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Ballot Stuffing:  The UN Confronts State Claims of Indispensability, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Mar

Vote for Nobody           Bosnia

I’m sitting in my office on an Easter morning having just walked through a park filled with Narcissus (Daffodils) – bright yellow and white flowers that bear within themselves the promise of their own regeneration.

In the northern countries, budding flowers have long served as visual confirmation of at least part of the Easter message – that death is not the final word, that renewal is possible and that the keys to renewal reside partially within us.

Some states on and off the UN Security Council claim such a power for elections as well, seeing them as an “elixir” of national stability, an integral step towards any prospects for national regeneration.  In many parts of the UN system, including the Security Council, elections are widely encouraged as an antidote to political stalemate, to insurgent violence, to restorations of both the rule of law and the good graces of the international community.

Nonetheless, as we look around the world on this Easter morning, this ascription of “elixir” would appear to be a hard sell.   High levels of “negatives” for US presidential candidates, confidence in leadership undermined in Brazil, concerns about Turkey and the political collapse of the European community, economic woes in Burundi, the DRC and elsewhere spiking public anxieties and threatening transitions, spoilers within too many states (and not all of them insurgents) stoking violence and unrest that undermines reasonable prospects for the maintenance of some semblance of normalcy.

And then there are those leaders who simply refuse to leave, those who imagine themselves to be “indispensable” to the maintenance of whatever prospects for national stability and prosperity might exist.  Some of these leaders have thumbed their noses at their own constitutions.  Others have committed grave abuses against their own people and then manipulated electoral processes in order to shield themselves from post-office litigation.  Too many lay claim a “mandate” that is neither constitutional nor performance-based, a mandate that serves only to further widen the distrust  of citizens towards a state fully convinced that its continued presence in office is beyond reproach.

Clearly, as noted by Paul Collier, “elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”   Nor, apparently, do they always determine when and how such power is to be transitioned.

In preparing to write this piece, I searched for quotations on elections that I thought might be uplifting.   What I mostly found were quotations both humorous and skeptical.   Among them:

The Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz alleged that “Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and both for the same reason. “ The US humorist Will Rogers noted that, “If we got one-tenth of what was promised to us in these acceptance speeches there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.”  Also from the US, Mark Twain noted that “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

There were many more in this vein – grateful for the existence of elections and their own ability to participate in them, but skeptical of the motives of those running for office and mostly despairing of the accountability of the winners after all the votes have been counted.  Many are skeptical as well of the disproportionate influence of those holding large fortunes on the political “fortunes” of others, of the ability of leaders to resist the allures of power and redirect that power to public benefit, of the willingness of leaders to battle the demon of “indispensability” through which so much violence, discrimination and political inertia flows.

Clearly, as many within and outside the UN recognize, elections cannot be abstracted from the societies in which they occur.  Moreover, the holding of elections, while useful in helping to “settle” and legitimize the political order, is hardly a panacea for what ails people.  Indeed, much of the violence which occupies the UN Security Council and security establishments in national capitals relates to the inability – or unwillingness – of ostensibly “elected” governments to offer protection, legal integrity, political freedom and development-without-discrimination to their populations.

As the US noted rightly this week in the Security Council, if leaders are “indispensable,” then clearly they have failed at nation building.  Clearly they have too often failed to uphold the rule of law on which most national constitutions are based. Clearly they have also failed to guarantee an end to impunity for violations of public trust committed by any officials of the state. Clearly they have failed — as suggested by UN SRSG Sidikou during that same Security Council meeting — to create and maintain vigorous public spaces for journalists, civil society and even dissenting policy voices, helping to ensure that official promises are addressed in good faith and any abuses of power are not repeated.   Clearly, they have failed to heed Spain’s recent Council urging for electoral processes that do their part to help turn citizens into “protagonists for their own future.”

In other words, “indispensable” leaders who lack the commmitment to enabling rather than obstructing citizens as they seek to express and enact the powers of social regeneration that lie within them.

More and more, elections themselves seem to be more of a “fingers crossed” moment than any guarantee of future inclusiveness – fingers crossed that “changing the diapers” willl result in happier outcomes than another round of diaper burn.  States worldwide are under assault from terrorists and climate-induced drought, from criminal networks and economic predation.   Even the most accountable of states are now staring down multiple traumatic circumstances.   All states now need help in one form or another, from the UN and other mutilateral institutions, of course, but also from their own citizens.

At the UN this past week, Special Envoy Djinnit noted that, in the African region for which he is responsible, successful elections are now the occasion for mostly “fragile achievements.”   Even in these treacherous times, we know some of what it takes to remove the “fragile” tag; replacing repression with open political space, discrimination with fairness, and manipulations of the law with accountability to its cherished provisions.  We must also do better at ensuring vital and thoughtful linkages between national governance and the three, public commitment pillars of the UN system – to security, human rights and development.  “Fragile” is still within our power to change.

And of course we must find ways to do better about selecting people to lead us who have the humility and wisdom to pass the torch when it is time for them to go.

Elections are one significant piece of a larger puzzle towards ensuring peaceful relations, participation and fairness, both elections within member states and even elections within the UN itself: A puzzle incorporating balloting that underscores – rather than undermines – commitments to political and social inclusiveness, while cultivating a “verifiable trust” in government by citizens that is – more than any political leaders themselves – indispensable to a just and effective political order.