Elections and democracy
Elections and democracy
1. Do you think elections can be a good measure of democracy? Discuss this statement in relation to elections recently held in African countries you are familiar with.
The year 2011 experienced serious levels of political activities in Africa such as political upheavals, middle-east uprisings and elections in many countries. Most Islamic nations rose against their long-ruling leaders, hence saw the ousted of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak and the killing of Muamar Gaddafi after a six-month war between the Gaddafi loyalists and the anti-Gadhafi fighters assisted by NATO. However, while this was taking place, other countries like Zambia, Congo DR, Nigeria, Liberia were also exercising their obligation of having other leaders not by violence but by the ballot.
The countries which fought hard to remove long-rule-leaders wanted to just as other countries have the freedom to choose their leaders in an election, a move considered to be a democratic activity of the citizen. Elections are being considered to the most important way of showing how democratic a nation is. However, in reality there is surely more to democracy than just holding an election, thus, this essay will analyse as to whether elections only are the sufficient measure of democracy.
Democracy’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a form of government in which people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives’. Democracy is most obviously manifest through elections which enable people to choose representatives. However ‘democracy’ is not an absolute category, whereby if a country has an election it can be regarded as ‘democratic’. Instead, a state’s democratic credentials involve assessing many, if not all, aspects of governance and the political system. There is much debate over what constitutes democracy both in theory and in actuality. In one classic definition, by Robert Dahl, democracy requires ‘not only free, fair, and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful (such as freedom of organization and freedom of expression), alternative sources of information, and institutions to ensure that government policies depend on the votes and preferences of citizens’ (Dahl 1971).
Thus democracy is not just about majority rule, but requires political freedoms so there can be debate and independent decision making. Commonly recognized essential components of democracy include: multi-party electoral competition, freedom of association, freedom of movement, independent media, and the rule of law. Achieving such freedoms may be a staggered process in which there are different patterns of democracy. It is widely suggested that democracy enables people to fulfil a basic human interest and need to participate in civil and political life. The Inter-Parliamentary Union comment in their Declaration on Criteria for Free and fair Elections ‘Recognising the right of everyone to take part in the government of his or her country is a crucial factor in the effective enjoyment by all of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Democracy is argued to benefit the society as a whole, as dialogue enables relevant issues to be addressed and the best solutions to be found based on informed and considered choices, and those in governance are kept responsible and accountable and under a limited mandate.’ It is argued that democracy increases the chances of peace within a state and with other states. Democracy is also thought to reduce the likelihood of political repression and to increase the chances of stability and economic growth.
Amartya Sen points out one dramatic example of this indivisibility of civil-political and socio-economic rights in identifying that ‘no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent democratic country with a relatively free press’ (Sen 1999). The American non-governmental organization, Freedom House, in its 2002 global survey concluded ‘the GDP of Free countries stood at $26.8 trillion, while the GDP of Not Free countries was $1.7 trillion’.
From the understanding of liberty and freedoms, the government must be erected by the participation of very free people not under coercion. It implies that the citizens must have a free will to choose leaders of their choice and be able to have freedom of expression within the given framework. Thus, elections become a very important voice for citizens to select their leaders as that is how they participate in the process of making decisions .However, there is more to democracy than just holding elections and electioneering. There are many other factors to consider to complete democracy than just holding an election Elections today, which signify democracy, must be judged by the conformity to standard norms that constitute free and fair elections. A free election is based on the presumption that fundamental human rights and freedoms are respected.
These would include freedom of assembly, association, expression, and information. In addition, freedom would include freedom from violence, intimidation and coercion, freedom to access the polling stations by both voters and monitors, and freedom to make choices without fear of repercussions.But in Zambia,prior to elections,there was a lot of intimidation by the ruling MMD by brutalising the opposition,corrupting the youths with beer to cause confusion in a way of campaigning.So there was coecion before election as opponents were not ready to frely make their own decisions over who to vote for. In another example,Congo DR November elections were marred with extreme violence prior to and during the election.
The Joseph Kabila’s party had no respect for the peoples rights,hence brutality and willfull killing took place and spread to other places especially were the opposition members were concentrated. In Nigeria, during the 2011 elections there was a serious witnessing of electoral and ethnic violence where more than 1000 people died. This was attributed to the government’s inability to be transparent in election procedures so much that elections were postponed three times and this gave worse suspicion and more violence. So it’s clear that even though the elections are being held, but then they are far from showing any sort of democracy. African News and Current Affairs(2011) reports that other divisive elements of this year’s ballot include an initial delay to the polls; a result of the implementation of a new voter system.
The polls were actually in progress in several states when Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chair affirmed the postponement necessary to ‘maintain the integrity of the elections and retain effective overall control of the process’.This move was met with protest and interpreted variously as; a ploy to rig results, a broad move to block such attempts, pure incompetence or a mixture of all three, theories which undermined the transparency of proceedings before they had properly begun. Additionally election are fair when all the participant be it in ruling or opposition political parties have on a level footing in order to produce the legitimate results acceptable to all the characters. This means no intimidation, equality in accessing the campaign resources, media and other amenities However, the 2011 tripartite election showed how the Zambian government could control the “independent ECZ” by easily breaking the election rules.
The then ruling MMD were actually distributing gifts to electorates when it was clear that it was against the law. Further, the ruling party had started campaigning far before the campaign period or election date was even announced.ECZ was well aware of such malpractices but could not control the “big guy “in the electoral game. In fact how can a body be independent if the Directors and others in ECZ are directly appointed by the president? The independence of the electoral institutions is undermined by a number of factors, resulting in multiplicity of controversies in virtually every aspect of the elections, such as voter registration, polling stations, duration of polls, demarcation of constituencies, verification and announcement of results and access to the media.
In addition, during election campaign, the campaign ground wasn’t level as the ruling party had all the resources to propel a smooth and prosperous campaign which gave the ruling party a strong upper hand in the game. They could use any resources ranging from public vehicles, money and power to curtail other parties’ ability to campaign properly. The ruling party could easily buy anyone to fake defection and pay up the chiefs or headmen in order to belong to the their side, but at the same time demonising opposition parties and preventing them from accessing funds for campaigns.
Finally, much as elections is cardinal for the erection of democracy, but then it is surely not the sufficient measure for democracy. A country can hold the election but then if these elections are not free and fair, there is unequal distribution of resources, there is no transparency in all the dealings of the government, there is no respect for human rights and freedoms by the constitutional holders and no freedom of expression and no free media, democracy can’t prevail in the country.
Banda, F. (2003) Community Radio Broadcasting in Zambia: A Policy Perspective, Doctoral Dissertation, and University of South Africa (UNISA)
Barnett, C & Murray, L (2004) Spaces of democracy: Geographical Perspectives on Citizenship, Participation and Representation. London: Sage Publications
Barnett, C. (1999) The Limits of media democratization in South Africa: politics, privatization and regulation. London: Sage Publications
Brown, Michael E. (ed.), Debating the Democratic Peace. Boston, MIT Press, 1996.
Dahl, Robert, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
Sen, Amartya, ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’. Journal of Democracy, vol. 10, no, 3, July 1999.