When democracy is reduced to elections

Fri, 8 Jul 2011 Source: Ablorh, Raymond


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, how

ever you define; describe; explain; and, interpret democracy; it’s more of a means

to an end than an end in itself.


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, 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 appearance from taps in many parts of Ghana even on

the 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

government needs to do is remind 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, 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 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.”

Raymond Ablorh

Writer’s email: raydelove@yahoo.co.uk

Columnist: Ablorh, Raymond