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Q&A: Stanford’s Stephen Stedman on democracy’s surge and the growing need for elections with integrity

Stanford News, Stanford University (US)
Why honest elections matter…


Stanford political scientist Stephen Stedman is working with 12 big names in the diplomatic arena – including Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – to convince and remind developing and well-established nations why honest elections matter for democracy, security, human rights and development.

He was recently named director of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, a panel founded by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and the Kofi Annan Foundation, created by the former United Nations secretary-general. The commission plans to issue a report and recommendations for ensuring credible elections in late 2012.

Stedman, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and its Center for International Security and Cooperation, spoke with the Stanford News Service about the commission and democracy’s rise around the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, more than 50 countries have moved from authoritarian to democratic governments. With such a surge in democracy during the past two decades, why is there now a need to form a commission that focuses on election integrity?

On one hand, this has been an incredible boom time for democracy. But despite this growth period, I suspect the next 10 to 20 years will be one of the great tests for democracy. You’re already seeing some slippage. Freedom House, which scores democracies, put the high-water mark at 123 democracies in 2005. Their 2011 report has it down to 116. That’s worrisome.

Even more worrisome are the rise of China and the possible attractiveness of an authoritarian model for developing countries. There’s the chance that China’s weight and influence in parts of the developing world will marginalize the influence of Western donors who have traditionally played a key role in the democratic agenda.

What do the new democracies look like, and what concerns do they raise?

Since 1990, many of the countries that have become democratic have been among the poorest in the world. And many of them are prone to violence and very unstable. It’s understandable – if you don’t have a thriving market economy, your opportunities for rewards and resources come through the state. And the state itself is often weak and can’t enforce the rule of law and the various protections that go into holding credible elections. Elections then are often zero-sum struggles over limited resources.

The founders of the commission are very worried about the intersection of elections and violence. They’re worried about what happened in Kenya in 2007, what happened in Zimbabwe in 2008 and what happened in Cote d’Ivoire recently, where the losers of elections try to extort power-sharing by the use of violence. Over the next year or so, there’s going to be 18 national elections in Africa. You can imagine if the losing side decides their best strategy is to do what [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe did, or what  [former Cote d’Ivoire president Laurent] Gbagbo did.

How do you see democracy and fair elections unfolding in light of the political upheaval throughout the Middle East?

That’s a big worry to many experts. A lot goes into holding credible, competitive elections. There’s a worry that there will be a rush to elections without the groundwork necessary to ensure their integrity. In Egypt, many are concerned that if elections are held too quickly, there will be insufficient time for competitive parties to organize. If things go off track, you’ll have a flawed election that lacks credibility or legitimacy. Or you might see the triumph of a party with little commitment to democracy with the result of  “one person, one vote, one time.”

What role can the commission play in ensuring that stability and democracy take root beyond international election days?

The value of the commission is political. These are very prominent personalities with access at the highest levels to governments and intergovernmental organizations. Part of the role of the commission is to make a compelling case for why the integrity of elections matters for governments and international organizations and why credible elections are necessary for democracy, security, development, rule of law – things that people say they actually care about. You have to make a persuasive case that you can’t be expedient when it comes to elections. There’s a price to pay every time you tolerate flawed and corrupt elections.

What are the commission members’ goals?

They want to lessen the potential for abuse and raise the costs for those who want to steal or rig elections. They want to develop the professional conduct of elections and the national capacity for countries themselves to conduct credible elections. Thirdly, they want to develop international commitment to stand firm when incumbents try to steal elections or losers of elections use violence to  extort power-sharing deals.

Why are democracies in North Africa and the Middle East so important to America’s interests?

What happens in those regions is very much going to affect the strategic interests of the United States. You’re already in a situation where the United States is winding down a war in Iraq, and hopes to be able to do so in Afghanistan. But now it’s engaged militarily in Libya. It is committed to trying to make peace between Israel and Palestine, so it needs neighbors who are stable and supportive of a peace process. At the same time, it needs cooperation from Middle Eastern and North African governments to fight terrorism. And it is a key region for America’s energy needs.

You couldn’t have designed another scenario that would more engage every part of the American government than what’s happened in that region over the past few months. The United States is trying to figure out what this means for stability, terrorism, energy, our military, democracy and human rights. Just about every arm of America’s foreign policy apparatus has been engaged in what’s been going on in that region the last two months.

What role will Stanford researchers play in the commission’s work?

As director of the commission, I can seek out and request input and research and advice from just about everywhere. I’m fortunate to be here at Stanford where we have an incredible resource in the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, which is home to several of the world’s leading experts in democracy. In addition, I have a research staff I’m putting together that will include four or five doctoral students from the political science department. It’s a huge opportunity for Stanford to make a difference in how people are governed and how they exercise their democratic rights.