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August 06, 2005

The holding of elections can be one of the least reliable measures of democracy - argues an international election observer

Posted by Anonymous

The "neo-con" agenda of making the world safe for democracy has claimed a number of victories of late. There is a risk however that these may turn out to be Pyrrhic. An international election observer writes that elections are one of the least reliable measures of democracy.

After the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, there has been an expectant air in the region and indeed Western capitals that with a nudge and a fortuitous gust of wind, other autocratic governments will fall, to be replaced by popular, democratic, Western looking (in several senses of the term), dynamic leaders. Optimism is however not a reliable indicator of future outcomes. The desire to "export" the dynamic phenomenon of "people power" across borders throughout the former Soviet Union carries risks - it may in the end do more to damage the cause of democracy than to advance it.

There are of course many types of democracy, but all must be constrained by the rule of law, not replace it. That was often overlooked in the rush of enthusiasm that inevitably followed the overthrow in recent times of autocratic, unpopular governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan – and, in perhaps a similar manner, Lebanon. The fact that tyrants have been removed in such ways in the three post-Soviet states is of course generally to be seen as a good thing, but the way in which their replacements achieved power is problematic.

Only in Ukraine can we say that a genuine transformation has occurred not only in politicians, but in politics. An unpopular dictator Kuchma, accepted the term limits that the constitution (he had written) imposed on him and retired whilst supporting his current protégé against his former protégé (Yanukovych and Yuschenko respectively). The critical aspect of the transformation was not that many aspects of the grotesque perversions of the legal process from the November 2004 election were removed from the December re-run. The really valuable change was that for the first time in a former Soviet state (excepting the three Baltic countries which have a different history and legacy), there was a competitive and genuinely contested election, based not only on personalities but policies as well. Opposition may now be institutionalised and legitimised in Ukraine, which is the critical watermark of any true democracy.

It is neither the process nor the outcome of the election that are the most important litmus tests of democracy - though naturally free and fair elections are required. Rather it is the exercise of choice that demonstrates democracy. By definition, without meaningful choice, there can be no democracy.

Thus whilst I observed elections in Georgia in January 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in July 2005 after manifestations that led to the collapse of power of elite political families, they did not mark the advent of democracy to my mind. Valuable though these steps have been, the fact that these elections were distinctively better elections than their predecessors, does not necessarily mean that democracy has been advanced. After all the lesson that may have been learned by would be Presidents in both countries is that the way to power in Tbilisi and Bishkek (and elsewhere) may be through street based coups rather than competitive elections.

Whilst both new Presidents, Saakashvili and Bakiev have subsequently been confirmed in office by the electorate in undeniably free elections, they do not owe their positions to that end of the political process. This is despite the overwhelming popular acclaim (85% and 89%) that reflects not so much their popularity, but the lack of viable alternatives – demonstrating not the strength of their mandate but the weaknesses of the political systems.

In both cases they were the figureheads of popular coups that were based on three common factors. Firstly, a broad and deep dissatisfaction (to put in mildly) with former Presidents Shevardnadze and Akayev, secondly a crystallising moment to bring this dissatisfaction into focus (namely the holding of monstrously rigged elections) and finally and critically, a realisation that the Presidents had lost the ability (and/or will) to hold on to power no matter what the price. In a sense the first and third elements were a repetition of the events of 1989 in Central Europe and 1991 in Russia.

So neither Saakashvili nor Bakiev owes their position to a competitive electoral process. Neither faced either media or political scrutiny during the election process for three reasons.

Firstly, there is bound to be a post-revolutionary "honeymoon" period, during which the fresh incumbent can expect the benefit of the doubt; particularly given the considerable doubts about their predecessors.

Secondly there is a tendency to rally behind the leader that is endemic to post-Soviet societies. Journalists generally see themselves as, (or are often forced to be), slavish conduits for media owners' views or business interests.

Finally there is simply very little understanding of the nature of competitive politics which is not a zero-sum game. It is often better not to take part in an election than it is to lose it. Thus for instance, the only man of national standing that could have challenged Bakiev for President was the former Secret Service Chief Kulov who decided to accept the role of Prime Minister rather than risk standing for President and losing – having just been released from prison.

So to an extent, I have fears that my presence in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as an international election observer certifying their elections as free may be seen as an unqualified step towards democracy, or worse, democracy itself. I observed neither. What I saw was a process of mass mobilisation in which the new elite was significantly more successful in confirming its seizure of power than its predecessors. It may be that Saakashvili and Bakiev turn out to be democrats (in the former case, there are grounds for hope, largely due to the pull of eventual EU association and NATO membership). But this only time, not elections observers will tell. Western policy makers and more important the electorates that endorsed these new Presidents need to retain a constructive scepticism.

The author is an international election observer who retains anonymity due to the need to remain - and be seen to remain - impartial on future missions.

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