Transitional Elections in Comparative Perspective

Democrats today, facing autocratic governments, have an advantage over their predecessors of ten or twenty years ago. Political scientists have studied transitions from authoritarianism and there are many lessons that can be learned from around the world—and applied. Dictators’ political engineers are surely learning too, so the democrats should try at least to be a step ahead.

Let me reflect on some of the main conclusions from a recent edited volume on this subject, Staffan Lindberg’s Democratization by Elections: A New Mode of Transition.

Democratic transitions are complicated affairs. There are many routes from authoritarianism to liberal democracy, including long struggles, repeated partial transitions, blind alleys, reversals and occasional shortcuts. Elections are a pivotal mechanism—perhaps the single most important instrument—of democratization. They don’t always work, but, as Larry Diamond summarizes the case in the book’s foreword, ‘Even deficient elections [are] worth holding and engaging because they [can] advance real democratic change.’ (p. xiii).

The central hypothesis, as formulated by Lindberg, is that ‘De jure competitive elections provide a set of institutions, rights, and processes stacking up incentives and costs in ways that tend to further democratization.’ (p. 9)

Andreas Schedler poses what he calls ‘the opposition dilemma,’ (p. 187) which takes the form: ‘They wish to extract democratic concessions without legitimizing the authoritarian manipulation of elections.’ Each specific situation needs careful analysis, but some general principles can be derived.

Lindberg describes various ways in which elections can serve the process of democratization, even against the intent and organized effort of an authoritarian ruler. For example, a dictator may call for elections confident that he will win, but find that the opposition is far greater than he expected. In trying to rig an election, he may end up discrediting himself even more, but in the meantime the population has been mobilized for peaceful change, and mass protest then forces that change. More commonly, as the key institutions of electoral democracy are put in place, they open up the space for civic pluralism, freedom of expression, and political competition so that, over multiple elections, there is step-by-step democratic transformation.

Ghana is a paradigmatic example: a country which was a ‘closed authoritarian’ system in the wake of the 1981 Rawlings coup and moved by stages to become a fully accredited liberal democracy. The process began with a tentative and limited process of non-party competitive local elections in 1987 (moving through hegemonic authoritarian to competitive authoritarian government). In 1992 there was a new constitution followed by multiparty elections, which fell short of being free and fair, but marked a shift towards electoral democracy. The 1996 second elections were freer, and the 2000 were won by the opposition. With two subsequent free and fair elections, including the peaceful alternation of power and the entrenchment of civil liberties, Ghana qualified as a liberal democracy.

At the other end of the spectrum, elections can be repeatedly rigged, manipulated, or bought. In an excellent chapter in the volume, Ellen Lust-Okar analyzes why elections in many Middle East and North African countries consistently yield conservative outcomes, returning hegemonic authoritarian governments to power. She attributes this to ‘competitive clientelism,’ namely the function of elections as a process whereby communities select individuals to perform the function of wasta, mediators in access to state resources. Candidates will campaign on the basis of their ability to work with the ruler and direct services and jobs to their constituents, and voters will choose accordingly.

In between, there are examples of African states in which the ruling party holds a significant advantage over the opposition but cannot achieve the sustained dominance of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Lise Rakner and Nicolas van der Walle describe African electoral dynamics, noting for example the high turnover of parliamentarians in dominant party systems in which presidents remain in office for a long period. Opposition parties, they explain, tend to be weak and fragment easily, often serving as little more than platforms for the presidential ambitions of their leaders. They note how many candidates run as independents because this allows them to negotiate entry to the winning party, and thereby obtain access to state resources after the election. An interesting section describes how an opposition leader can use executive office at mayoral level as the basis for launching a bid for the presidency (successfully in Madagascar and Benin, unsuccessfully in Uganda). Control of a municipal authority, or a state in a federal system, provides an opportunity (including patronage and funds) for an ambitious individual to build a campaign to challenge for the presidency.

Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik describe and analyze the ‘electoral model’ for a transition from dictatorship in Europe and Asia. The ‘electoral model’ is winning presidential power at the polls, removing an autocrat in one shot. Key to success, they find, are a number of factors. Most important is a unified opposition. ‘Opposition leaders must put aside their own individual ambitions and desires for power to work together and, in most successful cases, agree on a common candidate to support. Such agreement is generally extremely difficult to achieve.’ (p. 262) Other factors include rigorous election monitoring, voter registration drives and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, organizing parallel reporting mechanisms for electoral results (based on tabulating polling station results one by one), and preparing for non-violent civic protest (which included consulting with the security forces prior to the demonstrations).

