The Botched Ballot

Why even failed elections are good for democracy.

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.

You have only to compare that election to the one now underway to see how far Egypt has come in a very short while. The analysis in the United States has focused on the outcome, with Islamists taking over 60 percent of the vote so far. But that may not be what matters most to the Egyptian people themselves, millions of whom have waited patiently for hours to cast the first ballot of their lives that actually matters. One rural voter told the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, "We are saying, ‘Here is the will of the people,' and the people's will can stand up to any institution, including the military council." And the council, in fact, has suddenly reversed a policy that would have ensured it a major role in writing a new constitution. The election itself has created a new legitimacy the military government has felt compelled to acknowledge.

But yes, elections aren't democracy: An openly contested and fairly decided election is only a precondition to democracy. The political scientist Larry Diamond has distinguished between "electoral authoritarian" states, which stage meaningless ballots;  "electoral democracies," which grant power to electoral winners but offer few rights and protections to citizens, and "liberal democracies" like the United States. Despite the current hubbub, Russia may remain in the first category for quite some while, while Egypt will probably pass from the first to the second. And there far worse cases: Rabble-rousing leaders like Slobodan Milosevic have used elections to whip populations into a nationalist frenzy or have simply pocketed the results to legitimate a deeply undemocratic rule.

As it happens, I spoke to Obama right before his 2007 speech, and he told me that he had just read, and deeply admired, Fareed Zakaria's book, The Future of Freedom, which argues that states must first pass through a phase of liberalism, in which the rule of law takes root, before they can achieve a meaningful form of democracy. Obama had thus concluded that the United States needed to promote the "foundational freedoms" -- from "want" and from "fear," in FDR's words -- to then create "space for the kind of democratic regime that we want." And at least until the Arab Spring came along, the Obama administration's chastened, post-Bush view of democracy promotion was: economic and institutional development first, elections later.

But countries don't operate according to Hoyle. Sometimes elections -- even failed elections -- have to come first because they provide the liberatory spark that allows people to free themselves from the autocratic grip. Diamond points out that in the sub-category of "competitive electoral authoritarian" states, where elections do involve competing forces, "accidents can happen along the way." One of those states, Venezuela, is holding a presidential election next year, and Diamond believes that "there is better than a 50-50 chance that it will transition to democracy," probably in the wake of a rigged election. The balance of forces in Venezuela are more favorable than they are in Russia, because President Hugo Chávez is less popular, and less effective, than Putin. Also, he may die of cancer beforehand.

There is a small cabal of democracy promoters inside the Obama administration, and they have worked hard, often in the face of stiff opposition, to keep the issue alive. Chief among their number is Michael McFaul, a former academic and the author of Advancing Democracy Abroad. McFaul has been named as the next ambassador to Russia. (The nomination is now before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) Until recently, McFaul's credentials seemed only ironically related to his new post. Now, the welcome wagon of history has deposited a wonderfully apt gift at his doorstep. Let's hope it doesn't blow up when he opens it.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Quid Pro Go

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai wants billions of Western dollars in aid for decades to come. Fine, but not with him in charge.

At the Bonn conference earlier this week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai told Western donors that Afghanistan "will need your steadfast support for at least another decade" --perhaps even until 2030. I propose a deal: The West agrees to stay for the long haul, if Karzai promises to retire from politics before the 2014 election.

It has becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for large-scale civilian assistance in Afghanistan. First, foreign aid has become a victim of budgetary politics. Second, public support for the war is fading fast. Third, American troops will soon begin to withdraw, with all 100,000 of them to be gone in three years if the Obama timeline holds. Fourth, we have far too little to show after spending almost $19 billion in aid there over the last decade. Fifth, on his bad days, President Karzai prefers the Taliban to NATO. And his good days aren't very good either.

In consequence of all that, the Afghan aid budget has been slashed, with spending by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan halved from $4 billion last year -- and it's sure to sink further. Forget 2030, the United States may be a marginal presence by 2015.

Karzai is hardly the only one to blame, though he has been blameworthy enough to make for an excellent scapegoat. President George W. Bush, of course, didn't believe in nation-building -- one of the few mistakes to which he confesses in his memoirs. Much of the civilian assistance under Bush consisted of funds doled out by military commanders to local warlords and to jobs programs designed to keep young men busy building roads and irrigation canals -- at least until the American troops moved on. This created a new, massively corrupt elite, and did nothing to help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet.

