A lawyer and development professional with two decades of international experience, Eric Bjornlund co-founded and heads Democracy International Inc., which designs, implements, and evaluates democracy and governance programs. He specializes in elections, political processes, civil society, and analytical methods. He is the author of Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy (2004).
In a healthy democracy, elections are the starting point for a stable government that protects minority rights, ensures free speech, respects the rule of law, and promotes a strong civil society.
Democratic elections are widely recognized as a foundation of legitimate government. By allowing citizens to choose the manner in which they are governed, elections form the starting point for all other democratic institutions and practices. Genuine democracy, however, requires substantially more. In addition to elections, democracy requires constitutional limits on governmental power, guarantees of basic rights, tolerance of religious or ethnic minorities, and representation of diverse viewpoints, among other things. To build authentic democracy, societies must foster a democratic culture and rule of law that govern behavior between elections and constrain those who might be tempted to undermine election processes. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked recently at Georgetown University, “Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn’t a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern.” (Washington, D.C., December 14, 2009)
Smooth political transitions after elections are essential. In a healthy democracy, candidates who lose elections relinquish power gracefully and peacefully. By doing so, defeated candidates can emerge with their dignity intact and through their example contribute to the strength of their nation’s democratic traditions, practices, and customs. Likewise, by reaching out to and showing respect for their political opponents, winning candidates help bridge differences and minimize the potential for conflict that can undermine democracy and development.
In a true democracy, the rule of law, democratic political institutions, and independent civil society organizations help ensure respect for electoral outcomes. These institutions and values in turn bolster people’s faith in their governments and their willingness to support peaceful political transitions.
The Rule of Law
Democracy requires respect for the rule of law, which survives regardless of the outcome of elections. The United Nations Security Council defines the rule of law as when “all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.”
The rule of law comprises legitimacy, fairness, effectiveness, and checks and balances. Legitimacy requires that laws reflect a general social consensus that they be enacted in an open and democratic process. Fairness includes equal application of the law, procedural fairness, protection of civil liberties, and reasonable access to justice. Effectiveness refers to the consistent application and enforcement of laws.
Fairly enforced laws that protect all citizens help establish a democratic state’s legitimacy. Because such laws in a healthy democracy command public respect and loyalty, citizens accept disappointing election results. A nation where laws are implemented fairly and disputes adjudicated impartially is more stable. Unjust or discriminatory laws, on the other hand, undermine public respect. If sufficiently egregious, such laws risk public disobedience or even revolt and create a climate less tolerant of unsatisfactory electoral outcomes. This is why U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, “The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.”
Rule of law implies respect for fundamental civil rights and procedural norms and requires that these transcend the outcome of any given election. In a democracy, the election returns cannot affect protections for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the independence of the judiciary. New leaders, regardless of how broad their electoral mandate, should neither call these norms into question nor threaten the rights of any citizen, including those who supported a losing candidate.
As a result, respect for the rule of law encourages peaceful election transitions. A defeated candidate who refuses to accept election results simply will find himself lacking support; citizens instead will view such a figure as an outlier, possibly a lawbreaker, and definitely a threat to their shared civic culture. Again, citizens are less likely to support revolts or to back candidates who refuse to accept election results in a country where legal processes are respected and the state is seen as legitimate.
A Rwandan election monitor stands at a ballot station ahead of the 2003 elections in Kigali, Rwanda.
Well-developed political and electoral institutions similarly increase the likelihood of peaceful election transitions. Institutions provide the resilience that democracies require to withstand potential conflicts following controversial or contested elections. Instead of taking their grievances to the streets, defeated candidates or opposition groups can challenge election results or the fairness of election procedures through institutional mechanisms, such as electoral complaint commissions or courts. The broad expectation that these institutions will adjudicate the disputes fairly makes a peaceful, democratic transition more likely and diminishes the likelihood of conflict as an avenue for contesting election results.
Strong and effective electoral institutions enhance electoral process credibility and reinforce the public expectation that electoral results will be respected. They assure defeated candidates that the victors’ terms of office are limited and there will be opportunities to compete again.
Political institutions that restrain, or check, governmental power also contribute to stability. This is especially important in new and developing democracies, where election outcomes can produce uncertain political environments or moments of crisis. If a political leader refuses to accept the election returns, a strong, independent judiciary capable of resisting that recalcitrance is crucial. When an incumbent is defeated at the polls, it helps greatly if the government bureaucracy does not rely on political leaders for patronage or for its members’ livelihoods. Civil servants thus will have less incentive to support any efforts of a defeated leader to reject a democratic process. Established political institutions channel dissent and create incentives for leaders, lawmakers, and bureaucrats to govern democratically.
Effective governance — including public accountability, responsiveness, transparency and efficiency — helps build political legitimacy for democracy. As President Barack Obama said to the parliament of Ghana, “In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments and honest police forces, independent judges and journalists, a vibrant private sector, and civil society.” (Accra, Ghana, July 11, 2009)
Like political institutions and the rule of law, a strong civil society — supported by a free press — enhances the legitimacy of democratic practices and reinforces expectations that electoral winners and losers will respect the “rules of the game.” Civil society organizations can act as a check on governmental power and deter election losers tempted to thwart the democratic process.
Genuinely independent and broadly representative nongovernmental organizations and other civil society institutions help ensure that candidates and elected officials respect election results and democratic processes. They can facilitate important dialogue between citizens and their government and supply information that democratic, representative governments need. By articulating a society’s issues and concerns, advocacy groups contribute to transparency and accountability. By pressuring the government to follow through on its campaign commitments, they enhance government responsiveness. Civil society organizations can shape government behavior and can help define people’s expectations of how their government will operate.
Internet and social media technologies now provide civil society groups new platforms from which to organize, exchange information, and push for greater government transparency and accountability. Blogging, text messaging, online social networking, and similar Web-based tools enable civil society groups to expand their audiences, rapidly increase their membership, and leverage international support for local or national causes. During the post-election controversy in Iran, for example, the online microblogging platform Twitter enabled Iranians to question election results and to inform the world about unfolding political events.
Secretary Clinton has linked these organizations and networks to government accountability and responsiveness. Civil society, she says, “pushes political institutions to be agile and responsive to the people they serve.” (Morocco, November 3, 2009) Civil society organizations help citizens develop new ways to call for government accountability and transparency and increase the incentives of governments to adhere to democratic norms and principles.
Respecting and Moving Beyond Elections
Democracy creates certain public expectations and understandings, including respect for the rule of law and for the outcomes of elections. It requires respect for values beyond elections. Speaking in Cairo, President Obama emphasized these fundamental truths:
“So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.” (Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009)
Respect for the rule of law, well-developed political institutions, and strong civil society engagement together reinforce expectations for and the likelihood of peaceful political transitions. States where institutions represent diverse interests, channel public demands, facilitate political discourse, and implement laws effectively and impartially are more likely to command respect. In these nations, the possibility of effecting change through peaceful means discourages extra-constitutional challenges to election results and helps ensure that elections are a first step to broader democratic governance.