Schedler writes that ‘my empirical conclusions invite a couple of practical recommendations’ to a democratic opposition facing the dilemma of whether to ‘legitimize’ flawed elections or to extract small democratic concessions through participating (pp 200-1). These are:

‘First, don’t boycott. Protest instead. Build up mobilizational capacities and take your followers onto the streets. Withdrawing from the electoral arena hurts you in the short run (which hurts a lot) and probably over the long haul (where everything is more uncertain). Counteracting authoritarian manipulation through active protest, by contrast, pays tangible benefits within one electoral cycle. Second, in preparing for presidential elections, fight for media freedom and an open field of competitors. Censorship and exclusion, more than anything else, are likely to debilitate you in the personalist competition for the presidential office. Third, take legislative elections seriously…. Your relative immunity to manipulation in the legislative arena provides golden opportunities for conquering congressional positions of power and publicity. All in all, even if weather conditions look less than inviting, keep protesting in the rain.’

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5 thoughts on “Transitional Elections in Comparative Perspective

  1. Dear Alex,

    if I read your critique correctly you are indicating that the objectively correct strategy for the democratic forces in Sudan would have been to take the electoral opportunity more seriously than its architects, and to insist that their supporters participate in the census, register on the electoral roll, support their representatives in the NEC, utilize the electoral laws and regulations to their advantage, and build a common platform in order to exploit the openings, however slender they might be, at every level from the state legislatures to the presidency itself. Even should the broad front be unable to scale the heights of seizing state power it should not shun the slightest chance to take possession of, and hold, lesser positions on the political terrain, and use these as the base for future advance. That the Sudanese democratic forces, including the beloved Sudan Communist Party, should fail to heed such obvious and objective lessons of history, beggars belief. Yet somehow, given over to personal ambition, exhaustion, blind faith in the benevolence of the so-called ‘international community’ and the sincerety of its avowals of principle, and focus on the crumbs of patronage that the hegemon is content to scatter in their direction, the opposition forces behaved entirely according to type. Never before have they faced the strategic challenge of contesting an election against a hegemon with its institutional apparatus of rule intact. Always in the past the hard work of dismantling the mechanisms of dictatorship has been accomplished by others and they have been the fortuituous inheritors of this labour, able to indulge in their tactical sectarian power games without the rigour of real progressive mobilization. Their abject failure today comes as no surprise, leaving the forces of reaction and secession to enjoy the fruits of the democratic opening without facing the fires of a true contest. The vapid baying of ‘illegitimacy’ can never substitute for the real struggle of popular mobilization.

  2. The situation in Sudan can not be compared to other situations in Africa or eastern Europe. The NIF-NCP regime is far more ruthless than and far more sophisticated in its totalitarian manipulation of the electoral system and its divide and rule tactics to keep the opposition weak. From start to finish the electoral system has been manipulated and rigged, beginning with the census and the formation of the NEC! If anyone has a shadow of doubt they can read the ICG ‘Sudan’s rigged elections’ report which shows what the world knows! The Juba Alliance tolerated too much abuse and suppression in the cause of democracy but still held fast to its democratic principles until its leaders could not continue with good conscience. The international community should have nothing to do with this fraudulent abuse of power and should condemn it in the strongest possible terms to ensure that the illegitimate regime can not get away with its totalitarian tactics.

