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Populism and bloodshed

by Peter Hauff

In brief

The 2007 presidential elections in Kenya cost more than 1,100 lives

The 2007 presidential elections in Kenya cost more than 1,100 lives

In many developing countries, elections compound the problems they are supposed to solve. Though the motives of foreign aid workers and election observers are good, bloodshed is proof of democracy promotion often failing.

Since 2000, at least 10,000 people have lost their lives in connection with elections. Almost one in four elections around the world is currently overshadowed by murder and homicide. Whereas democracy does not normally threaten lives in wealthy industrialised nations, elections cause serious risks in countries with weak statehood, especially, but not only, during the transition from authoritarian rule. Violence shatters the hopes citizens have for freedom and self-determination. What international democracy promotion can do about this phenomenon is a pressing issue.

François Mitterand, the former president of France, once said that “no democracy can survive without prosperity”. Scholars confirm that, in places that lack an economic foundation for political stability, elections increase the probability of violence. In his book “Wars, guns and votes” (2009), Paul Collier, the director of Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of African Economies, indicated a threshold of $ 2,700 per capita income. According to him, elections make society more dangerous in poorer countries.

Violence in election times undermines a government’s legitimacy and shows that it cannot operate effectively under the rule of law. In a recent publication, Lars Brozus of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) suggests that anyone who wants to promote democracy in a foreign country must take the risks into account.

Brozus argues that there should be something like “legitimacy dividends” when elections succeed and their results reflect society well. The authorities involved in organising elections must be independent, he says. Moreover, there must be an appreciated role for the political opposition. In other words, those who lose an election deserve political inclusion and recognition since they too represent voters. Brozus’ SWP study states that democracy promotion must serve three purposes:
– the effective division of power,
– the institutionalisation of checks and
balances and
– the protection of minorities.

The number of democratically governed states around the world has almost doubled in the past twenty years. Of 192 UN members, 92 have democratic constitutions today. The downside is that incidents of election-related violence have multiplied as well. It does not help that international democracy promotion tends to be fragmented. Relevant actors include the USA, EU, the OSCE, the World Bank, the OECD, non-governmental organi­sations and foundations.

Setting priorities

Brozus argues that Germany should assume a leading role, in view of this country’s comparative advantages. He points out that German institutions such as the political foundations, which are close to Germany’s political parties, or the Bertelsmann Foundation enjoy a high level of esteem (note essay on the European Endowment for Democracy on p. 82  f. as well as comment on the recent problems of Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Egypt on p. 84). Institutions like these, Brozus argues, provide targeted aid for developing “soft factors” such as parties, trade unions or independent media.

Particularly in weak states, where insecurity and poverty prevail, democracy is about much more than elections at the national level, Brozus stresses. In his view, the local level matters, since round tables, councils of elders and jirgas can smooth the way from traditional consensus building to democratic competition. He also wants the international community to commit to defining global standards for reporting on election-related violence.

Peter Hauff