One of the enduring legacies of George W. Bush's magic-realist foreign policy was the discrediting of the word "freedom." The failure of Bush's "Freedom Agenda" made democracy promotion seem like a particularly inexcusable form of naiveté. Didn't he understand that elections are not democracy? Candidate Barack Obama seized on this self-evident proposition to belabor Bush. "We do need to stand for democracy," Obama declared in a 2007 speech. "But democracy is about more than a ballot box." FDR, he noted, hadn't even included voting in his famous 1942 "Four Freedoms" speech.
Well, he should have. The parliamentary elections in Egypt, which, despite widespread expectations, have been almost perfectly peaceful, have put that country's military rulers on the defensive in a way that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square have not. And, even more remarkably, the elections in Russia, which the ruling party managed to win through transparent fraud, have galvanized the public against their cynical and contemptuous rulers in a way no one could have predicted. Elections matter quite independently of who wins them. Elections don't make a democracy, but they can make a democratic citizenry.
Why did tens of thousands of people flood the streets of Moscow in the aftermath of Sunday's election? Because, as Foreign Policy's Julia Ioffe has written, they were insulted. The primary insult, as Ioffe notes, may not have been the brazen ballot-stuffing, but the nonchalant announcement six weeks earlier that Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev would be switching jobs, with the former becoming president once again and the latter, prime minister. That announcement provoked disgust, but it was the election -- by offering vivid and dramatic proof that Russia's leaders consider their own people irrelevant -- that brought people into the streets.
Elections are not just exercises in determining political majorities. "They're also a way to gauge how people are treated in society," says Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. "Every institution in the country -- government, parties, the press, the judiciary, the military, police -- are working at the same time." That's why rigged elections can prove to be such electrifying, unifying events.
There's a very specific history of such events that begins in Nov. 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino kingpin, staged the kind of electoral farce he had long since mastered. Both domestic and American election observers exposed the fraud -- a first in the Philippines. Massive public demonstrations forced Marcos from office within four months. More recently, the "Color Revolutions" in Eastern Europe occurred in the aftermath of fraudulent elections. And last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Côte D'Ivoire, provoked a civil war when he cheated his opponent out of office. Now his opponent is president and Gbagbo faces charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
The problem for the dictator is that he cannot know -- or in any case almost never does know -- when a ritualistic or rigged election will provoke fury rather than a resigned shrug. Autocrats depend on a sense of learned futility; as soon as people begin to hope for better, the election becomes a vehicle for those hopes. For decades, Egypt held non-competitive elections that sent government loyalists to parliament; turnout was often under 10 percent. Then semi-free elections in 2005 created a real parliamentary opposition in the form of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the next election, late last year, President Hosni Mubarak simply eliminated the problem by ensuring that no member of the Brotherhood -- not one -- was returned to parliament. The sheer egregiousness of the fraud, the implicit sense that Mubarak felt he could get away with anything, shocked Egyptians, and stoked the fury which exploded just over a month later in Tahrir Square.