  3. The situation in Sudan is a bit different from other new emerging democracies in Africa, East Europe, South America and Asia. in 1955 an elected parliament took a unanimous decision, for independence, many of the current political leaders, seen that and they have been through other three free and fair election in 1965, 1968 and 1986, that why for them to accept Mugabe style or Mubarak of Egypt style elections is not possible and at the time most of African countries which took their independent after Sudan moving towards real democracy. After all that history I don’t think it is fair to ask Sudanese people to accept half baked democracy just for the sake to allowing the NCP to remain in power, and to speed up the secession process for the south.
    It is not about old sectarian political parties leaders, many young Sudanese in their 20s and 30s, now leading the campaign for real democratic changes, most of them are not affiliate to any political party, but been affected with what going how as their future is been influenced by the policies by the current government as more than 90% of the graduate in the last 7 years are unemployed and their even lost hope of better future.
    The main reason for the miss which we are facing now is because most of the interim arrangement needed to allow smooth transition to proper democracy is been blocked by the National Congress, and now they want to summarise the whole process to just voting.
    Many people are blaming other political parties for wasting the last 5 years by not preparing themselves for the election, simply you can’t prepare for free and fair election if you don’t have enough freedom to operate and the basic rights stated in the interim constitution are not upheld, the NCP is deliberately doesn’t want free and fair election because they are sure that they will lose it.
    What I can’t understand is total silence of the western countries whom support the IGAD process about by the full implementation of the interim arrangements include the full democratisation of the Sudan before asking others political parties to take part in the election and they know there is no conducive environment to hold it.
    I think we have to separate between the issue of holding the election and the 2011 referendum for south Sudan , and if the assumption is that the south will secede , what type of governments is west want in the north or the south , do they want stable governments or just any government. I think it is on the interest of everyone that we have stable and democratic governments in both countries, to ensure the stability of the whole region.

  4. Dear Alex,
    First of all, I think I need to lay my hands on that particular book; sounds like a good read with revolutionary recommendations.
    I totally agree with the writers on the issue of forging ahead with elections despite their flaws especially in post-conflict or authoritarian states. Reading Maggie Fick’s Enough Report (Deal-making in Sudan), I couldn’t help but notice the sad tone of her concluding remarks; “Democratic transformation of Sudan has indeed been lost, or rather stolen from the people of Sudan by its leaders”.
    Such disappointment can only be expected from people who imagined it was possible to fully democratize a country like Sudan with its long history of authoritarianism within the six year CPA interim period. This is a feat that even we in Kenya haven’t quite achieved; yet we began the process much earlier over two decades ago! We just came out of a bloody 2007 elections and we hope we can make a new constitution in time to avert another round of ethnic conflict in the 2012 poll. We are not there yet.
    Democratization is a process. At times, like the authors of that book posit, we do not always start on a perfect footing. But the important thing is that we start.
    Sudan has started. As a concerned neighbor, am glad we can see some green shoots in the ground; civil society is forming, people are more aware of their democratic rights, political tolerance is taking root, even Pres Bashir is out wooing the electorate!
    Slowly but surely, Sudan will get there. The local actors and international community is, thankfully, at hand to keep the pressure on the Establishment to ensure some measure of success on which to build in the next elections.
    And so on a pragmatic note, I say let the elections proceed.

  5. I have just read your excellent review Alex. Before reading it I have argued in AlRay Alaam that elections should be viewed as a step to be followed by more elections. Perfection in elections is nowhere to be found ( THe USA presidential elections 2000 are best proof of that). Moreover even in the UK the results of elections can be nullified by the establishment . The people elected Labour in 97; but the elected MPs did not reflect the overwhelming opposition to the invasion of Iraq (shown in one of the most massive demonstrations in recent British history). The PM got his way by clever( I am avoiding another word) handling of the system!
    In the case of Sudan ; certain unspoken assumptions have to be faced. Have we got ” democrats” attempting to change the country? The Umma party was on the saddle when the communist Party was outlawed in the 1960s . It preferred more bloodshed to any acceptance of Southern self -determination. Moreover it ( together with its counterpart the Uninioist party) stands for leadership inheritance and 19th century Sufi Order allegiance. As far as the SPLM is concerned ,even the International Crisis Group says the transition from a rebel movement to a political party is not going well ( the recent contradictions between the Secretary General and the leader of the party about elections is an example). The way the South has been mismanaged is not proof of the credentials of a forward looking party.We have seen the New Sudan for five years. It is not an admirable template .To think that those at the helm are democrats who can lead and develop democracy is a fallacy.
    I know they call each other Comrade and preserve other paraphernalia of Mengitu Haile Mariam’s brand of socialism ; but this not a facor in a situation in which the Soviet Experiment has collapsed in front of our eyes.
    I conclude that the case of transition in Sudan does not fall under the categories discussed in the book; because the transition DID happen since 2005 and is on course for consolidation.
    I am sure you are aware of predictions of Bloodshed made before the elections . They did not materialise. Now there are predictions that the elected government will not hold the Referendum ( or respect the result). We remember that arguments in the previous months centred around the suggestion that the Government would NOT hold the elections at all. Western analysts said it cant hold elections which it would lose.

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