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More than elections: How democracies transfer power
US Government
January 31, 2010

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Democratic elections are widely recognized as a foundation of legitimate government. By allowing citizens to choose the manner in which they are governed, elections form the starting point for all other democratic institutions and practices. Genuine democracy, however, requires substantially more. In addition to elections, democracy requires constitutional limits on governmental power, guarantees of basic rights, tolerance of religious or ethnic minorities, and representation of diverse viewpoints, among other things.

To build authentic democracy, societies must foster a democratic culture and rule of law that govern behavior between elections and constrain those who might be tempted to undermine election processes. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked recently at Georgetown University, "Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn't a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern." (Washington, D.C., December 14,

Smooth political transitions after elections are essential. In a healthy democracy, candidates who lose elections relinquish power gracefully and peacefully. By doing so, defeated candidates can emerge with their dignity intact and through their example contribute to the strength of their nation's democratic traditions, practices, and customs. Likewise, by reaching out to and showing respect for their political opponents, winning candidates help bridge differences and minimize the potential for conflict that can undermine democracy and development.

In a true democracy, the rule of law, democratic political institutions, and independent civil society organizations help ensure respect for electoral outcomes. These institutions and values in turn bolster people's faith in their governments and their willingness to support peaceful political transitions.

The rule of law

Democracy requires respect for the rule of law, which survives regardless of the outcome of elections. The United Nations Security Council defines the rule of law as when "all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards."

The rule of law comprises legitimacy, fairness, effectiveness, and checks and balances. Legitimacy requires that laws reflect a general social consensus that they be enacted in an open and democratic process. Fairness includes equal application of the law, procedural fairness, protection of civil liberties, and reasonable access to justice. Effectiveness refers to the consistent application and enforcement of laws.

Fairly enforced laws that protect all citizens help establish a democratic state's legitimacy. Because such laws in a healthy democracy command public respect and loyalty, citizens accept disappointing election results. A nation where laws are implemented fairly and disputes adjudicated impartially is more stable. Unjust or discriminatory laws, on the other hand, undermine public respect. If sufficiently egregious, such laws risk public disobedience or even revolt and create a climate less tolerant of unsatisfactory electoral outcomes. This is why U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, "The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law."

Rule of law implies respect for fundamental civil rights and procedural norms and requires that these transcend the outcome of any given election. In a democracy, the election returns cannot affect protections for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the independence of the judiciary. New leaders, regardless of how broad their electoral mandate, should neither call these norms into question nor threaten the rights of any citizen, including those who supported a losing candidate.

As a result, respect for the rule of law encourages peaceful election transitions. A defeated candidate who refuses to accept election results simply will find himself lacking support; citizens instead will view such a figure as an outlier, possibly a lawbreaker, and definitely a threat to their shared civic culture. Again, citizens are less likely to support revolts or to back candidates who refuse to accept election results in a country where legal processes are respected and the state is seen as legitimate.

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