From Tbilisi to Washington, there's too much focus on elections
Recent elections in Georgia and the US show that elections alone are poor indicators of democracy, and need to be supplemented with other methods of economic and political empowerment.
Elections are never enough to maintain a healthy democracy - even, as it turns out, in a venerable democracy like the US. They can increase accountability and empower citizens, or they can intensify nationalist hysteria, alienate embattled minorities, and legitimise dictators.
In post-Soviet Eurasia, most elections have negatively impacted democratic impulses. Between 2018-2020, Armenia and Belarus showed us change comes not from elections, but from protests against them. Yet western experts, state department planners, and international organisations persist in their focus on elections as the linchpin of a successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s “two turnover test,” – or two changes of power as a result of elections - is one example of the western emphasis on the centrality of elections to democratic success. Freedom House declares that “free and fair elections are a foundational component of political freedom.” But what do we see when we compare a “free” country (the US) to a “partly free” country (Georgia), as defined by Freedom House? In what ways is the electoral process a defining feature of freedom? As a US citizen and a student of Georgia, I was surprised to find similarities between a 200 year old “success” story (the US) with a 30 year-old “semi-success” story (Georgia).
Michael Mann in his book The Dark Side of Democracy(2004), reminded us that elections can generate the worst type of illiberalism. David van Reybrouck in his Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (2018), is even more skeptical. He characterises the west’s inflated assessment of elections as “electoral fundamentalism.” The recent 2020 elections in the US and Georgia suggest Mann and Reybrouck are right to question our assumptions about elections as democratic turning points.
Depending on elections to consolidate democracy is, as it turns out, a rather weak proposition. Elections, even if the votes are counted accurately, are no guarantee of a healthy democracy. The electoral outcomes in Georgia and the US (parliamentary elections in Georgia on 31 October, and presidential elections in the US on 3 November) have highlighted western governments’ misplaced faith in elections and political parties as instruments of democratisation. In 2020, the electoral systems in both countries buckled under the weight of deep social divisions, economic crises, populist rhetoric and partisan rigidity.
Despite ostensible success, the electoral process and outcome in both countries revealed elections are no longer the reliable fix for democracy we once thought they were.
The problem of electoral hardware
Since independence in 1991, Georgia’s legislative elections have expressed the will of Georgian citizens only sporadically. In most cases, Georgia’s elections have consolidated the parties in power and deepened the chasm between Georgia’s ruling political circles and the country’s electors.
The 2020 parliamentary elections in Georgia represented progress. Inclusion was expanded: a new law stipulated one in four candidates on the party lists should be a woman (though there was no equivalent quota for national minorities). In a June 2020 constitutional amendment, the 5% electoral barrier was reduced to 1%. This produced a more diverse parliament: there are now nine parties in the parliamentary chamber compared to three parties between 2016-2020, though the opposition parties are currently boycotting parliament. Gerrymandering, on full display in the United States, was largely eliminated in Georgia in a redistricting reform after the 2012 elections. Increasing the number of party list seats in parliament from 50% to 75%, a demand of the opposition, reduced the chances of dominance by the resource-rich ruling party, Georgian Dream.
In the United States, by contrast, there has been no reform of the electoral “hardware” for decades. The distortions of the electoral college are almost impossible to change; the venerable Senate gives 40 million voters in the 22 smallest states 44 seats, while 40 million or so Californians get just two seats. There is continuing confusion over electoral rules in the states, and state legislatures continue to redistrict (gerrymander) or manipulate election results through voter suppression. The US was always a quirky democracy, but the constitution, states’ rights and decentralised local government no longer provide cover.
The 2020 elections exposed the US’s electoral flaws, exacerbated by racial disparities and a division between city and countryside which gives conservative rural voters massive overrepresentation in Congress. The 66.5% turn out in 2020 (the highest since 1900), and the conduct of elections were redeeming factors, but the US shares major electoral deficiencies with Georgia. The role of money, the partisanship of the media, the critical damage to democratic consensus by populist rhetoric, the power of charismatic and corrupt political personalities, and the politicisation of the judiciary, have all undermined the democratic efficacy of US and Georgian elections. The cult-like figure of President Trump has persuaded 70% of his republican supporters that the vote was rigged, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, unelected, unaccountable, and the most powerful man in Georgia, continues to control Georgian government policies, whatever the electors say.
