Beyond the Polls II

In the Washington Post‘s Sunday Outlook pages, Samuel Issacharoff elaborates on the idea that “one political contest does not a democracy make”:

Democracy Isn’t Built on One Election Alone

Despite the deteriorating security situation that has left dozens dead in Iraq during the past few days alone, many Iraqis will feel justifiably proud to take the first step toward democracy when they cast their votes for a transitional national assembly a week from now. By itself, the election is a milestone. But it is not the key to their country’s democratic legitimacy. The lasting success of democracies lies not in seeing that the will of the majority is expressed through the ballot box, but by two more long-standing factors: first, a commitment by a nation’s elites that a victorious electoral coalition will not use its hold on power to exact revenge on the losers; and second, proof that the people can vote their leaders out as well as vote them in.

The history of the 20th century is littered with the remains of elections that augured neither democracy nor the rule of law. The entire Soviet empire was enamored of show elections in which every citizen was given the privilege of voting for the winner — and only the winner. Fascist and corporatist regimes would routinely invoke the plebiscite to crown the claimed rule of the people, a tool used by Hitler to consolidate power in the 1930s. Post-colonial regimes in countries such as the Central African Republic or more recently Zimbabwe would hold elections only to see the victors proclaim themselves rulers for life — what the British ex-colonialists would sneeringly call “one man, one vote, one time.” What’s more, all these oppressive regimes would hold their elections pursuant to constitutions that stood as paeans to human dignity.

For most Iraqis, the act of voting alone is understandably a major event, as their country has not had a meaningful election since 1953. Assuming that the elections are held across most of the country, that they are not fraudulent and that the majority prevails, most would conclude that democracy, at least in some rudimentary fashion, has been established. While elections may be necessary to a democracy, though, they are by no means sufficient.

In this light, Adam Przeworski has one of the better definitions of the concept. From Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America:

Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interests, values, and opinions. There is competition organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers.

In other words, as he and various colleagues write in the Journal of Democracy, there are three basic elements:

  • Ex ante uncertainty: The outcome of the contest is not predetermined.
  • Ex post irreversibility: The winner takes office and the loser steps aside.
  • Repeatability: This process happens more than once.

The last element has been missing from recent discussions, but it is perhaps the most crucial indicator of serious commitment to democratization. It deserves more consideration.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, , , , ,
Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Yes, repeatability is the most important.
    To get into the (future) democracy caucus of the UN, should require that at least 2 different leaders have been elected and taken power from a living, previously elected leader. Yetsin was first from non-elected; Putin is first full election; guy after Putin will be first repeat full election. If Putin is not president for life. Like Arafat. And Mugabe?

    But more important than uncertainty, is free speech criticism of the current gov’t.
    Like Palestinians do NOT have.