Much of the same can be said of Venezuela, where incumbent Hugo Chávez achieved a convincing win in October's presidential election. Venezuela does differ from Russia in that it boasts a convincing and well-organized opposition movement, led in the election by upstart governor Henrique Capriles. But however free Venezuela's brand of democracy may look, it's a long way from fair.
Like his Russian counterpart, Chávez has used the perks of office to leverage the Venezuelan state to preserve his power. Over his 14 years in office he has extended his influence to institutions ranging from the courts to the oil industry. Author Will Dobson, writing in his fine book The Dictator's Learning Curve, captures the problem concisely: "‘Election day is not a problem,' a former member of the national electoral council [in Venezuela] told me. ‘All the damage -- the use of money, goods, excess power, communications -- happens beforehand.'" This capture of the state by the forces of chavismo has far-reaching consequences. As a result, even the prospect of the commandante's death from cancer -- a possibility now being widely discussed -- doesn't mean that democracy is destined to break out.
Elections don't necessarily democratize society even when they're conducted according to democratic rules. The parliamentary vote in Georgia this past autumn was hailed as a milestone in that country's progress when President Mikheil Saakashvili gracefully conceded his party's loss to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. But the achievement of that first peaceful transition of power in the country's history was tarnished when Ivanishvili quickly moved to order the arrest of a series of Saakashvili's political allies -- a move seen by some observers as a risky act of political revenge. Here's hoping that Georgia can overcome that friction and move forward to a stable liberal order.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has used its post-Arab Spring victory in parliamentary and presidential elections to impose its own political vision on society by centralizing power in the presidency and drawing up a constitution that enshrines an Islamic government. This is to mistake majoritarianism for democracy: Winning most of the votes doesn't give you carte blanche to run roughshod over the rights of those who didn't cast their ballots for you. What about the 10 percent of Egyptians who happen to be Coptic Christians -- or the even larger group who simply prefer a secular state? One can only hope that 2013 will see the different factions in Egyptian society work out a way to return to a shared political ethos. If they can't, disaster likely lies ahead -- elections or not.
It's also important to remember that voting isn't supposed to be an end unto itself. Democracy is also supposed to ensure good governance. Voters expect the politicians they elect to deliver on their promises of an improved society. But so far it doesn't seem to have worked out that way for Tunisians, who had the privilege of electing a new government in 2011 after their own Arab Spring uprising, but then spent much of the past year protesting in large numbers over that same government's failure to boost the economy. Libya's 2012 parliamentary election surprised many observers by delivering a solid majority to secular parties rather than Islamist ones. Yet real power remains in the hands of countless militias, who represent a considerable threat to the consolidation of democracy.
And yet, despite all these caveats, it's still true that there's nothing like a genuine free vote in a former tyranny to make one's spirit soar. The parliamentary by-election won by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the other members of her opposition National League of Democracy last spring gave them only a negligible presence in Burma's national assembly -- yet that result still represented a tremendous moral and political victory for the forces of freedom. Burma still faces a long uphill climb in its journey towards an open society; the country's profound poverty and the recent outburst of ethnic violence attest to that. At least its leaders appear to have recognized that the old authoritarian system has outlived its usefulness.