For better or worse

COMMENTARY Election Integrity

For better or worse

Aug 3, 2006 3 min read

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Helle’s work focused on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

Elections used to be thought of as the gold standard of democracy. In recent times, however, it has become clear that voting itself is not enough, particularly as the willingness among politicians has grown to challenge the results. By forcing recount after recount in Florida, and by appealing the election result all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore beat a path that others have followed, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

What can we do to preserve faith in democracy as the best political system yet devised? Give it more serious consideration. Sometimes, there are indeed legitimate reasons for challenging an election, when fraud and abuse, bribery and vote stealing, have invalidated the result. Sometimes, however, it is the question of a sore loser refusing to accept defeat, particularly in a close race, like the 2000 presidential election.

With democracy spreading around the world, the legitimate reasons for challenging election distinctions become harder. As a result, the roles of independent electoral commissions and outside observers become more and more important.

Today, the case in point is Mexico's July 2 presidential election, which has just about brought Mexico to a standstill. Despite indications that the margin would be paper-thin and that he probably would not win, left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declared himself the victor. When, days later, Mexico's Federal Election Institute -- the independent and internationally respected body that has overseen Mexico's federal elections since 1996 -- certified that rival Felipe Calderon had won, Mr. Lopez Obrador appealed and demanded a recount. (Mr. Calderon got 35.89 percent of the vote to Mr. Lopez Obrador's 35.31 percent.) He also urged his supporters to the streets all over Mexico; and they have been by the hundreds of thousands.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has personally attacked Mr. Calderon and his family. He has called outgoing President Vicente Fox "a traitor to democracy" for backing the winning candidate, a fellow member of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). He has threatened to "go as far as the people want me to go." Presumably the "people" does not mean the two-thirds of Mexicans who did not vote for him in the election.

Besides challenging the election result and declaring himself the winner before and after ballots were counted, Mr. Lopez Obrador has charged Mexico's now highly respected electoral authority with corruption. In doing so, he fails to acknowledge that his party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which for decades existed in the shadow of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has greatly advanced in the election. Now, the PRD is the second most powerful force in the Mexican legislature, sweeping almost all elected offices in Mexico City.

Mexico, however, is only the most recent example of a growing phenomenon. The former Soviet Union offers several recent examples of elections with contested results that ended up being reversed. In the Georgian elections of November 2003, President Eduard Shevardnazde's ruling party won the majority of parliamentary seats by a slight margin. Protests and fraud allegations led to the Rose Revolution, and a new election was held in March 2004. In the end, Mr. Shevardnazde himself stepped down.

In Ukraine a year later, the presidential election result was disputed by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Following the model of the Rose Revolution, the opposition named its street protests the Orange Revolution. As support from the United States and European governments gathered behind Mr. Yushchenko, the election results were eventually annulled and a re-run election gave the victory to the pro-Western Mr.Yushchenko.

In March, Belarus looked like it could follow a similar path, when protests followed the presidential election that gave President Alexander Lukashenko 82.6 percent of the vote for a third term. The election was declared unfair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, seeing as Mr. Lukashenko detained opposition leaders and controlled the media. Regrettably, he remains in power.

How not to confuse the apparent similarity between a legitimate grievance and a populist grab for power is a crucial challenge in many countries today, even as we have seen here in the United States. In Mexico, appearing on Sunday before the Federal Election Institute, Mr. Calderon put it well: "The question is whether we Mexicans are going to resolve our differences with pressure tactics and marches or with reason and by the law." It seems like a good place to start.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Washington Times