Elections and Term Limits: Democracy’s Troubled Bread and Butter

February 12, 2011  |  

by Sue Naylor

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill

One can argue that representational democracy is the only truly enlightened form of government, because it provides an equal voting voice to the citizens of a political formation (tribe, city, state, country, etc.) through free and fair elections. Elections allow for the voting public to approve (or remove) politicians from office, approve public policy and ultimately allow individuals to shape their own political and economic destiny.

Elections are considered the bread & butter to a functioning democracy. Yet elections, even in so-called free countries, can fail the public in two ways: a) they can be rigged and b) there is no term limit (a set number of years in which a politician can hold elected office) otherwise the elected official administration turns into a regime and the voice of opposition is held unceremoniously at by. Elections are rigged when those in power erroneously believe that their political philosophy is the one true path (as we most recently saw in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak), and those in power find tricks and use chicanery to alter an election’s outcome to their favor. When elections are rigged (or even thought to be rigged), everyone loses.

When politicians do not have terms limits, they can quickly become drunk with the power, prestige and privilege provided by elected office. This invariably leads to abuses and corruption. It can be argued that incumbent politicians eventually tend to be more concerned with the next election and ensuring victory on election night, than doing what is in the best interest of the people. Why this is a net negative aspect for democracy and elections is that incumbent politicians, who do not face term limits, will marshal their political clout (which includes a greater ability to raise campaign financing and extend campaign season) and influence in society on electioneering and campaigning, not on effective governance. Unchecked campaign finance also presents a problem, because free flowing money has been shown to cause undue influence with certain politicians and civil servants.

Voters expect their elected officials to work for their best interest. When an election fails to deliver the will of the winning majority and respect the losing minority (which is critical), then the politician and his or her regime/administration is feckless in serving the people’s true needs, and aggravating in how it governs and addresses the desires of the minority. A democracy does not mean complete rejection of the opposition(s) and its platform just because it lost the general election; a democracy demands a certain amount of compromise to be effective.

When elections are rigged or perceived as rigged or unfair by the population and outside observers, the foundation of democracy is rattled. Even the United States, the greatest global proponent of freedom through elections, suffered from potential election fraud (or at least failed due process) in the 2000 national presidential election that ended up divisively awarding the presidency to George W. Bush; a controversial figure who initiated two unwarranted wars in the Middle East, curtailed civil liberties protected by the U.S. Constitution and supported calls for wide-spread financial deregulation that helped exacerbate the Global Financial Crisis that occurred in 2008.

Recent examples of so-called “free” elections that failed to follow the Will of the People in the international arena were in Zimbabwe. The current — and only — president of the African country is Robert Mugabe; he has been in power since the country attained independence in 1980! Since gaining power, Mugabe has savagely repressed any sort of political opposition and held elections where the results were clear before the polls even opened over the years; Mugabe was more concerned with solidifying his power than improving the lives of Zimbabweans. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has had extreme difficulty feeding itself during Mugabe’s reign. However, in 2008 Mugabe held an election and was defeated by challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. However, Mugabe refused to relinquish power and instead entered into a combustible power-sharing pact with Tsvangirai. Mugabe still maintained title of president, but Tsvangirai – the true freely elected leader of Zimbabwe – was made Prime Minister. The true test of democracy in action in Zimbabwe will be in 2012 when the next election is scheduled.

Elections provide for a recorded, actual, and specific voice for the people of any political entity. It is the job of the citizens, elected officials and appointed officials to ensure that elections are held free and clear of any encumbrances to ensure that the cornerstone of a democracy is executed with transparency.

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