Why Mideast Elections Are Overrated and Often Counterproductive

In his 1997 piece “Was a Democracy Just a Moment?” Robert Kaplan predicted that like Christianity, democracy would not create a more moral or peaceful world, but rather, a more complex one. Right now the erstwhile young democracies of Pakistan and Afghanistan are finding this out the hard way.

In Pakistan, the past three months have been dominated by protests against Nawaz Sharif’s government fueled by popular (and manufactured) discontent with alleged electoral fraud, and the inability of Pakistan’s corrupt elite to manage pressing economic, infrastructural, and security issues.

Protesters led by the populist Canadian cleric Tahir ul-Qadri and Imran Khan, a former playboy cricketer turned leader of Pakistan’s largest opposition party, penetrated Islamabad’s heavily defended “Green Zone,” briefly occupied the state TV station and threatened to storm (the democratically elected) Nawaz Sharif’s residence unless he agreed to step down.

After letting Sharif sweat, the Pakistani defense establishment finally stepped in. In return for turning back the “rebellion” against him, Sharif was forced to relinquish Pakistan’s all-important foreign policy and defense portfolios.

Preserving a democratically-elected leader against a violent uprising through a partial military coup? Not very promising for a young democracy.

In Afghanistan, popular discontent against the political class is also high after the second round of Afghan presidential elections was marred by embarrassing levels of fraud. An “independent’ election commission was set up to audit questionable votes and broker an agreement between the two candidates–Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

After an auditing process which only examined 1% of ballot boxes Ashraf Ghani was declared President, and Abdullah Abdullah “Prime Minister.” Awkwardly, a report allegedly published by the Center of Naval Analyses claims that it was mathematically impossible for Ghani to have won the election. The independent election commission also refused to publish the final vote count for either candidate. Many Afghans, who braved the Taliban to cast their vote feel that this process “has been a slap in the face for democracy in Afghanistan”, as their supposedly democratic transition “actually avoided democratic means to determine who won the election”.

The resolution of a fraud riddled election with behind the scenes wrangling by the very politicians and warlords behind that fraud? Also not very promising for a young democracy.

Elections as Toxic to (some) Democracies

As it turns out, political scientists have known that young democracies are dangerous for a while. In a landmark 2001 paper, Demet Mousseau found an “inverse U” shaped relationship between democratization and violence in ethnically heterogeneous societies: As a country becomes more democratic (or moves across the x axis) the level of political violence increases (moves up the y axis) because the state’s capacity to violently contain conflict decreases. Tragically, actions undertaken by key actors in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and abroad are serving to keep Afghanistan and Pakistan in that precarious position.

To understand why, we have to look at why elections are overrated in immature and ethnically-heterogeneous democracies. Ethnic conflict–as well as other forms of identity conflict–is driven by “intense collective fears for the future”, which are in turn fed by weak state weakness, clientelism, and perceptions that other groups are gaining at the expense of your group. Elections in weak states provide a fertile breeding ground for these elements to coalesce. They are inherently zero-sum games that exacerbate existing collective fears about group survival.

Take Afghanistan, where ethnic tensions flared during the election, as the contest was framed as a competition between the interests of the dominant Pashtun majority (represented by Ashraf Ghani), and other minority groups (Abdullah Abdullah). Analysts feared that the country could devolve into ethnic warfare because of the uncertainty and anxiety produced by the election commission’s apparent inability to determine a winner.

So knowing all of this, what does every relevant actor do? Increase the salience and concomitantly–the perceived stakes– of elections. In Pakistan, Imran Khan increases the stakes of Pakistani elections and threatens to remove a democratically elected president, directing attention away from the incompetent bureaucrats and institutions responsible for the power and water shortages which infuriate so many Pakistanis. It also provided the military with an opportunity to reproduce its’ role as the “final arbiter” in Pakistani politics by quelling the protests.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. is largely to blame for making aid to the Pakistani government contingent on “free and fair elections”. Furthermore, by dispatching John Kerry to help broker an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah at the first sign of trouble, America sent the messages that

  1. this electoral dispute was so imperative that one of the most powerful men in the world had to be flown out to resolve it and
  2. that America, rather than Ghani, Abdullah, or the Afghan people writ large was responsible for the results. The Taliban, which has painted the elections as unrepresentative of Afghan interests, are undoubtedly ecstatic.

The Afghan government also did their part by crafting a deal which emphasized the powers of executive branch officials (the President and Prime Minister) to appoint officials and execute policy. Research by Milan Svolik demonstrates that the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the executive seems to be “a persistent threat” to democratic stability, because (my analysis) such a concentration of power increases the collective fear for the future held by different ethnic and religious groups by increasing the stakes of elections, and making them appear even more zero-sum.

The Best Way to Preserve Vulnerable Democracies? Make Elections Less Meaningful

While elections may be problematic, once established within a given context doing, it is difficult to so away with them while maintaining perceived legitimacy. A more feasible strategy for involved actors would be reducing the stakes of elections. It may appear counter-intuitive, but if the potential benefits of one’s own candidate winning are decreased while the potential costs of said candidate losing are also decreased, the incentives for ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation, and related maneuvers which undermine state institutions and democratic viability would also be decreased.

This hypothesis finds support in “dominant party theory”, which points to the ability of democracies like India to sustain democracies in ethnically heterogeneous contexts. The theory posits that in a “dominant party system”, a dominant party rules without serious fear of being displaced by gadfly “satellite” parties which represent regional interests. However, the dominant party must accommodate the most legitimate and pressing needs of the satellite parties, otherwise they could collectively drum up enough support to remove the dominant party. Thus, a status quo is created where collective fears for the future are dampened, because groups know that any issue with existential import must be competently and fairly managed by the dominant party if it wants to stay in power.

The chronic and widespread failure of corrupt, authoritarian and complacent dominant parties was the driver of the 2011 Arab Uprisings—although the international obsession with radical “regime changes” followed closely by elections was responsible for much of the chaos that followed. Going forward, the international community should put their time and energy into reforms of troubled systems for the sake of protecting minority rights while restructuring legislatures into a more durable and secure status quo, rather than fanning the flames of sectarian discontent by fetishizing elections.

This is because at its essence, democracy is more than a set of (liberal) institutions or occasional election rituals–instead that governments be representative of, and responsive to, the will and interests of as much of its citizenry as feasible. If we understand democracy in this broader sense, Robert Kaplan may have overstated the transience of the “democratic moment:” the arc of the political world is long, but it appears to bend towards further democratization. That said, reducing the emphasis placed on elections would likely prove beneficial for nascent democracies like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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