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Are Elections giving Democracy a Bad Name?

In association with the Royal Commonwealth Society, a report covering the issues, best practices, ideas and ambitions which affect the Commonwealth. Kofi Annan’s article focuses on the limits of current democratic governance.


One of the most striking developments of the last quarter of a century is the spread of elections. The end of the Cold War created a historic opportunity for the expression of popular demands for more political freedom and representation, and people around the world seized it.

The Commonwealth was both a witness and an agent of this remarkable phenomenon. When it adopted the Harare Declaration in 1991, nine of its members were under military or one-party rule. By 1999, all had become multi-party democracies[1].

Unfortunately, after an initial period of genuine change, rulers learned that elections did not necessarily have to mean democracy: elections could be gamed to remain in power, sometimes indefinitely.

The result is that, today, some elections are merely the lip service that undemocratic leaders pay to democracy.

This deception undermines democracy itself based as it is on three fundamental misunderstandings.

First, it confuses legality with legitimacy. Even if an election respects the formal processes laid down by the law, and even if it is certified by a court, if the majority of the population does not believe in its integrity, the election cannot confer any legitimacy on the winner.

Second, it confuses repression with stability. Bereft of legitimacy, elections cannot afford the peace and stability that usually come with democracy. If your opponents cannot channel their criticisms and ambitions through the institutional mechanisms provided by elections, they will find other means.  This usually leads to more repression, but as we have seen in a growing number of countries in Africa and the Middle East, repression does not afford stability in the long run.

Third, it confuses an electoral mandate with a blank cheque. Some leaders believe that somehow their initial election gives them the authority to close political space, throw their opponents in jail and change their constitutions to extend their reign.

But democracy is not just about one day every four or five years when elections are held, but a system of government that respects the separation of powers, fundamental freedoms like the freedom of thought, religion, expression, association and assembly and the rule of law. Any regime that rides roughshod on these principles loses its democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it initially won an election.

The spectacular growth in the developing world’s youth population is adding new agency to the need to deepen and extend democratic practice. The Commonwealth’s population, 60 % of whom is below the age of 30, is a good example.

Youth is different. Youth is impulsive, impatient and, most importantly, it has little to lose. It is therefore willing to take risks that older generations would avoid.

From Tunisia to Egypt to Burkina Faso, we have seen that youth are no longer asking for more rights and freedoms the system confers — they question the system itself. With the advent of social media, they have unprecedented ability to organise, mobilise and bypass the security states that oppress them. So governments ignore their democratic aspirations at their peril.

At the end of the day, all healthy societies rest on three pillars: peace and security; sustainable development; and human rights and the rule of law.

Many states today believe they can have the first two without the third, which includes elections with integrity. They are wrong.

The challenge before us today is therefore no longer just to ensure that Commonwealth members hold regular multi-party elections, but to deependemocracy by making sure those elections are credible and legitimate. That is not just what the people of the Commonwealth, and particular its youth, demand: it is the sine qua non for lasting peace and development.


Please find the report below: