Free And Fair Elections: Democracy in the Developing Countries

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After the ‘so-called’ end of the Cold War, there has been a massive and profound optimism concerning the prospects for democracy in the Third World. As elections are a central feature of democracy, for elections to express the will of the electorate, they must be ‘free and fair.’ As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century it is difficult to say whether things look less bright or more. Some opine that we are in the early stages of a comprehensive setback for democracy in the Third World. The role of Western countries in the processes of political transition in the developing countries is also double-edged: they have engaged in both enhancing and thwarting the process as per their political and economic strategies. Although the process of democratization is by nature first and foremost a domestic, internal affair, international actors have contributed to this unfortunate state of affairs.

There are two principal views on the role of outsiders in the processes of democratization in the Third World. The first is that democracy is basically a domestic affair and thus there is very little that outsiders can do about it, one way or the other. The second view is that most weak Third World countries are the puppets of stronger states; the strong therefore heavily influence, not only the economic and social but also the political structures and processes of the weak. There is some truth in both of these views.

What are then the free and fair elections?  ‘Free’ means that all those entitled to vote have the right to be registered and to vote and must be free to make their choice. An election is considered ‘free’ when one can decide whether or not to vote and vote freely for the candidate or party of his or her choice without fear or intimidation. A ‘free’ election is also one where one is confident that who one votes for remains secret. ‘Fair’ means that all registered political parties have an equal right to contest the elections, campaign for voter support and hold meetings and rallies. This gives them a fair chance to convince voters to vote for them. A fair election is also one in which all voters have an equal opportunity to register, where all votes are counted, and where the announced results reflect the actual vote totals.

So the five facets that remain nodal are transparency, privacy, integrity, affordability, and accessibility. Each step of the election process should be easily understood and open to scrutiny by all stakeholders –voters, political parties, outside observers and others. All results should be independently verifiable and auditable. The choices that each voter makes should remain private both during and after the election. Only eligible voters should be allowed to vote, and those votes must be protected from any alteration or exclusion. The election process must be affordable to governments and its citizens in order to maintain sovereignty. All eligible voters, regardless of location, group membership or disability, should have reasonable and equal opportunity to cast their ballot.

This is the core ambit upon which the achievements and shortcomings of the processes of democratization in the Third World are measured. And here it often fails miserably. Otherwise, there is no comprehensive setback for democracy is in the cards, but there are no prospects for any substantial democratic progress either.

Most Third World countries got their own domestic sphere at the point of independence, of decolonization. Before that, they were part of the domestic spheres of their colonial motherlands. That experience left them with features more or less conducive to the pursuit of democracy. Liberal modernization theory normally stresses the positive legacy: some local industry and infrastructure; an education system; a piece of machinery for the upholding of order; an institutional structure; some basic rule of law; and a constitution which contained democratic values. Radical dependency theory stresses on the destructive elements of the colonial legacy: a distorted economic infrastructure, geared to the demands of the motherland; a hierarchical political system directed at control and surveillance, not at any form of democracy; an institutional structure aimed at order cum repression, not at participation and pluralism. The blend of `constructive’ and `destructive’ elements in the colonial legacy will, of course, vary across countries.

The travail of democracy in the Third World is a contribution of the `transitology’ into the processes of democratization. Within that general context, one discusses the relationship between processes of democratization and processes of state strengthening, meaning the creation of more ‘developmentalist’ states, better capable of pursuing economic and social development.

It is assumed that the process of democratization does not fare well in many Third World countries. We are not facing a sweeping backslide to authoritarianism; the problem is one of democratic consolidation; a very large number of the current transitions remain stuck in the shallow waters of `electoral democracy.’ There is a lack of political community in the developing countries, in the various models of democracy promoted by the West, and to the notion of elitism as underlying elements which help explain the lack of sustained democratic progress. External actors bear some substantial responsibility for this state of affairs. Even if it is true that democracy cannot be taught, only learned, more support for competent leaders and institutional innovation appears to promise better result in terms of both democracy and development.

There are some positive factors which have not been given much attention. In a number of Third World countries, generally, those at the higher levels of socio-economic development—both political and economic reform are doing reasonably well. Yet the most encouraging items are sooner to be found in those countries that have achieved political and economic success despite being beset by some of the problems, including a high potential for ethnic conflict, because of many ethnic groups in the population and a rather low level of economic development at the time of independence. If we can explain why these countries have been successful in spite of the adverse conditions they faced, we may have some indications about how to get around the problems.

The idea of democracy is presently very strong at the global ideological level. Very few authoritarian rulers would actively defend traditional, authoritarian modes of rule. In the majority of cases, authoritarianism is justified with reference to its supposedly positive sides of creating, e.g., order, stability, growth, and welfare. Very few dictators believe that they have an inherent, legitimate right to be dictators. As one observer recently noted, “to live under autocracy, or even to be an autocrat, seems backward, uncivilized and distasteful.”

Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi




Avik is Author and Columnist, based in Kolkata, India.

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