Democracy Is Not Only About Election


Democracy Is Not Only About Election



This piece builds on my previous contributions to the discussion on democracy and democratic practice (see links in footnote).[1]


By now most of the countries on the planet have experienced competitive multiparty elections of some form or another. The expectations are so high that elections are held even amid crises situations with the hope that representative governments would legitimize fragile institutions and achieve negotiated political order in societies. And to a great extent these expectations have been misplaced. For example, the countries of northern Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and others have been able to organize elections, but they have continued to experience deepening political and economic crises. Other countries that were once hailed as “young democracies” have purportedly reverted to authoritarian rule. So much so, writing in the Journal of Democracy (July 2014), Marc Plattner (one of the key figures of the Washington-based conservative think-tank National Endowment for Democracy) says “a strong case can be made that today the era of democratic transition is over, and should now become the province of historians”.


Or maybe there is a problem in the discourse of democracy itself. This is to say that we remain focused on the electoral aspects of democracy to the neglect of other broad socio-economic issues that can be considered in the measurement of the quality of democracy. For instance, Staffan Lindberg and others (same issue of Journal of Democracy) suggest five ways of identifying the qualities of democracy: 1) electoral (people must endorse their leaders); 2) liberal (protection of individual and minority rights); 3) participation; 4) deliberative (effective policy-making); and 5) egalitarian (equitable access to opportunities in society). The advantage of this approach is that it moves away from the traditional trajectory of democracy which puts a heavy emphasis on elections as a solution to all problems in societies. Well-governed societies can first develop institutions that ensure policy capacity and egalitarianism while gradually leading to the development of electoral democracy. The Chinese communist state ensures egalitarianism and the governing elites have developed a reputation for strategic thinking and effective decision making. Some oil producing countries like Kuwait have made massive investment to improve the quality of life of their citizens. There is no question that demands for political representation and human rights in these countries are growing, yet the populations are happy with the status quo. In such situations, democratic forces can also grow from within, instead of being orchestrated by the global neo-liberal project (perhaps one source of the problem in the first place).


One continuing challenge is that there is nothing that prevents well organized interest groups from winning elections and seizing state power without developmental intent. This has done much to destroy the hopes and aspirations associated with democracy around the world. Still, democracy remains a universal ideal - a modern day political religion - yet to be adopted into diverse socio-political traditions and practices, just as was the case with the emergence and expansion of Christianity, Islam and other great religions throughout human history. Patience is needed. It can take generations to perfect democracy, just as it took Western countries centuries to develop the democratic system that the world now emulates.


Even then, the recent years have seen declining confidence in Western governments which some attributing this trend to the disconnection between ruling elites and citizens and poor performance of economic policies that have caused rising unemployment. But this is not a “crisis of democracy” (as some say it is). It is the sign that Western democracy needs reinvigoration in tune with the changing needs and aspiration of contemporary society. In the context of developing countries, this equally implies changing the current trajectory of democracy which is characterized by the West dictating the rest (world) on liberal democracy; political parties winning elections without clear political and policy agenda; election outcomes requiring the approval of donor governments and Western election observers (to be legitimate); the equation of elections with democracy capacity; the existence of any opposition party (be it a reactionary, dictator or fanatic) as a measure of political pluralism or multi-party system; and so on. On the last point, while political systems in the West are strong enough to resist or contain reactionaries and fanatics that threaten the interests of society, this has been difficult in developing countries, especially if the reactionaries and fanatics retain influence and power in society - they are also good at the neo-liberal rhetoric of “freedom and human rights”.


This topic also relates to the upcoming Ethiopian national election in 2015. To repeat what is stated above, although elections are the instrument of democratization, democracy is also about effective decisions-making, citizen participation, accountability and transparency, equitable distribution of opportunities and protection of the rights of vulnerable members of society. The ruling EPRDF party prides itself in its achievements, especially the pro-poor policies that have got international praise. Even if progress has been slow in some areas (e.g. corruption and efficient bureaucracy), EPRDF’s image has continued to glow because of the growing economy and high national moral.


In contrast, the Ethiopian political opposition camp remains weak and divided, in large part because of lack of vision and political energy to inspire a unified political action. By despising ethnic diversity and decentralized rule, the opposition also spreads fear and uncertainty among segments of the Ethiopian population, especially those who had been subjugated by previous regimes. Ethiopia really needs a new political opposition class that represents the different sectors and regions of the country. This political class will use the positive image of Ethiopia as a source of energy for mobilizing support. Certainly current policy achievements create political capital for the ruling EPRDF party, but they also create political opportunities for the opposition. Today’s young people may go hungry part of the day for weeks in order to save money and buy smart phones. They will vote for the party that promises to create jobs and deliver public services, not for that which promises to change the color of the national flag, re-draw regional state boundaries, change the anti-terrorism law, go to war with neighbouring countries over boundary demarcation issues, or claims to have majority in youth membership. All these can be political issues but they are not priorities for the poor masses. Focus on practical needs of Ethiopians. It’s that simple.


One hopes that Ethiopia will have a disciplined opposition movement by 2020; strong contending opposition parties by 2025 and possible opposition seizure of power in 2030 or 2035. The political environment being unpredictable, it could be even possible that an opposition could take power in 2025. The challenge for Ethiopian society is to ensure that any opposition party has developed governing capacity before it seizes power. Could you imagine what would have happened if Kinijt - now dismantled after a long internal fighting - had seized power? Of course, all what we are saying here is dependent on whether or not EPRDF stops innovating. If the ruling party continues to innovate, it may not encounter problems of getting re-elected again and again. And this will not be unique to the world. At present the Malaysian ruling party holds the record for the longest party in power (57 years).


Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

September 28, 2014



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