The dark side of elections

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In late May and earlier this month, citizens of two Arab countries went to the polls to elect their leaders, which is a development that should theoretically be applauded. In reality, however, the presidential elections in Egypt and Syria were carefully orchestrated theater whose outcomes were never in doubt and were long ago predetermined. Despite the fact that no objective observer would classify Egypt and Syria as democracies, and neither Abdel Fattah el-Sisi nor Bashar Assad harbor anything resembling democratic ambitions, both men deemed it advisable to hold elections anyway. The seeds of this decision lie in American foreign policy, and demonstrate why the longstanding U.S. doctrine of encouraging elections can lead to unintended harm.

For many people, elections and democracy are synonymous with each other, and there has been a tendency to encourage elections irrespective of whatever else is taking place in a given country. This mindset has been out in full force over the past decade as genuine elections have become more common in the Arab world. When Iraq held its first free elections after the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, supporters of the Iraq War prematurely pointed to Iraq as a democracy because it now had elected leaders. When the U.S. pushed the Palestinians to hold legislative elections in 2006 and Hamas emerged victorious, observers began to grant Hamas a measure of democratic legitimacy in Gaza. When Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi a year ago, Egypt was immediately declared a new or emerging democracy by dint of those elections. For many people, elections are what matter, to the exclusion of all else.

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The policy of pushing elections and equating elections with democracy has led to two negative consequences. The first is that authoritarian regimes quickly wised up to the fact that the West cared about elections, and started holding them as a way to legitimize their rule and ward off criticism. Elections became a permanent feature of all manner of non-democratic states, with Middle Eastern states quickly picking up on the trend. In some cases, such as Saddam-era Iraq, they were complete shams where the dictator routinely won 99 percent of the vote, and in other cases, such as parliamentary elections in Egypt and Jordan, the parliaments held no real power and the election outcomes were predetermined, albeit not to the even greater extent in places like Iraq or Ben Ali-era Tunisia. In the last decade alone, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has used elections to consolidate his power and set Iraq on a path back toward authoritarianism, and Hamas has used elections as a way to rule over Gaza on a permanent basis. As a result of the fetishization of elections, we now live in a world where elections happen all over the globe, yet in many cases they mean next to nothing and are wielded by authoritarian regimes as "proof" that they are democracies with robust political systems and opposition parties.

The second unintended negative result has been that states, whether democratic or not, now use elections to justify all manner of questionable activity, no matter how undemocratic or illiberal. Frequent invokers of this principle are Egypt and Turkey, where elected leaders repeatedly refer to their elected status as justification not just for their continuation in office but for any actions the government wants to take. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently reminds his opponents that his ruling AKP has won three consecutive national elections and most recently won a strong plurality of votes in municipal elections, and that anyone who disagrees with any actions his government takes should register their complaints at the ballot box. Erdoğan fiercely believes that elections confer absolute power, and his view of majoritarian democracy states that the majority can do as it pleases, no matter the consequences or how many people are in the streets protesting against specific policies. For Erdoğan, all that matters is what happens on Election Day, and the party that finds itself in government has four or five years to pursue any manner of policies that it chooses to implement. Elections confer blanket authority, whether that means detaining CNN reporters on air or violently beating civilians looking to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, both of which happened in Turkey late last month.

Egypt has taken a similar view since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011, no matter which faction has controlled the government. Following Morsi's election as president, he cloaked himself in the mantle of elections in order to shunt aside Egypt's courts and force through a new constitution despite massive and sustained opposition. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood insisted that once they were elected, they had carte blanche until the voters replaced them, and not only did that majoritarian view of democracy lead to increased polarization and discontent, it eventually led to a military coup.

The current Egyptian government has been no better in this regard. From intimidating the press and arresting reporters for news organizations it does not like, such as al-Jazeera, to silencing critics such as satirist Bassam Youssef, the military government has shown little inclination for respecting democratic norms. Yet, it still held elections, showing that the military has absorbed the lessons of their purifying power, and the move to keep the polls open for an extra day in order to boost turnout for el-Sisi's prearranged coronation indicates that the new Egyptian government will be using the vote as an excuse to do nearly anything it likes.

The U.S. has moved away from the heady days of the George W. Bush administration, when elections of every stripe were seen as an unqualified good, but it still needs to more carefully consider when elections are appropriate and beneficial. Voting for one's leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it often harms democracy rather than furthers it. The U.S. went through a period in which elections were emphasized as the primary component of democracy promotion, but perhaps now it is time for a switch in which elections are deemphasized in favor of other things, such as checks and balances, horizontal accountability, respect for minority rights, and other similar factors that have been lost in the shuffle. Elections are needed to usher in democracy, but in a disturbing number of cases elections are now being used to choke off the democracy that they allegedly heralded. American policy should recognize this and shift accordingly.

Koplow is program director of the Israel Institute.