Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century

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November 1, 2016
by Matt Raab

In August 2016, Professor Irfan Nooruddin, Hamid bin Khalifa Professor of Indian Politics in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, and Professor Thomas Flores of George Mason University published Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century. The book, a comprehensive look at the trends that have defined elections and democracy-building in the past 30 years, was presented in a talk at the Mortara Center on October 24, 2016.

The impetus for the work came from the authors’ prior experience with the subject and recognition of current themes in policymaking and academia.

“Irfan and I have spent a long time thinking about lessons of democratization in hard times, in hard places,” Flores said. Policymakers are doing “a lot of hand-wringing and pessimism about the state of democracy in the world today.”

Nooruddin and Flores both highlighted two works to trace what they see as the evolution of perceptions of democracy-building in the developing world. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his book, The End of History and the Last of Man, predicated on a decisive, successful trend towards liberal democracy around the world. 25 years later, Jared Diamond published “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession,” postulating that a 10 year democratic recession stretched back to 2004, only 15 years after Fukuyama’s democratic optimism.

“Irfan and I are still struck about our ability to be so high and then so low on the state of democracy,” Flores said.

In Elections in Hard Times, the authors examine that change in the context of the “electoral boom” of the late 1980s and 1990s.

“If you look back to 1989, before 1988, the beginning of the electoral boom, about one in ten countries [in the developing world] was holding a competitive election for the office of chief executive,” Flores said. “Since 1988, one in five holds a competitive election for a chief executive every year. That’s a gigantic change.”

That boom – an expansion of democracy – has made the average country holding an election less experienced in democratic processes than ever before.

elections-in-hard-times“The democratic recession that Diamond and others have documented is in many ways a consequence of the same electoral boom that 25 years before they were lauding,” Nooruddin said.

The problem does not lie specifically within the elections, however. The authors explained that the inexperience of newly democratic countries is most problematic in the years after an election, where countries–particularly those in the midst of or emerging from conflict–have frequently found themselves stagnating.

“Elections have gotten higher quality but if you look at what we’ve called the democratic dividend, measured as the change in democracy scores five years after the election, there is very little bang for the buck. The only place you see bang for your buck is if you measure for the next year [after the election],” Nooruddin said. “What good elections do, is they increase a window during which possibly you can consolidate gains … But in the absence of having the right structural conditions, that window closes very, very quickly.”

Countries involved in the “electoral boom” have not been making democratic gains in the years after elections. The authors identified several reasons behind this problem, including a lack of fiscal space for government officials to implement policies and the spectre of conflict, which is present in many of these countries.

“Leaders have to run for reelection, so the question then is you elect a leader in election one, and in five years we want them to run for reelection. What is the basis on which you run for that reelection? You cannot mount a campaign based on your public policy in a state that lacks the fiscal capacity to enact public policy, that often lacks the political institutions with which you implement that policy,” Nooruddin said. “Instead what he does therefore do is a recourse to identity politics, leveraging ethnic and clan rivalries, religious images, cast images.”

“Instead of thinking about good and bad democrats, that Hamid Karzai is different from George Washington, that maybe the difference isn’t so simple, and that if George Washington had been president of Afghanistan in 2004, he might have had a very difficult time running an ethical public policy agenda in a society beset with all the problems that Afghanistan in 2004 had,” Nooruddin said. 

By shifting focus to the years between elections, researchers and policymakers could more effectively shore up democracy. For governments that provide international aid, restructuring that aid could make a difference.

“We tend to focus our democracy and governance aid on election years, and instead of engaging in this political cycle of large outlays in the election year and declining outlays in between we should be thinking about keeping that aid a little more constant,” Flores said.

In highlighting the evolution of democracy’s effects on societies across the electoral boom, Nooruddin and Flores hope to demonstrate the importance of considering factors like conflict and local policy implementation to accurately assess failures and find solutions. Examining the strength of democracies between elections provides a fuller picture of how the developing world’s experience with democracy will continue to unfold.

Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century, by Thomas Flores and Irfan Nooruddin, is available from the Cambridge University Press here.