Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Missing Pieces: Presidential Elections, Democracy and Wealth, and More

by Isobel Coleman
November 14, 2011

Otto Perez Molina, presidential candidate from the Patriot Party, looks on during his campaign speech in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, November 3, 2011 (Carlos Jasso/Courtesy Reuters).

In this week’s edition of Missing Pieces, Charles Landow reviews three elections and two scholarly articles. I hope you enjoy the selection.

  • Election Roundup: Three developing countries, each struggling with its own mix of progress and perils, held presidential elections last week:
  1. First, in Guatemala, former general Otto Pérez Molina won a runoff election on November 6. As I noted on the blog in September, Pérez Molina is best known for his “iron fist” approach to fighting rampant violent crime. This clearly resonated with Guatemalans, though questions continue to dog the president-elect about his actions as a military officer during the country’s civil war. As this informative Reuters piece explains, some are concerned that Pérez Molina will thwart war crimes prosecutions of other former officers. An article from the Americas Society concisely reviews Guatemala’s daunting challenges on security, poverty, and impunity. And the Economist notes that Pérez Molina will need to boost government revenues to have any hope of combating violence.
  2. Also on November 6, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua gained a new term in an election widely seen as flawed. The U.S. State Department called the vote “not transparent,” saying, “we remain very concerned about irregularities.” Authorities did not accredit domestic observers and stymied international ones, according to this McClatchy Newspapers piece. Ortega needed a questionable 2009 court ruling to be allowed to run in the first place. On recently, Richard Feinberg offered useful historical context, arguing that Ortega has managed Nicaragua’s economy deftly in recent years. He said U.S.-Nicaragua relations could evolve constructively if the election passed “without widespread fraud.” It did not, however, leading to this far gloomier assessment by Joel Hirst on the Huffington Post.
  3. Finally, on November 8 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf cruised to re-election in Liberia, winning just over 90 percent of the vote. Unfortunately, Sirleaf’s rival, Winston Tubman, boycotted the runoff. He alleged irregularities in the first round of the vote last month, though observers, such as the Carter Center, have assessed both rounds of voting positively. Last Monday, deadly violence erupted when Tubman’s supporters clashed with Liberian police and UN peacekeepers in Monrovia. All of this depressed the turnout in the runoff, making an apparently well-run election more divisive than it should have been. Sirleaf says she will focus on reconciliation and bring opposition figures into her government. On his blog, CFR’s John Campbell analyzes the election and the disparity between Sirleaf’s reputation at home and abroad.
  • Democracy and Development: In the American Political Science Review, Carles Boix offers new evidence on the age-old question of whether democracy and economic development go together. Examining a large sample of countries between 1820 and 2000, Boix finds that greater per capita income increases a country’s level of democracy, but this effect diminishes at higher levels of wealth. This is unsurprising; most wealthy countries are either already democracies or resource-rich autocracies that are “hard to change,” as Boix notes. In a more novel twist, Boix gauges the effect of the international order on the relationship between democracy and development. Country income has the strongest impact on democracy when the world’s great powers are all democratic, he concludes. When the world is polarized between democratic and authoritarian powers (as from 1933 to 1990), the effect is far weaker. During such times, even fairly wealthy countries seem less likely to be democratic. This bodes ill for global democracy should any autocracies rise to challenge U.S. hegemony.
  • Disengaging from Dictators: Equitorial Guinea, run by the despotic president Teodoro Obiang, is among the world’s most authoritarian states. By buying its oil, is the United States complicit in Obiang’s theft of resources from his people? Yes, says Shmuel Nili in a new article in International Theory. His answer to this quandary, inspired by Rousseau, is that democracies should sever all ties with dictatorships and establish autarky among themselves. This means no diplomatic recognition and no trade with countries that eschew free and fair elections. The idea is impractical and possibly unwise, since some autocracies take reasonable care of their people and isolating them might only increase suffering. I find Nili’s response to this point unsatisfying. He awkwardly concedes that China “might be” an exception to his argument because of its tremendous poverty reduction. However, the article is deeply thought-provoking, offering a compelling perspective on democracy and morality in an interdependent world.


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