American policymakers love to see purple thumbs in the developing world, especially in countries in which the United States has undertaken “nation-building” projects (read: invasions and occupations). The recent Afghan parliamentary elections are a case in point. Yet elections in the developing world are not usually what they are cracked up to be and can be downright destabilizing.
Many despots in the developing world have realized that the United States is obsessed with exporting democracy to the world (at least on a theoretical basis until U.S. government interests require the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in favor of more pliant puppets – such as in Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Chile). So modern-day autocrats are sophisticated enough to conduct slanted plebiscites that will allow them to show the international media and the U.S. government that they have been “elected.” And as long as such authoritarian regimes’ policies don’t deviate too much from what the United States wants – as they have in Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – the “elected” dictators will be left alone.
President Hamid Karzai would have gotten away with this too in Afghanistan during last year’s presidential election, if there hadn’t been so much blatant fraud. Had Karzai chosen a more sophisticated and subtle way to steal the election, the United States could have looked the other way while its client regime misbehaved. But to have Karzai’s main opponent drop out of the race before the final round because he believed the final vote would be rigged only amplified reports of massive fraud. This election merely made Karzai’s government more illegitimate for many Afghans, increased instability, and worked to the Taliban insurgents’ advantage.
A year later, the same outcome will likely arise from the Afghan election for members of parliament. The recent plebiscite also has been victimized by fraud, intimidation, and violence. Again, the legitimacy of those elected will be undermined and the Taliban will probably gain from the debacle.
In Iraq, elections usually reinforce ethno-sectarian fissures in the country and can last six months or more. In 2005, ethno-sectarian voting in the last parliamentary election destabilized the country and led to a spike in violence. After the election, it took six months for a backroom deal to be cut, bringing the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to power. After an inconclusive election earlier this year, the electoral stalemate has lasted even longer than the marathon deadlock of 2005. Almost no one outside Maliki’s Shi’ite coalition wants him to return to power. His top challenger, Ayad Allawi – who is a former CIA asset, is liked by the Sunni Arabs, and whose coalition won two more seats than Maliki’s – has had no more luck forming a government.
This year’s election flipped Iraqi public opinion on whether the country was headed in the right or wrong direction. In December 2009, according to a poll taken by the International Republican Institute of the National Endowment for Democracy and reported in the New York Times, 51 percent of Iraqis thought the country was headed in the right direction. Another poll by the same organization taken six months later, in June 2010, reflected plummeting public confidence and showed that 59 percent of Iraqis believed the country was headed on the wrong path. The electoral stalemate and continuing violence undoubtedly had much to do with this plunging level of public confidence.
As the American military presence is reduced, many Iraqis feel their politicians are fiddling while Rome – well, Baghdad – burns. Of course, even when the country has a non-caretaker prime minister and a sitting parliament meeting for real (instead of as a charade), important issues that should be addressed – for example, the need for a law governing oil, the potentially explosive status of the city Kirkuk, and reintegrating Sunnis into the Iraqi government and armed forces – are stalemated by all-encompassing ethno-sectarian fissures in the society. Thus, a sense of impending disaster pervades the country – not an irrational feeling on the part of Iraqis.
And U.S. policy is probably making things worse. The United States has been pushing for Maliki and Allawi to form a grand governing coalition, so disaffected losers won’t turn to violence. Yet party leaders, hoping for such a coalition, keep blocking a real session of parliament because they fear its members will vote for someone else. Besides, one could also ask, why have elections in a democracy if everyone wins?
Of course, even if genuine democracy – that is, supremacy of the majority will – were instituted in the developing world (an arduous task), creating liberal democracy is even harder. Avoiding tyranny of the majority by instilling respect for minority and human rights – that is, liberty – is even more important than adopting democracy. We are nowhere close to this state of political nirvana in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in many other developing nations and should stop trying to export such fantasies at gunpoint.