Paul Collier -- Five myths about elections' power to change nations

By Paul Collier
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The United States has invested heavily in promoting free elections around the world, with the expectation that they in turn will promote legitimate governments and democratic ideals. It hasn't always worked out that way -- not in Iraq, not in the Palestinian territories and not, most recently, in Afghanistan. Dispelling some common myths about what elections can and cannot do in emerging democracies will help us face more realistically the difference between a ballot box and a magic bullet.

1. Elections usually produce legitimate governments.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, elections became an emblem of modernization: Dictators everywhere agreed to hold them. A few of the more naive rulers, such as President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, were ousted in honest elections, having believed their own propaganda about their popularity. But many realized it was possible to adhere to form without substance. When my colleague Anke Hoeffler and I studied data on 786 elections in 155 countries from 1974 to 2004, we found that fraud may have affected the results in 41 percent of them. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, since incumbent politicians who cheat to get reelected stay in office 2.5 times longer than they would have playing it fair and square. These sham elections do not fool the citizens, who view the resulting governments as illegitimate and do not hold the "elected" officials accountable.

2. The democratic process promotes peace.

We so want to believe that elections foster peace that we assume it must be true. Unfortunately, the effect of democracy on the risk of political violence depends on a country's income. Above $2,700 per capita, democracies are less prone to violence than are autocracies. But most political violence happens in countries where income is far below that threshold; there, democracy is associated with a greater risk of bloodshed.

In recent years, elections have served as a de facto exit strategy for peacekeepers after a conflict has ended. The theory has evidently been that by establishing a legitimate and accountable government, a democratic election reduces the likelihood of continuing turmoil. But my research found that, although the risk of violence falls in the year before an election, it rises in the year after. This makes a certain sense, because in the run-up to balloting, efforts to gain power are diverted into politics; after a vote there is a winner who no longer feels pressure to govern inclusively and a loser who regards the outcome as fraudulent.

3. Fair elections can happen everywhere.

The apparent success of democratization in post-Soviet Eastern Europe helped persuade the international community that elections would work anywhere; all that was necessary was to topple the dictators. But evidence of stolen elections among the new democracies challenged that assumption. My research shows that election misconduct tends to be concentrated in countries that have low per capita incomes, small populations, rich natural resources and a lack of institutional checks and balances. Eastern Europe didn't fit this picture because its population was already in the middle-income range, it was not resource-rich, and it had the advantage of prior democratic experience. Most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, however, have all the characteristics that undermine elections, giving them a mere 3 percent chance of an honest vote, according to my calculations. By this measure, Afghanistan is not exceptional; in fact, electoral misconduct there was almost inevitable.

4. Elections compel new democratic governments to overspend, worsening economic policies and performance.

When I investigated elections' effect on economic policy in newly democratic countries, I found that populist pressure does cause policies to deteriorate somewhat in the year before an election. They certainly did in Ghana in 2008. But governments that face frequent elections have significantly better economic policies when they are averaged over the political cycle, and governments that become subject to elections improve their policies.

Unfortunately, there is a caveat: Elections in which there is misconduct have, at best, no effect on economic policy because governments are off the hook of accountability. For example, President Robert Mugabe chose to wreck the Zimbabwean economy precisely when he was facing contested elections. His policies were not even populist; he simply relied on fraud and intimidation to establish policies that benefited only a tiny political elite.

5. We can't do anything about electoral misconduct.

If 41 percent of elections aren't conducted fairly, disconnecting governments from true accountability, there is a problem. But the international community can take steps to help solve it. One of the main ways incumbents steal elections is through patronage financed by looting the public purse, as President Daniel arap Moi did in Kenya. So countries, such as the United States, that provide financing for democratic elections should make their aid conditional upon the government's being both transparent and accountable to its citizens in its budget processes.

Beyond that, supporting governments can provide high-powered incentives for incumbents to keep elections honest. What incumbents fear most is not losing an election, but being overthrown by their own military. When the international community can protect a government from such a threat, it should do so, conditional upon the election being properly conducted. For example, the ousting of the properly elected president of Madagascar in 2008 by a coup could have been averted by prompt international military action. Ultimately, transparent budgets and security guarantees might be enough to nudge these elections closer to our democratic ideal.

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University and the author of "Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places."

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