Elections are Great but Not Without Limits



As Nigerians go to the poll, there is a national urgency on voting. The rhyme everywhere is that voting is everything. But the reason is that it is not so. Good elections have tremendous value. But it does not really guarantee that your economy grows, or that you reduce economic and political deprivation. While we work hard to institutional elections, we need to be wary of election fetishism.

Of course, there is good reason to talk up the importance of voting. Elections are now the heart of democracy. We have settled on electoral democracy in the complexities and incommensurability of human society. Democracy is about people ruling themselves. In Greek city state, Athens, it is possible for adult men to gather at the Agora to make laws. Each also takes turns to adjudicate at the imperium. It is reported that the longest time anyone acted as leader was less than a few hours. It was an absolute democracy minus the slaves, women and children who had no say in the affairs of the state. But today, in a complex society with long distance where personal deliberation is no longer possible, we resort to sending delegates who speak for the rest of us. The mythology is that these delegates are authorised by us and continually represent our best interests.

But the reality is far from the myth. We know that the process of choosing our representatives is so convoluted, elitist and corrupt that there is basically no guarantee that any of the representatives speaks for us or cares much about what we think about the issues of the day. Besides, there are many of us with diverse interests and bounded and incommensurable rationalities such that our representatives do not need to represent us well to have a career in politics. They can always get elected to the modern agora if they know how to play the game, the game of harvesting votes.

So, voting does not purchase for us what we desire most: ability to rule ourselves through choosing the laws and policies we want. That is the reason we talk about ‘democracy deficiency’ in representative democracy. This means that although it is called democracy, it is not truly democratic because the people have limited opportunity to determine what the state does. The processes and mechanisms of representation are such that the people may not have meaningful engagement with their representatives, creating room for special interests to flourish. Furthermore, the procedures of electoral democracy make it difficult for the people to really get engaged with governance. This is the reason reputed political economist, Joseph Schumpeter, argues that democracy simply requires that we choose those who will govern, and then keep off. Thereafter, it becomes their responsibility, not ours, to make the rules and implement policies.

But notwithstanding these failings, we still love electoral democracy. We have fought hard to win the right of all adults to periodically vote those who will lead our country. So, there must be something about elections that make them very popular and highly desired. First, elections, no matter how flawed, act as a pressure on leaders to respond to the people. Election is a response mechanism in public administration. Because elections come up regularly, leaders, no matter how irresponsive and authoritarian, find a way to win them. As leading political scientist, Adam Przeworski, puts it, dictators conduct sham elections because even if they are dictators, they still need election for legitimacy. Otherwise, why would Putin ever bother to organise his shambolic elections. He still needs election to falsely show off legitimacy. So, elections lead to a sort of responsiveness, even in a dictatorship. Responsiveness is so important that Robert Dahl ended up defining democracy as a system of government that enables “the continuing responsiveness of government to the preferences of its citizens”.

Even if electoral democracy does not guarantee us self-determination in the manner that popular democracy promises, we still care about it because it is an effective conflict resolution mechanism.  Przeworski argues that elections matter because they provide the best conflict resolution mechanism. Through elections the most fundamental question of a society, who rules, is resolved. The most important features of a conflict resolution mechanism are legitimacy and effectiveness. Election are legitimate and effective means of determining who gets to exercise political authority in a society.

The verity of election as a conflict resolution mechanism depends on its design and management. If elections are credible and effective, it does not matter who wins, they will be effective as a mechanism for enabling ‘continuing responsiveness of government to the preferences of its citizens” and for managing conflicts about who gets to make laws and execute them. The credibility of an electoral process may be the secret of representative democracy. Perhaps, more attention should shift towards designing and managing credible electoral process than more wishful thoughts about the idealism of democracy as a system of self-rule. We see from the verities of democracy across the world that ultimately it is factors outside the electoral process that determine whether electoral democracy returns value in terms of political freedom and economic development.

Elections by themselves do not guarantee economic development. Although there is empirical evidence that significant political freedom and openness contribute to sustained economic growth, it is not necessarily the fact of periodic election that guarantees the outperformance of democracies over autocracies.  It is more the quality of institutions and the effective guarantee of freedom that give democracy the bragging right over autocracy. Election by themselves may not incentivize productivity nor converge incentives. But if well-managed, periodic elections create the relevant consensus for civil behaviour that conduces to stability. If elections are competitive, they induce responsiveness of the political class to the people, which results in optimization of resources for common good.

So, the most important work for development in the continent may not be looking for transformative leaders, as much as it is about ensuring that the electoral process is credible and effective to ensure free and fair elections in truly competitive environment. That inevitably requires high degree of political and economic freedoms. In matter of election, process is more important than outcome. If there is a good chance of being defeated because process is fair and competitive, the incumbent has good incentives to invest in development rather than in predation.

So, votes ultimately counts only when they are cast in a politically free society. Creating the environment that ensures that there is freedom of expression, freedom of the press, rough economic equality and a rule of law society will make elections fair and competitive. And when elections are free and fair, then you have the possibility that politicians can be pressured to focus on the people and their problems.  This means that the ultimate outcomes of elections depend on other things different from election.   

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