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What Is Democracy Essay Elections

Eric Brahm

April 2005

Elections are a cornerstone of democracy and, hence, figure prominently in democratization efforts around the world. This is in large part because elections serve a number of significant functions that are seen to be important in conflict management. First, elections provide the government with legitimacy, as officials are chosen through the popular will.[1] Second, in principle, they allow for the alternation of governing coalitions, which ostensibly permits the entry of new ideas into policy debates and different approaches to governance.[2] Simply put, it allows for diverse voices to have a role in governing. What is more, with respect to conflict management, alternation of power builds confidence in former opponents, encourages stability, and allows the public to learn visions different groups have for the country.[3]

The importance of elections is underscored by the fact that some of the world's most unreformed autocrats still feel the need to at least go through the motions. The Soviet Union held elections throughout its history and many contemporary dictators such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak regularly hold flawed votes. This attests to the power of elections to legitimate political authority in the late 20th and 21st centuries, but also points to the risks of fetishizing elections as an unqualified solution to conflict.

In fact, what has been called illiberal democracy is flourishing. "Across the globe, democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights."[4] In many countries in Africa and Central Asia, founding elections have produced dictatorship. The trick, then, is to construct electoral institutions such that formerly opposing sides will continue to use peaceful means of resolving disputes.

Types of Electoral Systems

Countries have devised a dizzying array of electoral systems to pursue a range of often conflicting goals.[5] Broadly speaking, however, one can divide them into plurality/single-member district (SMD) systems and proportional representation (PR) systems. The choice of electoral system chosen reflects a trade-offs of a number of values: efficiency, representativeness, effectiveness, stability, accountability, and inclusion.

Plurality/Single-Member District (SMD) systems. Also often referred to as 'winner-take--all' or 'first past the post' systems, the United States and Great Britain serve as prominent examples. In such a system, each electoral district elects only one individual. Whoever gets the most votes, and frequently this need only be a plurality rather than a majority, is elected to the seat. This leads to situations, such as the 1992 US presidential election where Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote. In principle, then, more than half of voters are not being represented. More generally, these systems produce artificial majorities. For example, a losing candidate may get one percent less than the winner and get no voice. The benefit of such a system is that it permits more effective government because this artificially large majority makes it easy to get the agenda through.

To summarize:

  • Pros
    • o These types of electoral systems have a tendency to lead to a two-party system thereby giving a distinct choice to voters. [6]
    • o As a result of this tendency to two parties, parties will tend to be centrist, which may be beneficial in minimizing extremist elements.
    • o Because of the likelihood of gaining a significant majority, these systems are often less prone to gridlock and are, therefore, more effective (although significant separation of powers as in the US can minimize this).
    • o At the same time, the likelihood that the opposition is more unified allows it to provide a more effective check on the government's power.
    • o Due to the tendency to two parties, parties typically govern on their own. Therefore, it is easier for the populace to hold the party accountable.
  • Cons
    • o With a majority, there may be little need for the ruling party to compromise. Therefore, there is no voice for the minority. In some instances, parties have essentially become permanent minorities.
    • o There is a tendency to produce regional dominance by one party, such as the so-called red-blue [Republican-Democrat] divide that has emerged in American politics.
    • o The system may be susceptible to gerrymandering as the majority will have a strong incentive to use the benefits of office to ensure it remains in power..

Proportional representation (PR) systems. PR systems appoint seats in the legislature based on the percentage of the vote received, rather than who got the most votes. Each electoral district, therefore, sends multiple representatives to the legislature. There is often a minimum percentage of the vote needed in order to gain a seat, but this allows smaller parties to gain a voice in the legislature. As a result, groups are more likely to form their own party and compete, rather than engage in negotiation within a party as would be more likely in a plurality system. To summarize:

  • Pros
    • The lower threshold of votes needed to gain a seat in the legislature permits minority voices to be heard there.
    • PR systems provide an incentive for parties to seek a diverse list of candidates.
    • It avoids the manufactured majorities of plurality systems that distort the actual public will.
    • PR systems reduce the problems of wasted votes and regional dominance of plurality systems. The resulting coalition governments usually resulting in PR systems better reflect society.
  • Cons
    • Because one party gaining an outright majority in the legislature is rare in PR systems, parties with this large blocks of seats need coalition partners. The stability of the government, however, can then be hostage to small, perhaps extremist, parties.
    • The need to cobble together a majority to form a government can result in fragile coalitions with thin majorities. This can make it difficult to be effective and potential instability.
    • Because governments are frequently made up of multiple coalition partners, accountability is complicated because it is easier to pass the buck.

