Elections don't equal legitimacy

By Ralf Dahrendorf  / 

Sat, Jan 15, 2005 - Page 9

So Ukraine now has a legitimate government. Or does it? Viktor Yushchenko has been elected with 52 percent of the popular vote. His opponent received 44 percent. Observers confirm that infringements of the electoral rules were but minor. Yet questions remain. The defeated candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, contests the result. The country is deeply divided. Will the miners of Donetsk start the next revolution, this time in red against the orange of the protests staged by Yushchenko's supporters against the original election with its clearly illegitimate result? Will there be a secession movement in eastern Ukraine?

Legitimacy is a delicate, yet utterly important feature of stable democratic politics. It is also complicated. Was George W. Bush the legitimately elected president of the US in his first term, having gained office only after the US Supreme Court ordered an end to the Florida recount and with Bush having secured only a minority of the votes nationwide? Are the presidents of some former Soviet republics who seem to command 90 percent of the popular vote legitimately elected? Will the planned elections in Iraq be regarded as legitimate internally as well as externally?

It is vital to remember that elections alone do not guarantee legitimacy, even if they are seen to be free and fair. Americans find it hard to understand this, as do others in the lucky democracies of the Anglo-Saxon world. For them, legitimacy simply means that voting and counting votes happens according to undisputed rules. What is legal, they think, is also legitimate.

For many others in the world, however, at least two other questions remain. First, turnout is crucial: who has voted and who has not. The second question is whether there remains any systematic, potentially violent opposition to the outcome.

The point about Bush's first term was that despite grumblings and continued vocal opposition, the result of the election of 2000 was generally accepted.

Or consider British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "landslide victory" in 2001, when Labour won 40 percent of the vote with turnout of 60 percent. In effect, 25 percent of the total electorate gave him nearly two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons. Did anyone doubt the legitimacy of the result? Not in Britain, nor among Britain's partners.

But there are not many countries where that would be true. Most others would -- at the very least -- demand a coalition government to reflect the existing diversity of views. Legitimacy by election is particularly problematic in countries with what might be called "endemic minorities."

In Canada, for example, it would be risky to overlook the special interests of Quebec. In Ukraine, the divergent interests of the country's west and east have to be recognized if legitimacy is to be established. In Iraq, a technical majority in a wholly legal election is almost meaningless if the position of Sunni Muslims and Kurds is not explicitly recognized. The occupation powers are therefore right to be worried about an election in which massive abstention among Sunnis results in a large Shiite majority.

So legitimacy is more than legality. It rests on what the people concerned believe to be real. At the very least, there has to be an absence of violent opposition, including the threat of secession.

In Western countries, notably in the US, people tend to assume too much when it comes to bringing democracy -- meaning elections in the first instance -- to others.

In particular, we assume an essentially homogenous electorate, so that even a low turnout does not involve any disadvantage for particular ethnic or cultural groups. We also assume an automatic acceptance of rules that in fact took a long time to become embedded even in the US.

Without legitimacy, there can be no stability in any political system, and without elections -- that is, an explicit expression of popular consent to the holders of power -- there can be no legitimacy. But while free elections are a necessary condition of legitimacy, they are far from being sufficient to assure it. Constitutional arrangements must guarantee all entrenched groups a place in the countries' political institutions. It is equally imperative to establish the rule of law, exercised by an independent and respected judiciary.

We should remember this as we pursue the elusive objective of democracy in Iraq, so that we are not surprised if the upcoming election fails to generate a legitimate government.

Ralf Dahrendorf, author of numerous acclaimed books and a former European commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a former rector of the London School of Economics, and a former warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences