Henry Srebrnik: Do elections matter in deeply-divided societies?

The following countries have held parliamentary or presidential elections so far this year: Afghanistan, Algeria, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Thailand, and Ukraine.

So what? you might remark. After all, that’s quite a rogue’s gallery.

Yet for many people, elections have become the sine qua non of democracy. Our television screens show us people lined up at polling stations, eager to cast their ballots, and commentators usually let us know how excited these voters are to “finally” have a say in the governance of their country.

But in fact, in states without a robust civil society, the rule of law, protection of human rights, and a political culture that tolerates diversity of opinion, elections may exacerbate, rather than resolve, deep cleavages within the policy – even if they have been relatively free and honest.

In most such places, though, opposition parties often boycott what they consider to be a foregone conclusion; or, if they do contest the election, they invariably claim – usually correctly – that widespread fraud and other irregularities have rendered the result invalid.

Also, only too often, governments brought to power are fairly quickly dispatched in coups (Thailand), or themselves become highly autocratic and sectarian (Iraq). Some countries seem to be in a permanent state of rotation between civilian and military rule (Nigeria, Pakistan) or are such failed states that elections are meaningless (Lebanon).

In yet others – Central American oligarchies such as Guatemala and Honduras – incredible inequality makes for continuous political violence. Elections are irrelevant, held merely to please some foreign capital like Washington.

Elections can’t paper over issues of what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan called problems of “stateness” in places where there are differences about the territorial boundaries of the state and who has the right of citizenship in that state.

For example: Although Sri Lanka has never ceased to be an electoral democracy, the lack of genuine political power by the minority Tamils led to a vicious decades-old civil war in which tens of thousands of people were slaughtered.

Ask yourself this: would you rather have lived in a colony without any internal self-rule at all, but with the rule of law, like pre-1990s Hong Kong, or in a sovereign state with “elections,” like Zimbabwe?

The Hustings