We here in the U.S. tend to fetishize elections. For many people, elections and democracy are synonymous with each other, and there is a tendency – particularly among the non-political scientist set – to assume that any country that holds free elections must be democratic. This mindset has been out in full force over the past decade as genuine elections have become more common in the Arab world. When Iraq held its first free elections after the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, supporters of the Iraq War (and in the interests of full disclosure, I was firmly in that group) rushed to dub the war a success because Iraq was now deemed to be a democracy. Time and again we are reminded that Hamas is the legitimate government in Gaza because it was democratically elected (never mind that those elections happened in 2006 and have not been repeated since). When Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi a year ago, Egypt was immediately declared a new or emerging democracy by dint of those elections. For many people, elections are what matter to the exclusion of all else.
For a long time, this view of elections being the dividing line between democracies and non-democracies held sway in political science as well for the simple fact that non-democratic regimes did not bother to conduct elections. When Juan Linz wrote his groundbreaking and still seminal work on non-democratic regimes in the 1970s, he did not even consider that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes would hold elections; trying to distinguish free and fair elections from illegitimate elections did not factor into his analysis because it was not an issue that ever came up. When he updated his work two decades later in book form, elections still not did make it into his exhaustive typologies of non-democratic regimes. Nevertheless, because the West had placed such a priority on the legitimizing power of elections, authoritarian regimes began to catch up and elections became a permanent feature of all manner of non-democratic states. In some cases, such as Saddam-era Iraq, they were complete shams where the dictator routinely won 99% of the vote, and in other cases, such as parliamentary elections in Egypt and Jordan, the parliaments held no real power and the election outcomes were predetermined, albeit not to the absurd extent in places like Iraq or Tunisia. Political science quickly caught up to what was going in the real world and came up with a new category of regimes, typically called competitive authoritarian or hybrid regimes. These regimes were recognized to fall somewhere in a gray zone, as they held competitive elections but not ones that were free and fair, and so while there was the possibility of a transfer of power post-elections, it was a difficult feat to pull off. Research was also done on regimes, oftentimes called hegemonic authoritarian regimes, where non-competitive elections were held so that the regime could claim the mantle of electoral legitimacy but where the outcome was never in any way in doubt. Because elections themselves are a powerful tool, we now live in a world where there are elections all over the globe, but in many instances they mean next to nothing.
We are now moving into an interesting phase, where elections are not only being used by authoritarian regimes to justify their existence, but are being used by a wide class of states to justify any specific action they take. Examples A and B in this regard are Turkey and Egypt, where elected leaders repeatedly refer to their elected status as justification not just for their continuation in office but for any actions the government wants to take. In Turkey, which is a problematic democracy but still to my mind meets the criteria for being an electoral democracy (even if it is looking increasingly shaky), Prime Minister Erdoğan has spent the last month dismissing any and all concerns on the part of the protestors because, as he likes to remind everyone, the AKP was elected in 2011 with an overwhelming plurality of the vote, and if people don’t like what he’s doing, they can go back to the ballot box in a couple of years. Erdoğan fiercely believes that elections confer absolute power, and his view of majoritarian democracy states that the majority can do as it pleases, no matter the consequences or the nature of the opposition. Never mind that democracy is about much more than elections, or that massive numbers of people are protesting in the streets against specific policies. For Erdoğan, all that matters is what happens on election day, and the party that finds itself in government has four or five years to pursue any manner of policies that it chooses to implement. If people don’t like it, than they can voice their displeasure in the next election, and it is as simple as that. Elections confer blanket authority.
In Egypt, which is not yet a democracy no matter how many people would like to believe otherwise, Morsi became president following democratic elections, and has ever since pursued a narrow, sectarian policy in which he has made clear that he believes he is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than all Egyptians. He too has fallen back on the fact that there were elections to justify all sorts of policies that rankle most Egyptians, and the fact that Egypt this week saw what were likely the largest demonstrations in human history makes no difference to him. He cloaked himself in the mantle of elections in order to shunt aside Egypt’s courts and force through a new constitution six months ago, and during the crisis of the last two days, he has refused to acknowledge having made mistakes or grant that changes need to be made because he insists that his policies have the ultimate legitimacy emanating from the fact that he was elected. Morsi is using elections not only to justify his position, but to justify any actions that he takes.
To be clear, if the military moves in and deposes Morsi by force, it will be a disaster. As I pointed out during the constitutional crisis in December, such a move will doom any real hope for democracy in Egypt for decades:
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous. Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt.
Free and fair elections need to be respected, and no matter how poor of a president Morsi has been and no matter how wrongheaded and disastrous his government’s policies, the millions of people in the streets should be heeded by the government in terms of changing course but not in allowing mob rule. Egyptians have legitimate grievances, but by the same token a military coup to get rid of Morsi is not the answer. Nevertheless, Erdoğan, Morsi, and heads of state everywhere need to unlearn the lesson that they have taken away, which is that elections are all that matter and that what happens between elections does not. Voting for one’s leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it harms democracy rather than furthers it. We went through a period in which elections were emphasized as the primary component of democracy promotion, but perhaps now it is time for a switch in which elections are deemphasized in favor of other things, such as checks and balances, horizontal accountability, respect for minority rights, and other similar factors that have been lost in the shuffle. Elections are needed to usher in democracy, but in a disturbing number of cases elections are now being used to choke off the democracy that they allegedly heralded.