Foreign Policy Blogs

Elections: Necessary But Not Sufficient

Voters in Staten Island, NY: Image Credit - Kirsten Luce/NY Times

Voters in Staten Island, NY: Image Credit – Kirsten Luce/NY Times

Today (Tuesday, November 2) is Election Day in the United States.  While it is an off-year for presidential elections, in my home state of New York the entire state legislature is up for election, governor, attorney general, comptroller, both US Senators (rare as they are usually staggered , but one is running for Hillary Clinton’s old seat that was filled with a temporary appointment), members of congress and my local school board.   Despite the rancor of the campaigns, election day is usually calm and set aside for the ritual of casting one’ s ballot – a ritual that is likely to make one feel good about democracy (it always does for me).  In many cases, it is the only time people participate politically or ponder the choices that face their society.  In that sense, election day is a momentous occasion, for the United States or any democracy.

But if you take a step back and ponder the role of elections around the world, you don’t need to be a professor of political science or a democracy & governance official to understand that elections are but one of may components that make up a functioning, sustainable democracy.  Elections garner headlines and, by their very nature, involve mass participation.   In the early to mid-1990s the international community was inordinately focused on elections as a catalytic event that would help turn dictatorships into democracies  – and election observation missions were omnipresent in offering a seal of approval to many countries that were simply able to go through the motions of competitive elections.  It simply made everyone feel good to see first elections in places that had suffered through decades of oppressive authoritarian rule.  But it became apparent as the 1990s wore on that merely granting an electoral imprimatur to someone who had previously been a dictator did not change his or her behavior once (back) in office. In fact, that imprimatur sometimes gave them new license to carry out the same old bad behaviors but now without consequences from the international community.  Africa in the 1990s was replete with such examples: Mugabe in Zimbabwe comes to mind.  This is not to say that elections are an empty ritual entirely without value.  For more on elections and democratic development, take a look at an excellent book from last year edited by Staffan I. Linberg, Democratization by Elections.

The dictator-as-democrat syndrome is only one problem in seeing elections as a sole litmus test in democratization.  The larger, more intractable problem is the lack of institutional capacity of the institutions that are needed to run a broadly representative state once the newly-elected officials take power.  Parliaments, ministries, courts, sub-national and local institutions,  these all had been purposely neglected and undermined throughout the long years of authoritarian rule.  And enhancing the capacity of these institutions – or creating it anew – has been no mean task.  It takes years, decades and longer, to develop the processes, practices and institutional cultures that make complex governmental organizations work on both the political and administrative levels.  USAID, UNDP, DfID and many other development organizations have been involved in institutional capacity building projects around the world for over two decades, with some successes, some failures and great deal of just slogging through a slow, painstaking process.   These organizations also work on improving elections and election administration, as do groups like IFES.

Elections that take place in a context without functioning government institutions, independent courts and a robust (and truly independent) civil society leads to a Potemkin Village-style democracy: empty symbols meant to appear democratic but with no substance or power.  This phenomenon is well documented (see Catherine Sweet’s 2001 article, Democratization Without Democracy: Political Openings and Closures in Modern Morocco in Middle East Report; the April 2002 edition of the Journal of Democracy that has a collections of articles under the heading, “Elections Without Democracy;” and, Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections Without Democracy, by Larbi Sadiki).

Many Americans might ask what all this has to do with election day in their country. A lot.  Much of what we have learned about the limitations of elections alone can also be applied to the situation in the U.S. at the moment.   When election day fades tomorrow the new officials (or those re-elected) must find a way to rebuild the capacity of America’s governing institutions; they are in serious and precipitous decay and largely unable to address the overarching problems facing the country.  The decline in the capacity of the US Congress is detailed by Norman Orenstein “The Broken Branch (Oxford University Press, 2006).  A more recent book by Daniel Feldman and Gerald Benjamin, “Tales from the Sausage Factory” (SUNY Press, 2010) offers a colorful analysis of the New York State Legislature in decline (NYU’s Brennan Center offers a more clinical analysis of that legislature’s decline here).   This is but a smattering of the many recent books outlining the decline in the governing institutions of the U.S.  It is clear that once institutions are built and empowered they will not necessarily remain effective and representative – it takes the sort of actions that development organizations are engaged in overseas: training, capacity building, updating infrastructure (technology and facilities) , staff development, revised procedures,  empowered committees, increased citizen outreach, etc. There was great movement of institutional reform, especially with state legislatures, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Is it possible that the lessons learned through the last two decades of democratic development projects overseas can now be applied at home?  A few programs are already doing it on a small scale.  The International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) run through the State Department often send foreign officials around the US to meet with American state and local officials.  In my experience, those meetings can lead to a real exchange of ideas and in more than a few cases the Americans learn as much from the visitors as the visitors do from  their hosts.  The same can be said of the House Democracy Partnership that seeks to assist with parliamentary development in Afghanistan, East Timor, Georgia, Haiti, Indonesia, Kosovo, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Ukraine.   The program says of itself:

The mission of the House Democracy Assistance Commission, through its program the House Democracy Partnership, is to promote responsive, effective government and strengthen democratic institutions by assisting legislatures in emerging democracies. Central to our work is peer-to-peer cooperation to build technical expertise in partner legislatures that will enhance accountability, transparency, legislative independence, access to information, and government oversight.The House Democracy Assistance Commission’s Program, the House Democracy Partnership, is the indirect successor to the Frost-Solomon Task Force, which provided assistance to the legislatures of 10 new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe from 1990-1996. Inspired by their participation in the Frost-Solomon Commission’s activities, Reps. Price and Dreier collaborated to revive and expand its mission. On March 14, 2005, the House of Representatives voted to establish the House Democracy Assistance Commission with a mandate to work with emerging democracies throughout the world (H. Res. 135).

That this is a peer-to-peer program offers the chance for relationships to be establishes among the elected members of all the participating countries and the U.S. members are not immune to learning about legislative innovations in other countries.  Given that the development and enhancement of legislatures largely ended in the 1970s most innovations have taken place in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East; the best ideas when it comes to institutional reform are coming from elsewhere (in many cases supported by funds and technical from USAID).  As I said in a previous post, , development should be a two-way street, carried out as a true partnership; neither side has a monopoly on knowledge.  USAID once had a program called “Lessons Without Borders” that sought to do this but little of that focus was put on US political institutions and that program appears to have been ended during the Bush administration.   USAID, groups like the National Conference of State Legislaturesand the Brennan Center, as well as scholars of legislative studies, would do well to carry out more comparative analyses of legislatures and to bring more of the lessons learned overseas back to the US where it is needed at the moment.  Not every idea tried in Africa will work in New York or California but it’s worth a hard look. In addition, the more USAID lessons applied to problems in the US, the more Americans will see tangible benefits from foreign assistance that often seems distant and irrelevant.

Election day is only one day in a democracy.  After the pundits have had their say and the balloons have popped, democracies need good ideas on how to make things work.  To get U.S. institutions to work better we need to bring home some of the best ideas from around the world.



James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement