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World: Analysis From Washington -- Entering New Age Of Elections

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 Nov. 2000 (RFE/RL) - Continuing uncertainty about the outcome of the U.S. presidential race, clashes between winners and losers of a vote in Egypt, and an apparently divided outcome in legislative contests in Bosnia underscore the increasingly important role elections play in countries around the world.

More than a week after holding nationwide elections, Americans still do not know who will be their next president. Recounts and legal wrangling in Florida and the overall closeness of both the popular and electoral vote between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore have attracted the attention of the world but not yet yielded a definitive outcome.

At the same time, with 70 percent of the votes counted in Bosnia, a reformist party appears to be winning in the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia while hardliners are winning parliamentary seats in the Serb-ruled areas of that country. Also on Tuesday, at least four people were killed and 40 injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the final round of parliamentary elections there.

The importance of elections and their often difficult and even contradictory outcomes seem certain to increase. In the next six weeks alone, 18 countries around the world are slated to conduct elections with nationwide implications such a presidential election in Romania and a parliamentary vote in Canada. And at least 33 more are to hold such votes in 2001.

Rarely if ever have so many countries conducted elections, and rarely have so many people devoted such close attention to their outcomes. On the one hand, this increase in numbers simply reflects a rise in the number of countries in the world and the need of their leaders to invoke democratic forms in order to legitimize their rule.

But on the other hand, these elections and their impact also have the effect of calling into question some widespread assumptions about the relationship between elections, democracy and stability.

Many people have assumed that elections inevitably and magically translate the will of the people into national policy. In fact, as votes this month show, that process is complicated and may not work in precisely this way. Many people don't bother to vote, something leaders around the world have decried but not yet been able to do much about.

Moreover, the way in which elections are conducted and the actions of those responsible for conducting them can call the results of voting into question. Indeed, both the one and the other may come to be viewed by some in the electorates affected as being part of a conspiracy by one or another party to take control illegitimately. Such charges by themselves have the effect of undermining public confidence in democracy.

Others have assumed that elections alone are a sufficient condition for democracy. But in fact, other conditions are needed as well including the possibility that those out of power can win a majority of the votes and actually take office, sufficient freedom of assembly and the media to allow for campaigns, and popular support for the process as such.

When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, all too many people assumed that holding elections would transform these countries into democracies. Elections there certainly have helped to promote democracy, but in all too many cases, they have been conducted in ways that highlight just how much more these countries will need to do before they can be fairly classed as fully democratic.

And still a third group has assumed that voting will inevitably produce legitimacy and stability. That assumption may be generally valid, but it is certainly far from universally true. If the current returns from Bosnia stand up, elections there may in fact reduce the legitimacy of the common Bosnia state precisely because they will reflect two very different understandings of what it should be.

In addition, if the results are not viewed as legitimate as they may not be by some in the United States, then there is the risk that the election itself may produce a variety of challenges to the existing political order, with some people arguing that they have exhausted democratic possibilities and thus feel themselves free to use non-democratic means to get their way.

Because of these risks, often in countries where no one expected them to occur, the world cannot yet feel confident that it has entered a new democratic age, but it is certainly clear that people around the world are now in the midst of a new age of elections.

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