Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway discusses how democracy can be strengthened outside election periods. This post originally appeared on the Global Policy Journal online.
Democracy sits in time. It is a looping circuit of accountability between leaders and led. Voters authorise leaders to act on certain problems. Through everyday experience and media reports those voters can track if the leaders are doing what they said they’d do. Another election comes around and voters can stick or twist, authorising another set of actions. The loop of democracy creates expectations about what everyone should be doing and when. Everyone knowing and following this temporality is a necessary condition for democracy to work. Given that all but 11 countries have held elections since 2000, we live in a world of democratic loops.
At the publication of a new report on strengthening democracies in 2011, Kofi Annan was challenged to think about how democracy can be strengthened at different times. The report, Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, was conducted by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy & Security and published by the Kofi Annan Foundation. While there is unlikely to be any global consensus of what integrity, transparency or democracy mean, the Commission hopes that its recommendations can be taken up in different countries in the coming years, and that it might inform whatever programme emerges in 2015 to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The group Annan leads make explicit connections between democracy and development. In the report they write, “elections with integrity matter for empowering women, fighting corruption, delivering services to the poor, improving governance, and ending civil wars”. Consequently, the actions this group recommend on “deepening democracy” may have knock-on effects on much broader issues of welfare and sustainability. This makes their attempts to shape the temporality of democracy important for the temporality of those broader issues.
Democracy can move too quickly, for some. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt rushed to hold elections when their institutions and social norms were not ready, were immature, were weak, leading to unpleasant outcomes that impugn democracy’s name. While it is understandable people may wish to mark a new beginning in their societies, should they not have waited until their democratic governance was ready? To these charges, Mr. Annan’s group said that all the international community can do is be positive and supportive. It should not immediately condemn a society, nor judge it by the standards of established democracies. There is a need for patience, to be there for the long haul; imagine if the international community had given up on Burma?
Democracy can move too slowly, for others. Isn’t the significance of elections diminishing in a world where social media campaigns allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable on a continual basis? Let’s face it: elections are an industry. They give politicians a chance to control their relationship to citizens. They give political scientists easy case studies on which to build careers. Long ago, the loop of accountability got lost along the way. And perhaps, when an election is years away but officials are performing badly, it is sometimes necessary to short-circuit the loop! Here Mr. Annan agreed to some extent. There need to be ways to hold leaders to account between elections, and this is where civil society is vital. By sustaining pressure between elections, it is possible for citizens, journalists and activists to signal to leaders that they can expect the same pressure after the next election, he said. Social media enables more rapid, flexible campaigns. Corrupt officials can be thrown out at any time.
What emerged from the discussion was a commitment to the integrity of elections over the integrity of democracy more generally. It is perhaps more straightforward for an international body of experts such as Mr. Annan’s Global Commission to focus on elections than on the slow between-times. Mr. Annan recognised these between-times matter, but only committed to encourage civil society to exert pressure on leaders and to recognise the potential of social media campaigns. Elections offer the more tangible prospect of rules, institutions and practices that can be easily identified and improved. If the Global Commission can shore up the integrity of these moments, then the loops in-between may be more secure. If at election time the influence of money and clientelist relations can be replaced by rule of the law and genuine inter-party competition, this may cultivate the continual political culture of democracy the group advocate.
Even if that is the case, does the group’s focus on democratic process obscure the importance of the content of democratic politics? Democracy for what, time for what? Elections matter because their inter-connected character allows parties to be held to account for the substantive gains of wealth, security, quality of life, or whatever else they have promised. But surely democracy requires plural political parties to make different promises. It is no place for the Global Commission to begin prescribing substantive policy goals to any country’s parties. However, we began with the proposition that the looping time of accountability is a necessary condition for democracy to work. If the content of party programmes does not deliver then is democratic time sufficient?