Democracy encompasses more than elections

– It is rule of people, elections
ABRAHAM Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States of America (March 4, 1861-April 15, 1865) who issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved Africans in the southern states of America in 1863, coined the most famous definition of democracy when he called it “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
In this article, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences partners, once again, with the Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at the Copperbelt University.
In this article, we also focus our attention on democracy as a process and on elections as an event.
Today, democracy is the most favoured system of governance by many countries even though the institutions of democracy differ across the world.
However, a common denominator of all forms of democracy is the rule of the people and elections.
Elections (defined as the people’s right or ability to make a choice) are the most common institution of democracy and are an important way for people in a democracy to choose and communicate
with their leaders.
While democracy has important values such as accountability, liberalism and popular sovereignty, electoral institutions are used to implement them.
There is a common belief that elections ensure accountability of elected officials in a democracy and the misconception that democracy means elections but, unfortunately, elections can also be used fraudulently as a tool to merely gain credibility and legitimacy and do not present a realistic picture of the people’s choice.
Therefore, where elections are defined as democracy, particularly in most African countries, the concept of democracy itself is given a negative connotation, and thus elections have
become a source of conflict. Failure of an election is seen as failure of democracy.
Simply put, the relationship between democracy and elections is that while democracy is a process, elections are an event used to implement it – at least that is the idea in a functioning democracy.
There is a huge difference between elections and democracy. An election is a one-time act while democracy is continuous participation in public affairs.
That is, democracy is only possible in highly cultured free societies where people respect each other, the public institutions, and the rule of law. It is based on peaceful negotiations, cooperation, and compromise.
It also includes wide-ranging consultations and public criticism of both elected and appointed officials.
Of course, elections are important because they imply choice. Also, elections and democracy are mutually dependent.
However, in order for choice to hold in time, there must be a legal framework that makes this possible. Presently, many legal frameworks have failed to guarantee functional democracy in most
of the developing countries of Africa.
Colonial legacies play a significant role to this effect.
Historically, imperialism brought about by industrialisation in European countries during the 19th Century inhibited the growth of democracy in Africa. Most of the world was left out of the importance of elections and democracy. Democracy and elections became tools for anti-communism in the Cold War.
Not until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s did market capitalism take prominence under the rule of free and fair elections. But realistically, the concept of free and fair elections is still rather elusive.
Elections in practice have at times served to maintain dominant power structures such as private property and economic inequality. Consequently, the worst enemy to elections and democracy are socio-economic disparities and inequality. Even though democracy is the desired goal, most developing countries have flawed democratic institutions simply because they are too poor to pay for a functioning democratic system.
After all, democracy is very expensive; it needs lots of investments and resources. Good politics are expensive in that you have to invest in democracy. Even so, there is no surety that democracy will prevail.
In many places, it is an alien concept imposed by donor countries on poor nations as a prerequisite to qualify for funding. Because of the way it is abused, the credibility of democracy is under threat and so it makes some people very sceptical of it.
Additionally, if used incorrectly, democracy and elections can and do lead to an escalation of conflicts.
Indeed, the very purpose of elections is to achieve participatory governance without violence through political rather than physical competition, and this has succeeded in some countries but has also created serious challenges in others.
Incidences of pre- and post-election violence in some African countries suggest that elections are not always viewed as the proper tool to implement democracy but only because the concept of democracy has been repeatedly abused.
On the contrary, if used correctly, democracy and elections are the most powerful tools to effect a transition from conflict to peace and stability.
As we build up to the August 12, 2021 polls, where both democracy as a process and an election as an event will again be put to the test, let us as patriotic citizens of our beloved Zambia
pay much attention to how we conduct ourselves. Let us ask ourselves an important question, namely: Will we adequately participate in and manage our elections so as to effectively advance and enhance the democratic agenda of our commendably and relatively peaceful and stable nation? It is our wish that this be so.
The author is head of the Department of Governance, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Copperbelt University.

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