The Need to Prioritize Elections
The Need to Prioritize Elections
Monday, February 4,2008 15:56
By Shadi Hamid

I have to say that I get really troubled by the assertion that “elections alone don’t make a democracy.” Of course, it’s true as far as descriptive statements go. But the implications are troubling. I know this isn’t what Patrick was trying to say in his post, but too many others are saying it – that the U.S. has made a mistake by emphasizing elections, and, therefore, the U.S. should de-prioritize elections. 

The problem cited in Patrick’s post (which references a recent HRW report) is that “dictators around the globe are disguising their abusive, authoritarian regimes in democratic garb” by holding elections and winning them. Well, yes. The problem here though isn’t the emphasis on elections but, rather, that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to elections that were clearly rigged and manipulated, as has been the case in places like Egypt. If we’re going to talk a big game about elections, we have to take this to its logical conclusion and ensure the elections are free and fair. Of course, if we encourage elections and then accept their results even when they’re little more than glorified window-dressing, then this is not a good thing for anyone, and this where Patrick"s point is very well taken.

With that said, instead of backing down on pressuring autocratic regimes to hold elections, perhaps we should exert additional pressure to ensure that said elections are serious events that meet the standard of “free and fair.” To address another point which worries me when I hear it, Matt Yglesias writes that “the rule of law, in particular, is crucial. But while we have a lot of knowledge about, say, the rule of law we don’t have much know-how about instilling it elsewhere. So you see a lot of emphasis on elections.” Again, on the merits, this may be true and Matt"s correct to point to this as a problem. However, the danger is that this type of logic will lead us to the sequentialist fallacy that before talking elections, we should focus on strengthening rule of law. Asking a dictator to strengthen rule of law is sort of like asking Christopher Hitchens to write an objective account of the history of Mormonism. In layman’s terms, rule of law reform necessitates diffusion of power and spreading responsibility across autonomous governmental institutions. It is unclear why a dictator would want to undermine his own power base and ability to subvert the very same institutions that we want him to strengthen. On a more conceptual level, the underlying premise of dictatorship is that the dictator is not subject to the rule of law.

The only way to address this is by making the ruler accountable to another powerful force in society – the electorate. In short, from this vantage point, rule of law should be seen as complementary to holding free and fair elections (i.e. it"s very difficult to envision a scenario in the Middle East where you would have rule of law without some semblance of free and fair elections). Lastly, it"s important to note that rule of law reform, if approached in isolation, is difficult to assess and can take a very long time. Now, it may be easy for us to take a “patient,” “gradualist” approach to democracy promotion. We may be willing to wait. Presumably, however, this view may not be as attractive to the citizens of dictatorships who have to endure repression on a daily basis. I imagine their patience is wearing thin. I’m not sure if it’s really fair to tell them “well, before we let you guys have elections and vote for the wrong party, you have to, um, have rule of law first.”