Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Democracy is more important than incumbency


Posted: 2010-12-14

The run-off presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire held on 28 November 2010 carried many hopes: after a decade of violence, instability and international peacekeeping efforts, elections were expected to bring to the country a legitimate government and a lasting peace.

Today, these hopes seem to have gone to the dustbin, together with the ill-fated bulletin issued by the Ivorian Electoral Commission to announce the results of the elections. The sitting president refused to accept the defeat at the polls and has joined the ranks of leaders who find incumbency more important than democracy.

One would otherwise hope that the joint pressure by Ivoirian voters, regional peers and the broader international community – including a peacekeeping mission on the ground – would provide incentive enough to honor the voters’ verdict. But as this editorial is being written, armed troups loyal to the old incumbent have surrounded the hotel housing the winner and guarded by UN peacekeepers.

Only a year ago, important presidential elections in Afghanistan, also very relevant for that country’s peace process, were found to be riddled with fraud. Some months back a similar scenario unfolded in the Afghan parliamentary elections. More recently, in Myanmar, the military regime tried to gain some international recognition by orchestrating façade elections whose outcome, so far, was that generals and colonels swapped their uniforms for civilian suits while keeping the reigns of power firmly in their hands. Last month’s parliamentary elections in Egypt were clearly non-inclusive and manipulated. The list of similar 2010 elections could be made significantly longer.

The reaction of the international community to such abuse of elections has been uneven. While, in most cases, criticism and public condemnation of those responsible has been clearly voiced, follow up action has most often been weak and short-lived. We may speculate about the reasons: Concerns that “rocking the boat” could endanger a fragile peace; donors’ desire to report success to their own constituencies and thus “account” for tax-payer money invested in a country’s development efforts or in the electoral management itself. Reluctance of the international community to compromise its “exit strategy” when elections are seen as the “crown” of the peace process. Or, not so uncommon: a level of comfort in foreign capitals with the outcome even if the election has been blatantly rigged or stolen.

Whatever the reasons, the damage caused by fraudulent or violent elections, or elections whose results are blatantly falsified, is likely to be deep, lasting and utterly detrimental to democracy. The very credibility of elections as a pillar of the entire democracy edifice will be undermined as well as faith in democracy itself.

As the post-electoral imbroglio was building-up in Côte d’Ivoire, International IDEA was hosting, its annual Democracy Forum in neighbouring Ghana. Coincidentally, the Forum’s main theme was electoral integrity and its role in ensuring the government’s democratic legitimacy.

Eminent panellists from around the world raised their concerns over the widespread and recurrent phenomenon of fraudulent elections. Ghana itself was acclaimed as a leading democracy in Africa and a role model of democracy consolidation. It was indeed, as noted by many, a perfect host for a debate on the topic of electoral integrity. Current efforts deployed by the African Union to entrench democracy across the Continent were also acknowledged, praised and encouraged.

All participants reaffirmed the critical importance of the integrity of electoral processes and the far reaching and potentially disastrous consequences of its erosion. Elections, they said, should not be looked at only as technical processes destined to succeed if carried out with sufficient skills, knowledge and funds. Free and fair elections are also about political integrity and action should be initiated at national, regional and international levels to reinforce political commitment to electoral integrity and to apply such commitment in a systematic way.

International IDEA will echo these claims in its major forthcoming programmatic initiatives, which include:

In March 2011, together with the Kofi Annan Foundation, IDEA will launch a new initiative on the protection and promotion of the integrity of electoral processes. As part of the project, a high level Global Commission on Electoral Processes will be established with the principal task to present recommendations for strengthening political commitment in favour of free, credible and sustainable electoral processes.

IDEA will pursue the same goal of electoral integrity when we invite electoral management bodies of the world for the Global Election Organisation Conference (GEO) in Botswana, also in March 2011.

Last but not least, IDEA has just published the first global Handbook on Electoral Justice. Electoral integrity can obviously not be achieved without an effective system to mitigate and manage electoral disputes. In addition to case studies, IDEA’s new Handbook is complemented by a comprehensive database ─ www.idea.int/ej ─ with comparative information about electoral justice mechanisms all over the world. We are confident the book will be another useful and practical tool in the hands of all those committed to strengthen the integrity and the credibility of elections around the world.

Secretary-General, International IDEA

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