Many argue that properly designed electoral systems can be powerful form of conflict management.[7] One risk that pluralist systems are more susceptible to is the electoral dominance of a permanent majority. Various mechanisms such as federalism might help address this problem. It is also often argued of the importance to provide incentives for a majority group to moderate.[8] For example, the Lebanese system has reserved seats for ethnic groups and therefore requires politicians to compete against their co-ethnics. Nigeria requires a president to get at least 25% of the vote in at least 2/3 of the states. Sri Lanka has a second preference ballot for president so that if no one gets a majority, second preferences are reallocated to form one. It would also seem desirable to promote coalitions amongst groups, while at the same time trying to prevent these coalitions from hardening into a permanent majority, as was the case in Kenya for much of its history.

There is, however, disagreement as to what more specific power-sharing arrangements are most conducive to elections helping to bring the violence to an end. Failures do not necessarily reflect weakness of a particular electoral mechanism, but rather a failure to select the appropriate solution and then time and implement them appropriately.[9] This is a difficult task given the complexity of most post-conflict situations.

The Difficulties of Post-Conflict Elections

Elections have been a part of nearly every negotiated settlement of a civil war in the post-Cold War period.[10] Where secession or partition are not an option (and it rarely is given norms of sovereignty),[11] conventional wisdom is that democratic elections are the most effective means of channeling competition to peaceful means. In the peacebuilding operations of the post-Cold War era, there has been a common assumption that the rapid introduction of democratic politics and market-oriented economies is a sure-fire way to create lasting peace.[12] They have allure because they provide validation to peace processes and broaden political participation. In theory, it transfers competition from the battlefield to the campaign trail. Post settlement elections clearly have a lot riding on them. They are expected to provide both internal and external legitimacy to the agreement.

At the same time, they are organized under less than ideal conditions. Disarmament may not be complete and institutions may be in sorry shape to manage an election.[13] Trust in other groups is weak, the issues are emotionally sensitive, the parties are faction-ridden and incoherent, and outside parties may be crucial to guarantee a settlement. Where institutions to effectively manage political and economic competition are lacking, however, liberalization can lead to renewed violence.[14] In order to minimize possibility of return to fighting, what is needed is to build norms and institutions, e.g. parties and electoral commissions, prior to electoral competition.[15] Interim regimes, if inclusive and engage in collaborative decision-making, can serve a bridging role, derive legitimacy through achieving the ends of building institutions. Another problem to be confronted in such circumstances is the continuing security dilemma Demobilization and disarmament if done in the same way can build confidence. Demilitarization also can facilitate the transition from combatant to party.

In some instances, democratization has actually increased the likelihood of conflict.[16] While some argue that electoral politics allow supposedly ancient ethnic hatreds to resurface,[17] others contend that nationalism provides a ready means for political elites once in power to remain in power. War and economic hardship serve as a rallying cry. "For those elites, nationalism is a convenient doctrine that justifies a partial form of democracy, in which an elite rules in the name of the nation yet may not be fully accountable to its people."[18] According to Snyder, the susceptibility to nationalist rhetoric depends primarily on the level of social and economic development, strength and character of political institutions, and the interests of groups significant in the nation-building project.

The Role of the International Community

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been a widespread assumption that democracy is the best form of government. Intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and OSCE have developed technical assistance programs to help countries create and reform electoral systems. Non-governmental organizations have figured prominently as well. Both have also monitored elections in order to minimize fears of cheating where there is little trust between opponents. Increasingly, the international community has even managed elections to minimize fear of rigging.

Despite the challenging environment, there is often significant pressure to quickly hold elections.[19] Elections may be necessary to convince states or other entities to contribute resources to the peacebuilding mission. They also serve as a convenient signal that external actors can begin to extricate themselves from the intervention. This, however, is unfortunate, because elections are often the beginning, not the end, of the rebuilding process.

