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than elections: How democracies transfer power
January 31, 2010
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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
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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