This is a guest note by Kalie Pierce, a research intern at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The parliamentary elections in Iraq began tragically last Thursday with a series of attacks in Baghdad on security officers. Two suicide bombers and a hidden bomb killed 12 people, including 7 soldiers, and wounded at least 55 other people. The violence continued over the weekend and into Sunday, the day of the vote; the New York Times reported that as many as 100 explosions rocked Baghdad during the early days of the election. The Washington Post reported that at least 38 people were killed and 89 wounded Sunday morning alone.
This rocky affair can be compared with Ukraine’s most recent presidential election which took place only a few weeks ago. Like the Iraqi vote, the Ukrainian one was closely watched by international observers and domestic officers. For Ukraine, the elections were peaceful and smooth. International monitors declared the poll clean and observers around the world applauded Viktor Yanukovich’s peaceful transition to power, hailing his inauguration on February 25, 2010, as a symbol of Ukraine’s strengthening democracy.
However, just as with Iraq, it is difficult to wholeheartedly embrace Ukraine’s election. After all, it was Viktor Yanukovich’s campaign team, back in 2004, which committed mass electoral fraud in a bid to make him president. Although the 2010 democratic election process itself can be considered a success, it is hard to celebrate democracy, as an institution, when it brings back the man who tried to cheat Ukrainian citizens of their vote only six years ago.
These struggles with democracy remind me of a Freedom House article which summarized the findings of Freedom House’s 2009 “Freedom in the World” survey, an annual assessment of human rights and liberty existing in the world. Freedom House’s 2009 survey reported that democratic states are decreasing in number while authoritarian states have become not only more numerous, but also more self-aware and more influential. This is hardly surprising, considering the attention authoritarian states have been receiving in the last decade. More and more, countries around the world are taking note that states such as China and Iran have managed to grow economically and exert their power abroad without becoming democracies.
In 2009, even states not typically dubbed authoritarian reduced freedoms. Italians saw increased media concentration under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Macedonians experienced parliamentary elections distorted by violent harassment of party members. The government of Singapore meddled in the judicial handling of defamation cases. The Vietnamese government repressed political opposition, persecuted human rights advocates, and refused to create an independent judiciary. Although citizens typically value democracy for its principles, governments have long viewed democracy as a means to gaining economic aid and trading partners. In the face of alternative routes to prosperity, countries may now be discarding the democratic model for other systems.
The elections in Ukraine and Iraq are two examples of democracy’s struggle to remain dominant in today’s world. In Ukraine, the government’s inability to produce the needed changes caused a tired Ukrainian public to discard the leaders of the Orange Revolution and return to the politician who provoked the revolution in the first place. This rejection is discouraging because experts and organizations like Freedom House consider the Orange Revolution to be the most enduring of the so-called “color revolutions” that peacefully overturned fraudulent elections in the 2000s. Iraq’s election, jolted by bombs, demonstrates the dangers of introducing democracy to a country with still-developing institutions. It could well be that democracy’s allure is weakening.
But in a world increasingly darkened by authoritarian regimes, Ukraine’s presidential election offers some hope. The run-off demonstrated one of the greatest goods of democracy, an institutionalized, peaceful transition of power. During a time when other countries experience regime crackdowns, sudden disruptions of human rights, and violence in the streets whenever power changes hands, Ukraine’s fraud- and violence-free election is, in itself, a strong case for democracy everywhere. Indeed, occurring so soon after a deeply fraudulent and turbulent 2004 election, Ukraine’s recent one may give hope to nations such as Iraq still struggling to exercise a peaceful vote.
— Kalie Pierce