For external actors wanting to contribute to building effective electoral systems, Sisk provides the following advice:[20]

  • Conduct specialized assessments of the cleavages in a given society, and how the introduction of democratic institutions relates to those cleavages.
  • Take a long view.
  • Acknowledge and address the trade-offs and limits.
  • Consider pre-election pacts.
  • Develop a clear sense of the "comparative advantage" of various organizations and institutions and coordinate and maximize their impact with respect to any given case.
  • Seek to determine whether the parties are truly committed to democratization and conflict management.
  • Consider carefully the mandates for intervention.
  • Mediators should analyze the choice points, the alternatives, the trade-offs, and the potential consequences of electoral system choice.
  • Consider conflict management mechanisms beyond strictly electoral processes.
  • Explore innovative decision-rules and incentives for inter-group cooperation.
  • Provide expertise and guidance, for example by providing a simulation of how systems would work.
  • Explore different sequencing options of aspects of the peace process.
  • Suggest independent bodies to adjudicate electoral disputes.
  • Build conflict management mechanisms into each aspect of the electoral process.
  • Strengthen and systematize monitoring and observation.

[1] Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[2] Donald L. Horowitz, A Democratic South Africa: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).; Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] Andrew Reynolds and Timothy D. Sisk, "Elections and Electoral Systems: Implications for Conflict Management," in Elections and Conflict Management in Africa, Timothy D. Sisk and Andrew Reynolds, Editors. (Washington DC: USIP Press, 1998).

[4] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003) p. 17.

[5] For a sense of variation, see Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Free and Fair Elections in International Law (Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1994), International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's (IDEA) Electoral System Family Tree at http://www.idea.int/esd/systems.cfm and the Administration and Cost of Elections Project at http://www.aceproject.org/main/english/es/esc05.htm. For a broad range of links related to electoral issues, visit http://www.psr.keele.ac.uk/election.htm.

[6] This tendency has become identified as Duverger's Law. For a quick summary, see http://janda.org/c24/Readings/Duverger/Duverger.htm. For a modern 'update,' see Cox, Gary W. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World's Electoral Systems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Elections and Conflict Management in Africa, Timothy D. Sisk and Andrew Reynolds, Editors. (Washington DC: USIP Press, 1998).; Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds, Electoral Systems and Conflict in Divided Societies, Papers on International Conflict Resolution no. 2 (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1999).

[8] Donald L. Horowitz "Ethnic Conflict Management for Policymakers," in Joseph V. Montville, ed. Conflict and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies (New York: Lexington Books, 1991) p. 125-129.

[9] Donald L. Horowitz "Ethnic Conflict Management for Policymakers," in Joseph V. Montville, ed. Conflict and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies (New York: Lexington Books, 1991) p. 125-129.

[10] Krishna Kumar, ed. Postconflict Elections, Democratization, and International Assistance (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998).

[11] Where either are an option, they may not lead to a reduction in conflict. The conflict may simply shift from intrastate to interstate. What is more, separation will often create new minorities in the new states thereby reproducing the conflict.

[12] Paris, Roland. 2004. At war's end : building peace after civil conflict. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[13] Terrence Lyons "Implementing Peace: The Role of Postsettlement Elections." In Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Edited by Stephen John Stedman, Elizabeth Cousens, and Donald Rothchild. (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002) p. 215-235.

[14] Paris, Roland. 2004. At war's end : building peace after civil conflict. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[15] Terrence Lyons "Implementing Peace: The Role of Postsettlement Elections." In Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Edited by Stephen John Stedman, Elizabeth Cousens, and Donald Rothchild. (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002) p. 215-235.; Paris, Roland. 2004. At war's end : building peace after civil conflict. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[16] Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, "Democratization and the Danger of War," International Security 20:1 (Summer 1995) 5-38.

[17] Hurst Hannum, Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).; Daniel Byman and Stephen Van Evera, "Hypotheses on the Causes of Contemporary Deadly Conflict," Security Studies 7:3 (Spring 1998).

[18] Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) p. 32.

[19] Terrence Lyons "Implementing Peace: The Role of Postsettlement Elections." In Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Edited by Stephen John Stedman, Elizabeth Cousens, and Donald Rothchild. (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002) p. 215-235.

[20] Timothy D. Sisk, Elections and Conflict Management in Africa: Conclusions and Recommendations" in Elections and Conflict Management in Africa, Timothy D. Sisk and Andrew Reynolds, Editors. (Washington DC: USIP Press, 1998) 158-170.​

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Elections." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/elections>.

Additional Resources

THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.

The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.

Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.

Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.

Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.

But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.

These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.

Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.

Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.

And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.

Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.

Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.

Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.

John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.


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