The elections this week—February 27 in Senegal, March 2 in Iran, and March 4 in Russia—are reminders of the key role elections play in building democracy.
It has been fashionable for years to say “elections don’t mean democracy” or “elections should come at the end of the road, when democracy is firmly built.” Of course elections are only part of a truly democratic system, which must also include critical building blocks like freedom of expression and the rule of law. And of course elections held in a non-democratic system and run by a non-democratic regime will be highly imperfect and often flatly fraudulent.
But the events of this week show that elections can still unseat those in power or dramatically highlight the nature of the ruling party and leaders. In Senegal, President Wade forced a change in the constitution so that he could run for office a third time. No doubt he was sure that, using the power of the state, he could pull off a first round win. He failed, falling short of the 50 percent needed, and is likely now to lose office to a unified opposition in the second round. Senegal, a Muslim nation with a per capita income of only about $1,000 per year and a literacy rate of roughly 60 percent, is a reminder of the lure of democracy and self-rule across the globe.
In Iran, the parliamentary election appears to mark the continuing decline of self-rule in favor of rule by the mullahs and their allies in the Revolutionary Guards. The balance between elected officials and the clergy, theoretically a key part of Iran’s system, has been shifting for years and of course moved greatly after the stolen elections of June 2009 and the crushing of the Green Movement. Candidates for parliament must be approved by the regime, and reformists have been sidelined. But that does not mean this sham election is without impact, for it can only deepen the gulf between rulers and ruled. Some day, when this regime has fallen, the repeated exercise of holding such elections—essentially, of rubbing the noses of millions of Iranians in their country’s political backwardness and lack of freedom—will be seen as a cause.
In Russia, Sunday’s election is part coronation of Vladimir Putin, but also a turning point for his corrupt system. The cynicism of his pirouette with Medvedev, a maneuver that entirely excluded the Russian people from any real role in choosing their government, has been widely understood inside Russia as well as outside it. Recent months have seen a rebirth of popular protest against autocratic rule. As in Iran, this election dramatizes for citizens the ways in which Russia is not a democracy, the voter has no control over the government, and the nation continues to fall far short of the standards of decent, open, responsive government. What can Russians think of their country, what can they think of those who claim the right to rule it so that it can “advance,” when citizens of Senegal can vote in free elections but they in Russia cannot?
As skeptics rightly say, elections do not democracy make. But the opportunity to vote, and often the denial of an opportunity to vote or the necessity of voting in sham elections, can be mobilizing events. In a world where hundreds of free elections are held each year, often with elaborate safeguards and the presence of international observers, the failure to hold free elections is a mark of shame visible around the globe and more importantly to citizens denied a role in choosing their government.