Democratization by elections?

Singapore Democrats

The Singapore Democrats have been making the case that with the electoral process the way it is, it would be difficult to achieve democratic reform merely by taking part in elections. Effort must also be made to reclaim our fundamental liberties especially our freedom of speech and assembly.

A recent study by political scientists reinforce the SDP’s views. Dr Ellen Lust from Yale University published a paper in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy (July 2009) in which she concluded that without fundamental changes to the political system “democracy promotion through elections will have little impact.“Although the study focused on the Middle East, readers will note that the situation is highly similar and has great relevance to Singapore’s. We reproduce excerpts of Dr Lust’s article here. 

Prospects for Democratization
Ellen Lust
Journal of Democracy

Elections in authoritarian regimes not only fail to push the transition process forward, but tend to strengthen the incumbent regime. They create political dynamics that undermine public support for institutions and individuals associated with democracy.

They also provide a more efficient mechanism of patronage distribution, allowing incumbents to remain in power at a lower cost. Only in the presence of economic or political crisis are these elections likely to serve as a catalyst for democratization.

Elections based on the logic of competitive clientelism – competition between establishment individuals/groups over privileged access to state resources that they can then distribute to their clients/supporters – foster public disillusionment with democratic institutions.

Citizens develop a cynical view of parliament, seeing parliamentarians as privileged pawns, willingly supporting the regime’s policies in return for personal enrichment, or at best as ineffective.

Opposition elites who do run in elections, and particularly the few who win seats, are often viewed as having been coopted by the regime. Unable to make policy, they become part of the patronage network, providing selective benefits to their consitituents.

Similarly, elections in hegemonic authoritarian regimes tend to weaken political parties and undermine opposition leaders. Parties come to be seen as personalistic cliques, focused on their own interests.

Citizens also view parties as unable to field candidates effectively or influence government.

Not surprisingly, then, citizens choose not to join political parties.

As a result of weak support, political parties tend to splinter into even weaker offshoots. Activists understand that most voters cast their ballors based on a candidate’s profile, not his or her party affiliation. Thus disgruntled party members find it easy to leave and form a new party since the party label is of little value in the first place and most parties have minimal funding.

An important exception to this rule appear to be Islamist parties, which control significant resources. More frequently, however, weak parties become weaker and even less effective through a series of splits and splinters.

By allowing elites an oppoortunity to vie over access to state resources, elections not only help to undermine prodemocratic forces but also provide an efficient mechanism for distributing patronage.

The frequency of legislative turnover gives those who have failed to win a seat the hope that they might win in the future. As such, elections also can help the party in power to coopt potential counterelites.

This analysis suggests that we should be cautious in expecting that legislative elections will foster democratization in Middle East. They may but they can yield real change only if circumstances on the ground are altered in ways that would affect voters’ and potential candidates’ decision making.

Supporters of democracy should thus focus on changing the overall playing field rather than just the electoral process.

Elections under authoritatian regimes may also lead to democratization when the legislature’s power are expanded vis-a-vis the executive. This is a tall order, and particularly unlikely in the absence of domestic crises or external pressure.

To the extent that external forces can apply pressure for change, however, it should be aimed at expanding the legislature’s powers as well as improving election procedures. To be successful, parliamentary-strengthening projects must enhance parliament’s ability to make policy and to hold the executive accountablle.

Such improvement should turn voters’ attention to candidates’ policy preferences, strengthen political parties, and boost the possibility of democratic change.

Enhancing transparency and the rule of law, and developing en economic sphere that is independent of the state would also increase the possibility of democratization.

With increased transparency, voters would no longer be so dependent on personal ties to obtain resources, and with the development of a private sector truly independent of the state, they would rely less upon state resources in the first place.

Voters could then focus on candidates’ policy position and vote for those who best represent their interests, and opposition candidates would see a greater chance of winning and thus be more willing to enter the fray.

Of course, these not easy changes to effect. Authoritarian elites recognize that increased transparency undermines their authority, and can be expected to resist strongly.

They also understand the political advantages of controlling the country’s wealth, and even amid the process of economic liberalization they have found ways to maintain high levels of state control over the private economy.

In the absence of such changes, however, elections can be expected to help bolster authoritarian regimes, and democracy promotion through elections will have little impact.

Ellen Lust is associaste professor of political science at Yale University. She is the coeditor of Political Participation in the Middle East (2008) and author of Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions (2005). 


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