Gap between Elections and Democracy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Gap between Elections and Democracy


Byline: Nathaniel Heller, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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