When democracy is reduced to elections

Voting Armanie File photo

Mon, 10 May 2021 Source: Raymond Ablorh

As Hoffman pointed out, democracy is the most discussed and contested notion of political theory. Nwabueze stressed that “no word is more susceptible to a variety of tendentious interpretations than democracy.”

But, however you define; describe; explain; and, interpret democracy; it’s more of a means to an end than an end in itself.

It is a mixture of liberties, choices and responsibilities towards the actualization of the dreams and aspirations of a people with diverse and common interests. The end to which democracy is considered a means, thus, is the meaningful development of those who practise it.

And, elections are platforms in democracies which offer the opportunity for citizens to choose freely from among varied programmes or policies presented by several parties or candidates. Elections are governed by law, both international (human rights) and domestic law. In international law, the right to vote is a political right entrenched in a number of legal instruments. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”

This right is supported by the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Although the UDHR is a UN General Assembly resolution and not binding per se, it can be argued that its acceptance by the overwhelming majority of UN member states has made it binding as part of customary international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is a treaty binding on states parties, also entitles every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs of his or her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives, to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

The right to vote and to be elected thus is entrenched in almost all modern Constitutions and electoral laws enacted to enforce them. On the domestic level, there is no single African country where the Constitution does not provide for the right of ‘every’ citizen to vote during regular, free and fair elections even though electoral politics has taught otherwise.

Elections have become a political game, but a game that has to be played according to some agreed rules and principles entrenched in the Constitution and electoral laws. Certainly, democracy and election aren’t synonyms.

Mathematically speaking, the election is a subset of democracy; or, democracy is a universal set of election and other democratic activities. The choices that are made during elections are therefore supposed to be executed through the effective participation of all citizens towards the ultimate purpose for which they were made.

The ultimate purpose is development. Unfortunately, as Claude Ake critically observed, “in the hurry to globalise democracy in the aftermath of the ending of the Cold War, democracy was reduced to the crude simplicity of multiparty elections to the benefit of some of the world’s most notorious autocrats who were able to parade democratic credentials without reforming their repressive regimes.”

Africa is now obviously suffering from the careless propagation of this jaundiced democracy. One needn’t be a critical observer to see how African countries, including Ghana- the much-praised for her democratic credentials, have reduced the whole essence of democracy to mere elections.

In Egypt President Mubarak had been always re-elected by majority votes for successive terms on four occasions: in 1987, 1993, 1999 and later in 2005. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali had been re-elected in 2009, for a fifth term with 89% of the vote under undemocratic conditions of gross human rights violations.

Ivory Coast is another example of the danger of a country that has focused its major efforts on conducting an election than building democracy. In Ivory Coast in particular, the United Nations devoted a lot of resources to organizing an election in conditions that everybody knew could not guarantee a free and fair election. And, we all saw what happened. Of course, in Africa’s desert of democracy, Ghana is genuinely seen as the oasis of hope mainly because she has been able to organize elections for the past two decades without very heavy bloodshed.

But, could Ghanaians say that our democracy has made our education system; judicial system; health system; and all other systems better? In the abundance of water, Ghanaians are thirsty. The rainy season comes with preventable floods which wash away many families with their properties; but, just open the taps in many parts of the country and if you’re lucky enough the water company's whistle in the pipelines will funnily, if not annoyingly blow you some sounds and air. Not a single atom of water makes an appearance from taps in many parts of Ghana even on World Water Day. Yes, we enjoy freedom of speech.

But, for what are we using it? Perhaps, to trade rumors; and, insult one another instead of trading ideas in the supermarket of thoughts which democracy is supposed to provide towards the solution search to our seemingly insurmountable problems. Just after one successful election, harsh latent campaigns for the next seriously begins with accusations and counter-accusations; name-calling; rumour-mongering; unconstructive propaganda laden communication, etc, instead of coming together to ensure the efficient execution of the policy choices we have made towards the actualization of the dreams and aspirations of our people.

All what opponents of the government needs to do is remind the government of the next election date to stop them from taking and implementing drastic decisions even when such decisions are in the best interest of the nation. In essence, for fear of offending the electorates our governments are unable to dress and heal the rotten sores of the nation.

It’s no secret that just before the 2004 and 2008 general elections in Ghana, street hawkers who the Accra Metropolitan Authority had spent so much resource to clear off the streets for sanitary and other good reasons were allowed to come back to the streets because of obvious fears that they would vote against the party in government. Our governments are unable to complete projects commenced by their predecessors, not because the projects are not useful, but, partly because they have to embark on new projects otherwise their opponents would campaign against them for having done nothing new.

The consequence is that they continue to waste the nation’s resources on partly completed projects thereby making the rich but poor country an unenviable owner of “monuments of waste” to borrow Kofi Akordor’s expression.

According to the results of the Legatum Prosperity Index (2010), which is a global Index of wealth and well-being, Ghana ranks 90 out of the 110 countries assessed; and, 4th in sub-Saharan Africa; while the UNDP Human Development Index (2010) positions Ghana at 130 out of the 169 countries assessed and 8th in Sub-Sahara Africa; and the World Economic Forum Competitive Index places Ghana at 114 out of the 139 countries assessed and 12th in Africa.

Our economic /social prosperity story is thus depressing. The Legatum Index mentions education, health, entrepreneurship and opportunity, our economy and finally the level of our social capital as the biggest drawbacks to the prosperity of Ghana. As of 2010, the unemployment rate was 28.4%, the fifth-highest rate in the Legatum Index. A research exercise in 2009 also suggests that Ghana is among the bottom 15 countries in terms of affordability of adequate food and shelter.

Only one-third of Ghanaians are satisfied with standards of life and less than a fifth believe that there exist good job opportunities. The country is hugely reliant on the export of unprocessed materials and high-tech exports constitute on average a mere 1.4% of total manufactured goods. High fiscal deficits and the build-up of significant debt constantly threatens macroeconomic stability.

Furthermore, only 74% of eligible children are actually enrolled in primary school. The ratio drops to 54% for secondary school. Even bleaker is the fact that gross tertiary enrollment is 6%. The result is a marginally educated workforce; the average worker has only one year of secondary education and just 0.1 years of tertiary education.

In the Ghana Living Standards Survey (2008 edition), the Ghana Statistical Service reported that about 31% of all adults have never been to school, less than one-fifth (17.1%) attended school but did not obtain any qualifications; while a small percentage of 13.6 possess secondary or higher qualification. How do we expect the average worker to contribute to GDP growth when he/she just doesn’t have the requisite skills? Ghana’s rate of undernourishment is above the global average of 13.5%. Annual health spending per capital is just $122; 92nd lowest in the Legatum Index.

Yes, when democracy is reduced to elections, it produces unnecessary political rivalry, animosity, name-calling, dirty propaganda, corruption and the violent conflicts we see in Africa today; and, not the meaningful development true democracy promises. Certainly, I can’t embrace Mitchell and Booth “anti-electoralist fallacy” thesis, which assumes that elections never matter for democratization; because, in our modern era, you can have elections without democracy, but you cannot have democracy without elections.

However, I vehemently agree to Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s argument that, “it would be too simplistic to identify democracy with the holding of elections since the question of democracy goes far beyond elections to the realisation of democratic principles of governance and the balance of social forces in the political community.”

Writer’s email: raydelove@yahoo.co.uk

This article was first published on July 8, 2011.

Columnist: Raymond Ablorh