite. The resolute faith of westerners that surely every nation will value and enjoy the tenets of democracy often helps these opportunists to achieve their selfish goals.
Quasi-democracies significantly outnumber authentic ones, and the world is woefully as far from a prevalence of democracies as it was decades ago.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.