Comparative democracy and electoral studies have shown that countries can achieve democratisation through elections, but only when the conditions are right, including sufficient institutional and electoral systems reform that allow multi-party democracy to prevail.
This opinion addresses a procedural approach to democracy using elections as the vehicle. This interrogation in my view comes against a background of observations that Zimbabwe is a pseudo-democracy — that is — as political science scholar Larry Diamond defines — a nation with opposition political parties that meets some tenets of electoral democracy such as regular elections but fails to provide a sufficiently fair arena for contestation to allow the ruling party to be taken out of power.
Robert Dahl talks of a procedural minimum of democracy with elections being a central factor. As Charles Lindblom articulates: “The most conspicuous difference between authoritarianism and democratic regimes is that in democratic regimes citizens choose their top policy-makers in genuine elections.”
Lindberg argues that once regular elections become established, certain state officials gain a formally defined role in protecting political rights. Judges, military commanders, police and security officials must then ask themselves whether or not actions friendly to democracy will advance their future institutional status, individual careers and overall prominence, it is argued.
In competitive electoral authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe, elections are a means by which the regime tries to reproduce itself. Under this scenario, the electoral context, environment and administration are crafted to deliver a pre-determined outcome of regime retention and continuity.
Despite the disputed nature of previous elections in Zimbabwe managed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and its predecessor the Electoral Supervisory Commission, surveys by Afro-barometer, Freedom House and the Mass Public Opinion Institute show that Zimbabweans still prefer elections as a way to choose their political leaders. In 2004, 75% of those surveyed preferred elections as a means whereas in 2005 about 74% preferred the same and the figure increased to 90% in 2009, 2010 and 2102.
One leading scholar of democratic processes Joseph Schumpeter affirms that a state is governed democratically if governmental office is allocated on the basis of competitive popular elections.
Schumpeter postulates that the idea of administering credible polls that offer citizens varied choices in an environment where civil liberties are not obstructed are characteristics that all democracies have in common and that non-democratic forms of government lack and aspire to have.
Schumpeter is also cognisant of the different understandings of democracy by other scholars, but he claims that those conceptions were either ultimately incoherent or else wholly unrealistic in that … the democratic method is that institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.
In discussing procedural democracy, Samuel Huntington argues that elections can be perceived as a barometer for defining democracy. In his view, democracy might be understood as a means of constituting authority and of making it responsible.
A modern state, observes Huntington, could be perceived as having a democratic political system if its most powerful political officers are chosen through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes in a system that allows universal suffrage:
According to this definition, elections are the essence of democracy. From this follow other characteristics of democratic systems. Free, fair and competitive elections are only possible if there are some measure of freedom of speech, assembly, and press, and if opposition candidates and parties are able to criticise incumbents without fear of retaliation.
What is posited above is important, but elections alone cannot adequately define the elusive concept of democracy. In trying to answer this riddle, Larry Diamond has elaborated a key distinction between liberal and electoral democracies.
Liberal democracies do not only have elections. Diamond argues that all liberal democracies have restrictions on the power of the executive, independent judiciaries to uphold the rule of law; protect individual rights and freedoms of expression, association, belief and participation, consideration of minority rights, limits on the ability of the ruling party to influence the electoral process, effective guarantees against arbitrary arrest; and minimum state control of the media.
Most electoral democracies lack these safeguards. However, both the structure and process of elections, the former being the organisational infrastructure for managing elections and the latter, the precepts and procedures of elections, remain largely perverted.
Election rigging and brigandage, violence and election annulment are common practices. The trend is towards a reversal to the old order of despotic political rulership under the guise of civil governance.
Elections in their current form in most African states appear to be a fading shadow of democracy, endangering the fragile democratic project itself.
It is argued that democratic elections are the sole legitimate basis for authority for a representative government and cities. Therefore the holding of regular free, fair and credible elections is an important tool for conflict prevention, conflict management and conflict resolution.
The challenge with Zimbabwe and its dominant party system impacts on elections in that it has led to exclusive control of the legislative process; water-tight party structure interspersed with all social, economic and political structures and processes in the country; a partisan army; full control of media; control of youth organisations; party intrusion into national economic enterprises; lack of a clear-cut distinction between institutions, processes and properties of the state from those of the party.
African countries must turn elections into a developmental asset that would add its weight to the much awaited and much-needed convergence of Africa’s two decisive resource bases, argues Zimbabwean academic Edmore Kambudzi. Kambudzi further observes that elections must act as a mechanism for an orderly access to power or exit from it, not a recipe for chaos.
It has been argued that African elections are, in simple terms, window-dressing rituals with no real political meaning other than the stuffing of the ballot boxes behind closed doors. They are just administrative formalities which have become standard signs of good conduct adopted by African governments to Western states and international institutions on which they are financially and politically dependent.
In his analysis of electoral commissions in Africa, Robert Pastor points out that whether “an election is a source of peaceful change or a cause of serious instability” mainly depends on the character, competence and composition of a number of institutions.
All things considered, the most important institution is the electoral commission, which is the permanently functioning institution charged with the task of preparing and conducting elections.
Institutions such as the electoral commission ought to be “independent, competent and perceived as completely fair by all the candidates and parties participating in the [electoral] process”.
Furthermore, the electoral commission’s standing will depend on its ability, including resources and real legal prerogative, to impartially handle election-related complaints and effectively redress irregularities, thus effectively facilitating the resolution of a Kenya-like electoral dispute which can easily speed out of control.
Addressing both substantive and procedural aspects of democracy with elections as the signifier of democratic processes of regime renewal or removal is critical in transitional societies. Electoral processes therefore should not be taken as rituals for regime retention but should facilitate democratic governance renewal premised on the rule of law.
In the case of Zimbabwe, the administration, content and context under which elections are held should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in order to foster peace and development in the country especially at a time when the political economy of the state has shifted fundamentally for the past 15 years and is marked by seismic informalisation. A democratic electoral process whose outcomes have limited contestations could assist to foster a healthy relationship between agency, institutions and the structures of the state