Sunday, November 29, 2009

Democracy Part XIX: Electoral Legitimacy in Honduras and Afghanistan

In this age of mass democracy, elections are the essence of democratic constitutionalism. Elections, like some purifying elixir, cleanses all (political) sin of states that indulge the practice. An act of sovereign will by which the people of a state convey their political power to agents who act on their behalf, elections conform the appropriate relationship between state apparatus and the sovereign masses. Elections have proven crucial for legitimating states, and their governments. There is a strong connection between democracy and elections. One is impossible without the other. Together they implement notions of popular sovereign in the construction and operation of government.

But not all elections appear to have the same effect. A comparison of international reactions to the recently concluded elections in Afghanistan and those just finished in Honduras suggest that elections, like other legitimating markers of the norms of transnational constitutionalism, can also serve as instruments of foreign policy in ways that will ultimately weaken the value of elections as expressions of legitimating constitutive mass democratic action.

Consider first the recently concluded elections in Afghanistan. The elections were at first deemed suspicious. "Widespread fraud in the 20 August first round led to Mr Karzai being stripped of the outright win he appeared to have secured.A second round run-off scheduled for 7 November was called off after Mr Karzai's sole remaining challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out saying the vote could not be free and fair." Q&A: Afghan Elections, BBC News Online, Nov. 3, 2009. But the difficulties of the elections, and their dubious reflection of the will of the people, seem to have taken a secondary role to the requirements of the international community in the context of the conflict in Afghanistan. "Western governments were privately reluctant to risk the lives of troops and voters to secure a second round when the result was already a foregone conclusion." Id. As a consequence, the international community adopted something like a "earn legitimacy going forward" approach to elections.

Western diplomats hope that his dubious political mandate will oblige Karzai to "earn legitimacy" by delivering services to his people and cracking down on high-level corruption, thought to be fuelling support for the Taliban. But questions remain whether he will be capable of delivering what the foreign powers demand, particularly as he struck deals during the election campaign with a number of unsavoury powerbrokers, who will expect to be rewarded by the new government. Highlighting the potential problems, he made his commitment to reform whilst flanked by his two vice-presidents, including Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a notorious former warlord who Karzai selected as a running mate, despite strong opposition from the international community. Barack Obama yesterday moved to bolster Karzai's position, saying that although the process had been "messy", the "results were in accordance with and followed the rules late down by the Afghan constitution". But many Afghan leaders say that is a questionable assertion as Karzai did not receive more than 50% of votes, which the Afghan constitution says the president must have. Karzai vows to fight corruption after re-election as Afghan leader, The Guardian (UK), Nov. 3, 2009.

The results might affect the quest for democratic legitimacy is significant ways. "Observers believe the disastrous election is likely to do lasting damage to western efforts to stabilise the country. Interventions by western powers – first to force Karzai to accept the need for a second round, and then for it to be abandoned – have bred popular cynicism about a democratic process many Afghans now believe is controlled by foreigners. The Taliban have been exploiting the debacle, by mocking the process and sowing fear that they would disrupt the second round through violence." Karzai vows to fight corruption after re-election as Afghan leader, supra.

Yet the recently concluded elections in Honduras have produced something of a different result. With no sign of fraud, important members of the regional international community appear ready to deny the government thus elected recognition as the legitimate successor to the Zelaya government.

The political crisis and election have divided the region, with the US indicating it would endorse the result if the elections are deemed "free and fair". Costa Rica, which has long been the mediator between the two sides in this crisis, has said likewise, but other Latin American countries have opposed the vote. Argentina and Brazil have said they will not recognise any government installed after the election, arguing that to do so would legitimise the coup which ousted an elected president, and thus set a dangerous precedent. The main regional grouping, the Organisation of American States, has declined to send an observer mission. Honduras Voting Stations Close in Presidential Poll, BBC News Online, Nov. 29, 2009.

And the man ousted form the Presidency, has been working hard to discredit the election, scheduled long before his ouster, and in which he is not a candidate. "Mr Zelaya had called for a boycott of the election, saying high abstention levels would discredit the government of the interim president." Id. In what might be the oddest, yet most interesting pronouncement, on elections and legitimacy, Mr. Zelaya has begun to elaborate a position that discredits elections on a sort of "false consciousness" basis.

Mr Zelaya, who was forced out of the country on 28 June, told Reuters it would be undemocratic if the US backed an election held by a post-coup government. "The United States changed its position. Its priority was the restoration of democracy and then elections, now they put elections as the priority," he said in a telephone interview from the Brazilian embassy, where he has been holed up since slipping back home from exile in September. Zelaya Warns U.S. Support for Honduras Election Divisive, BBC News Online, Nov. 25, 2009.

The suggestion, of course, is that there is no connection between democracy and elections. Yet this is a position that might well undercut the arguments Mr. Zelaya has raised in support of his position that his ouster was illegitimate because he was the duly elected President of Honduras who could be removed only by popular action.

But what result these efforts to discredit an election that would rid Honduras of the mostly discredited government that purportedly succeeded Mr. Zelaya? The most logical would be the imposition, effectively, of an internationally sanctioned dictatorship in Honduras. Brazil and Argentina have a vested interest in the person of the individual now no longer the President of the nation. And they appear willing to reinvent the Honduran constitution, in the name of democracy, to advance the cause of a man who would have ended his term as President of the Republic on January of 2010. For it seems that the only alternative to the seating of the candidates chosen by the Honduran electorate would be to reinstate the Zelaya Presidency. But that action would itself constitute a coup as anti-democratic as the late June "coup" that saw Mr Zelaya ushered out of the country. Indeed, neither Brazil nor Argentina make any pretense of even suggesting the need for any sort of internal electoral expression of support for such reinstatement. And even if there were, such an extension of term would be invalid under the Honduran Constitution.

And there is the ultimate object--the revision of the Honduran Constitution so that it conforms to the political tastes of others--the Brazilians, the Venezuelans, the Argentines. All of these potentates purport to act for the Honduran people, yet have a paramount duty to protect and advance the interests of their own states. And non are accountable to the people of Honduras for their political impositions.

And thus a tale of two elections--and two visions of the legitimating effect of popular sovereignty. For Latin America, Hondurans are like children-- incapable of exercising their sovereign rights expressed through elections, in the face of what they consider to be a "coup" effected by the legislature and judiciary in June. Until Brazil and Argentina are satisfied that the Honduran people can vote in a way they deem fair and appropriate, then no popular action will be deemed legitimate. The political advisor to Mr. Lula Da Silva, Marco Aurelio Garcia, made that clear recently.

"Very important countries -- the majority in terms of population and political weight -- won't recognize (the result)," said Garcia. . . . "It would be good if that expectation were not frustrated," Garcia said he told Jones. Recognizing the election was paramount to legitimizing a coup in a region that has been consolidating its democracies, said Garcia, adding that conditions for free elections in Honduras were not present. "The election has the fingerprints of a coup," said Garcia. "If we (accept) it, we're encouraging another country to adopt the same solution -- 'We don't like this president; let's topple him.'" U.S. risks isolation over Honduras election: Brazil, Reuters, Nov. 27, 2009.

Beyond the suggestion of a notion of electoral false consciousness, which Mr. Garcia raises, is the equally interesting notion that electorates are incapable of seeing the falsity of their consciousness. Only foreign states are capable of understanding such false expressions of democratic action. But such an idea has perverse effects. But it also is based on a false premise--that the removal of a President by its legislature and judiciary would invariably constitute a "coup" meant to "topple" a president. At least in this case, the removal effectively followed a pattern more like an impeachment and removal rather than a coup followed by the installation of a repressive regime with no connection with the electorate. Perhaps the international condemnation of the illegal exiling of Mr. Zelaya had this salutary effect. Perhaps those who violated the constitution by exiling Mr. Zelaya ought to be punished--according to Honduran law. But the Brazilian position--separating democracy from elections, suggesting a presumption of illegitimacy to elections that follow democratic dislocations, and conflating elections as expressions of popular will with potentially illegal or unconstitutional actions that might have preceded the elections--provides a dangerous precedent for states interested in interfering with the internal affairs of other states for their own ends.

The oddity of the reactions to the Honduran elections becomes clearer when considered against reactions to the outcome in Afghanistan. In that case even the form of an election of dubious validity served as a sufficient cover to legitimate the government brought (back) to power. In that case, most states, including Brazil and Argentina, raised no objections either to the circumstances in which the elections were held, or the interference in those elections of outsiders. Perhaps the answer is that elections and democracy are more fluid concepts when a state is in the middle of a war in which foreign states have a controlling role. In any case, it seems that consistency, and especially consistency in the application of rules for embracing elections as essential to mass democracy and to legitimate governments instituted thereby, is the hobgoblin of rigid thinking.

Great minds look to elections, democracy and legitimacy, as more elastic concepts. Sometimes, it seems, that elections might not be legitimate when states are willing to apply a "false consciousness" approach to elections and democratic expression, as the Brazilians suggest in Honduras. On the other hand, sometimes otherwise dubious elections may serve as legitimate expressions of the popular will and democratic legitimacy conveyed on the basis of the application of a "earn legitimacy going forward" approach adopted by the United States and others in the context of the Afghan elections. One wonders what might have happened if the "false consciousness" approach had been adopted to deprive Mr. Karzai of the legitimacy of his election.

Equally interesting would be the application of the "earn legitimacy going forward" approach to the government now elected in Honduras. Thus, for example, it might be possible to condition expectations on the successor Honduran government that night parallel expectations of Mr. Karzai's government, reconstituted to suit the context.
This is not to say that the world should spare Honduras' post-election government a scolding. The current and future authorities in that country, and indeed the region, must understand that democratic free lunches are not available anymore. They must be told, either by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Arias, or Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now that he has also been dragged, via his embassy, into this mess) that there will be much democratic debt to repay if the world is to recognize election results and turn a blind eye to the coup. Kevin Casas-Zamora, Courting Disaster in Honduras, Foreign Policy, Sept. 23, 2009.
This sounds like the kind of approaches that appear to have been sufficient to support a substantially more dubious election in Afghanistan. Yet those possibilities also suggest the difficulties of the current state of transnational constitutionalism as a mechanism for ordering frameworks for determining the legitimacy of government--the lack of consensus for determining the legitimacy of elections as a legitimating expression of mass democracy.

No comments: