Foreign Policy Blogs

The electoral disorder of 2010

Hope you voted...

Inked after voting, South Africa, 2009 by Darryn van der Walt

Among other things, 2010 marked a number of national elections gone wrong. From Guinea to Haiti, Rwanda to the Philippines, Madagascar, Burundi and Belarus to name just a few, elections that were fair, free, non-violent and undisputed have been difficult to find this past year. Even elections in the US and UK took on more vitriol than is common, illustrating that bad politics really does exist everywhere.

These events raise several questions regarding the democratic order: what is the responsibility of the international community in guaranteeing that the will of a people be honored? Is democracy truly a universal political system? Does the sovereignty of states preclude international involvement in domestic elections? These questions have always existed but the nature of more recent election violence is also raising the question of how should such things be dealt with.

Such questions are again at the forefront of the international news cycle as Cote d’Ivoire appears to be slowly sliding back to civil war following a presidential election last month that both incumbant President Laurent Gbagbo and opposition leader Alassane Ouattara claim to have won. Ouattara is widely accepted as the rightful winner outside of the country – including by the United Nations, ECOWAS, the African Union, and even the Central Bank of West African States. Indeed, each passing day of this crisis appears to bring more allies to the side of Ouattara and more impassioned calls for Gbagbo to step down. Yet Gbagbo continues to control the domestic media and enough military forces to cause serious problems, a fact proven by stories of torture and enforced disappearances, the re-emergence of death squads on the streets of Abidjan, and a rising death toll that currently stands at 173.

Coincidentally the electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire comes as the International Criminal Court earlier this month released the names of six suspects under investigation for the post-election violence that occurred in Kenya two years ago. The usefulness of the ICC waging into election disputes and the violence that follows has yet to be fully proven; some analysts hail it as a step forward in breaking the cycle of impunity that plagues many “democracies” and demonstrates the full power of the court while others worry that the case could have a destabilizing effect on the country which is progressing, albeit slowly, towards a more inclusive political system. Back in November when elections in Guinea were heading south, a letter from the ICC to the government noting that it was paying close attention to developments in the country may have helped bring about a resolution in that case. The end result there was the swearing in of Guinea’s first democratically elected president in over 50 years. However the reaction of the Kenyan parliament to the actual indictments, which have been a long time coming: an overwhelming vote for the government to leave the ICC.

There are many reasons as to why it is unlikely that Kenya will actually leave the ICC. But as the situation in Cote d’Ivoire continues to deteriorate and the international community prepares for another contentious referendum in Southern Sudan next month, the issue of what power the international community has in ensuring just elections whose results are honored remains unclear.

What is clear to those following events in Abidjan and Nairobi is that these crises do matter, not just for the future of the countries at hand but also as a test for African leaders to uphold the basic promises of democracy and rule of law. The election in Cote d’Ivoire comes at the end of a peace process designed to heal ethnic and geographical wounds spurred on by previous governments and colonial policies. If allowed to fall apart, West Africa may see the type of genocidal violence normally reserved for their central African neighbors. In a region that admittedly still has a long way to go, the progress West Africa has made in the last ten years in moving away from conflict could be derailed by one man not conceding defeat and urging his followers to do the same. Likewise, failure to address the fundamental issues behind the election violence in Kenya will only serve to encourage the same behavior, a cycle that threatens the regional stability and human rights movement of East Africa. Both examples demonstrate the need for a strategy to encourage the peaceful handover of power when the ruling party loses, a phenomena not completely unknown in these parts but far too uncommon.

Thus, 2010 marked a year when the will of the people often took a beating for the sake of those in power and the rest of the world was left wondering what to do about it. Those questions still remain, but some of them may be answered as the situation in Cote d’Ivoire continues to unfold. However, to be fair while there was no dearth of elections gone wrong in 2010, the year also had its bright spots. As mentioned above, Guinea salvaged its national election to open up what many hope will be a more democratic chapter in that country’s history. And though largely a sham, elections in Burma, the first in 20 years, did see the release of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest while the election of the first right wing government in Chile since Pinochet demonstrates how far they have come since those dark days. For the international community, these examples are worth remembering as we enter 2011 and get ready for potentially volatile elections in Sudan, Niger, and Zimbabwe as it illustrates the existence of light even in the seemingly darkest of tunnels.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa