Elections Aren't Everything

The spectacle of thousands of people peacefully protesting and the prospect of change that they can bring attracts media coverage. But post-conflict and transitional regions are often off the media radar immediately after the first elections have occurred, when all is presumed to be “free and fair”. Elections indicate a positive step in the transition away from authoritarianism and toward democracy, but they are not always a means of reassuring that a transitioning country is in optimum condition. Elections are a means, not an end, of the post-authoritarian transition process.

As “Arab Spring” countries topple their former leaders and move past an era of iron rule, some are preparing for elections. For the first time in decades, Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Libyans can nominate their leader. People assume democracy is instated. But the incorrect assumption to make is that the transition is over and that peace will take shape.

One of the most unclear indicators of the process of democratic transition is when it is “over”. When is peace complete? Political scientists say that a country that has undergone two peaceful post-conflict elections is stable.  This would rule out Tunisia and Egypt, who’ve had one “free and fair” election so far.

Libya is the most worrying of cases, projected to be the next “failed state” high on the list like Somalia. Later this month, the Libyan nation will participate in the first national elections since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. The Carnegie endowment has noted the already turbulent arrival of elections: “here remain questions about the government’s capability to provide security at polling stations. It has “deputized” a number of militias in major cities as part of its security plan. There have been some very vocal calls for an election boycott in the east by Islamist and pro-federalism leaders, as well as attacks on election offices.”

Libyan loyalties lie along strong tribal lines, which might be damaging to national unity in the next election. Already, the prospect of elections has triggered violence and Libyan authorities seem to refuse to accept the rule of law and international standards. The hostage of Saif al-Qaddafi’s defense lawyer from the International Criminal Court is a great example of Libya’s rejection of international law with regard to its internal affairs. The Independent reported that the Zintan militia chief said the eastern city of Zintan, not Tripoli or the ICC, would try Saif Al-Islam. Although the lawyer was released on Monday, an act like this affirms that local power is still vested in armed militias rather than in Libya’s transitional government, the National Transitional Council.

Putting the impending trial of Qaddafi’s son and the prospects it may have for justice aside, it has been clear that in Libya, certain factions are keen on taking matters into their hands. This is most evident in the immediate assassination, as opposed to the trial, of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. In Libya, where elections are projected and trials are still pending for members of the former regime, the peace versus justice is timely, but the consideration of when to hold elections for optimum results holds more importance.

Columbia Professor Jack Snyder’s From Voting to Violence makes a solid argument on how immediate elections in a post-conflict or transitional region might deter the completion of the peaceful transition. Most notable among the examples is Kenya, where the results of the 2007 elections caused civil strife. Some say that reconciliation is needed prior to elections, where one group or tribal affiliation consolidates its power.

In democracies, people get the government they deserve. Now, I am not making the claim that some peoples are unworthy of electing their own leaders. But elections planned under a state of instability might lead to a turnout that is worse for the country as a whole. As Libyan citizens will be heading to elect their leader later this month, it must be clear that a seemingly smooth electoral process is not the end of the transition. In terms of physical security, the transition still lacks effective development in the security sector. At the very least, Libya faces the same issue as post-electoral Egypt in writing a constitution and electing a parliament to replace the transitional government, the first efforts to establish the rule of law. The greater issue for a true transition in Libya is that reconciliation between the armed factions is needed to ensure a smooth process before, if not after, the elections.