2014: The year we are reminded, yet again, that elections do not always equal democracy


A billboard on a highway near Sebastopol, Ukraine, on March 10 reads "On March 16 we will choose," and shows a map of Crimea with a swastika "or" a map of Crimea with the colors of the Russian flag  (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Back at the start of 2014, the Economist noted something rather special about the year: There were 40 national elections scheduled for the next 12 months. Some 42 percent of the world was due to vote in what the publication said would be a "huge year for democracy" and potentially the largest amount of people voting ever.

Now we're a few months into this year, and it appears that estimate may have been a little low.

For example, this weekend, Crimea will vote on whether it should leave Ukraine and join Russia, and Ukraine itself is scheduled to have a vote May 25. There have been other big developments, too: In Egypt, a new decree was recently adopted that will likely allow Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run in presidential elections, and in Syria, it appears that Bashar al-Assad, aware that his term in office is almost over, appears to have started campaigning for a summer election.

But is this democracy in action, really? Well, not exactly.

Take the case of Crimea. A referendum on sovereignty sounds great on paper: It's clearly a good thing for people to have a direct say in their country's sovereignty. However, the G-7 has said they will see it as illegitimate, and given the scenes we're  seeing on the peninsula, it's hard to disagree with their assessment:

Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.

Russia, of course, feels differently about this, and has compared Crimea's referendum to another referendum on sovereignty due to be held this year, Scotland's vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom.It's an unconvincing argument, however: The Scottish vote is not being held while armed "militia" guard British military bases, has a "no" option, and London has agreed to recognize the results. That's a very different type of referendum.

The election in Egypt raises questions, too, especially since it will likely take place less than a year after a democratically elected government was removed from power by the military. Al-Sisi, the man who led the ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi,  is himself expected to be a front-runner in the elections, and the Islamist group that backed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, is now officially labelled an illegal terrorist organization. The fact that a new Egyptian constitution was voted in with 97.7 percent of the vote back in January has already suggested to some that a fair presidential vote is unlikely.

Even less likely is a fair election in Syria, of course. Assad hasn't left office after almost three years of brutal warfare, more than a 100,000 dead, the alleged use of chemical weapons and threats of intervention from outside powers – and it doesn't seem like he'd leave office if he lost a vote. Add to that the fact that most credible opposition leaders have fled the country, and that Assad has been president since 2000 (and his father president before that from 1970), and the outcome of any election held in Syria begins to look blindingly obvious.

These are far from the only elections this year that look a little dubious. People have raised serious doubts about Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is widely expected to run for president, despite corruption scandals and street protests, and the less said about North Korea's recent election, where Kim Jong Un won with 100 percent of the vote, the better.

There's another article from early this year that is now beginning to look rather prescient. Back in January, Uri Friedman of the Atlantic asked whether the world would grow more authoritarian in 2014, and spoke to Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, who told him that though the quality of elections in the past few years had actually improved, other factors, such as freedom of the press, rule of law and freedom of association, were seeing a decline. It appeared that autocratic regimes were realizing that they could undermine pluralism so much that by the day the election came around, vote rigging wasn't even needed, Puddington explained. "I see no reason to predict a change in that because it's working," he added.

There are plenty of reasons to be glad that so many elections are taking place in 2014, of course; independence referendums in Scotland and Catalonia, for example, plus the fact that 814 million people will be eligible to vote in India. But we should remember that elections are not inherently democratic – and that a lot of elections in 2014 isn't necessarily a good thing.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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