Ideally, elections promote social integration and trust rather than fragmentation. But in both countries, electoral systems have failed citizens who want control over their representatives and supervision of their government
For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive, enjoy voter confidence and lead to visible outcomes. Ideally, elections promote social integration and trust rather than fragmentation. But in both countries, electoral systems have failed citizens who want control over their representatives and supervision of their government. The elections are at best partially competitive (most seats in the House of Representatives are designed to be non-competitive), and barely fair.
In Georgia, the Georgian Dream party has overwhelming financial and administrative resources. This is particularly true in the rural areas where the election process is opaque. Georgian Dream has a majority of voices on most precinct electoral commissions (PECs). Polls in Georgia suggest voter confidence in political parties, and citizens’ knowledge of what the parties are offering to electors, is very low. In contrast to the negative consequences of two monopolistic parties in the US, Georgia’s parties have no staying power; they are volatile, appearing and disappearing, moving from one alliance to another. Every single parliamentary election in Georgia since 1990 has operated under different rules.
What can be done?
In the US and Georgia, electoral systems have created a disconnect between the population and the government, and it is getting no better. The 2020 elections in both countries highlighted two avowedly democratic states, one in its adolescence, the other in its senescence, struggling with electoral systems that are failing their citizens. But restoring democratic legitimacy requires more than electoral reform.
Weakened democracies in Georgia and the US reflect a far deeper social and economic malaise. Both countries are characterised by a massive rise in economic and social inequalities (most notable are the racial disparities in the US), a new tribalism attached to and encouraged by polarised political parties, a dangerously manipulative digital world, a popular sense of powerlessness and neglect, and media that are increasingly voices of propaganda rather than sources of information. If these elections, once more, fail to produce any meaningful change or improvement in people’s lives, they will deepen political apathy and chip away even further at popular support for electoral democracy.
This is not an argument for dispensing with elections, but a case for supplementing them. We need other methods of economic and political empowerment.
In the Georgian case, a model exists. During the first period of Georgian independence (1918-21), Noe Jordania, the chairman of the Georgian government, proposed a democratic republic in which the legislature would share power with popularly elected local institutions. The model promoted participation by ordinary citizens outside general elections every four years.
A parliamentary republic, Jordania noted, “retains all power - legislative, executive and judicial - in parliament’s hands… Not one of these functions is given to the people or some other organ independent of parliament.” A democratic republic, by contrast, “establishes as its basic principle, people’s political self-government. In this case, power is not just gathered by the centre, but is divided between the center and the periphery.”
There would be referenda - resembling state-wide ballots in the US - on major constitutional issues, budgetary matters, schooling, and welfare. Communities would be granted legislative initiative, the legislature would have to share its law-making powers, and ministers their executive jurisdiction. In this way, Jordania argued, “the people, through its representatives participates in the implementation of laws.”
The practical challenges to such a programme were enormous in 1918-1921, and the ambitious plan to enrich democracy did not come to fruition. However, Jordania’s programme is relevant today – it predates contemporary ideas of deliberative democracy, or what Benjamin Barber calls “strong democracy”. It does not reject general elections, but emphasises the establishment of diverse “mini-publics” where deliberation, debate, participation and a de-concentration of power could take place. Elements of this system have been introduced into Europe (most notably in Belgium) and in the United States (such as the Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon). The search for alternative forms of representation and power reflects a growing conviction that traditional models of electoral democracy are no longer a winning example of citizen empowerment.
The 2020 fall elections in the US and Georgia, are clear illustrations as to why we need to go beyond our hitherto simplistic assumptions about the democratic outcome of general elections, and establish new participatory institutions to ensure the civic guarantees we expect from a democracy.
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