Barack Obama tried something very different, endorsing a counterinsurgency strategy in which a large cadre of civilians sought to develop the country's agricultural economy, to build up provincial- and district-level government, to make central ministries more effective and self-sufficient, and to help establish the rule of law. Along with the American civilian presence, the Obama administration vastly ramped up the volume of aid -- supporting the premise of counterinsurgency theory that improving governance will make military gains sustainable, because citizens will ultimately choose the state over the insurgents.

That hasn't happened. A former senior civilian official in Kandahar says to me, "There's more economic activity, more education, improved health outcomes. We thought those would be ingredients of stability, but the total seems to add up to less than the sum of the parts." And a report released in June by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concludes that "the evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited."

So if it's not working, why not just go home? Because, of course, we don't want Afghanistan to become a failed state and thus a nursery and launching pad for al Qaeda and other violent extremists. Okay; but why do we think development assistance will help stave off that prospect? I posed this question to Alex Thier, the director of USAID's office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs. Thier insisted that stabilization "does work under the right conditions," but also pointed out that aid in Afghanistan was succeeding according to other, very important, metrics. According to the just-published Afghanistan Mortality Survey, over the last decade or less, average life expectancy has shot up from 42 to 62 years while maternal and infant mortality have dropped precipitously. Thier also noted that 8 million children are now in school, with over a third of them girls, as opposed to 1 million soon after the war began, with almost no girls. The goal of civilian assistance, said Thier, "is to build a sufficiently resilient Afghan state and Afghan society so these gains will be sustainable." He had just returned from Bonn, and he said that he had been heartened to find "a robust commitment from the international community to continue supporting Afghanistan post-transition."

Thier lived in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was a sharp critic of the Bush administration, and an important source of understanding for journalists like me. I take what he says seriously, though I don't know whether congressional Republicans wielding the budget knife will feel the same way. But even those of us who believe in development assistance have to ask whether the gains Thier describes can survive the withdrawal of U.S. troops. After all, the reason stabilization hasn't worked is that, for all the schools and clinics and irrigation ditches, the Afghan people continue to view their own government as corrupt and unaccountable. When Afghan troops replace U.S. and NATO ones in Kandahar or Helmand, they will be trying to protect a frightened and deeply cynical people, but with much less firepower and professionalism. They may simply be overwhelmed, as the army of South Vietnam was when American troops departed.

By 2014, Afghanistan will not only have very few foreign troops, if any, it will also have vastly less foreign money. According to the World Bank, about 97 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP) derives from spending by the international community. Even if Thier is right about the level of sustained international commitment, in a few years, Afghanistan will be facing a security crisis, a fiscal crisis, and an economic crisis. The country will need not only much better management than it has had so far, it will need a government which the Afghan people actually believe in. The international community has done about as much as could reasonably be expected to increase the Afghan government's feeble capacity to deliver services, and to expand its meager presence at the provincial and district level; but capacity, in the end, is less important than legitimacy and accountability.

And this, of course, is where Hamid Karzai comes in. Critics of the civilian program in Afghanistan suggest a focus on "governance" rather than just on jobs and infrastructure -- on national institutions like the Parliament and the Independent Electoral Commission, and "sub-national" ones like district-level government. The most thoughtful development officials, including those at USAID, have always stressed democratic accountability over capacity. Nor are these hopeless causes; Afghanistan now has a thriving civil society and an increasing number of competent provincial governors. But Karzai has consistently blocked efforts to create checks and balances in Kabul, or to push authority down to the provincial or district level. He has protected corrupt officials and punished those who were foolhardy enough to go after them.

In that fateful year of 2014, Afghanistan will also be holding a national election. The last time I was in the country, this summer, the great fear of Karzai's political opponents was that he would either stand for re-election once again or would rig the process on behalf of one of the warlords with whom he surrounds himself. And that would be a gift to the Taliban of incalculable proportions. It won't do any good to build more schools if Karzai wreaks that kind of havoc.

Thus my proposal. Perhaps it's time for the Harvard Kennedy School to inaugurate the President Hamid Karzai Fellowship -- with President Hamid Karzai as the first beneficiary.