A series of disputed elections show the myriad ways in which democracy's rules are being warped

From the DRC to Bangladesh and Russia, the manipulation of election outcomes is a worrying worldwide trend

A man rides his motorcycle past a torned portrait of DR Congo's former president Joseph Kabila, on January 14, 2019, in the Nimite neighbourhood of the capital Kinshasa. Martin Fayulu, who came second in DR Congo's presidential election, has appealed to the Constitutional Court to annul the provisional result which awarded victory to his opposition rival Felix Tshisekedi, his lawyer said on January 12. Fayulu denounced the result as an "electoral coup" engineered by Kabila in which Tshisekedi was "totally complicit", saying the truth of what happened at the ballot box would only come out with a recount. / AFP / TONY KARUMBA
Powered by automated translation

In 2016, a fateful year for democracy in the US and UK, a book with a seemingly contradictory title was published. Against Elections: The Case for Democracy argued it was dangerous to boil democracy down to a foundational requirement of competitive elections. In fact, said Belgian author David Van Reybrouck: "Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much as oil did for our economies, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own."

The recent ballot in the Democratic Republic of Congo could be exhibit A this year in the case against elections. It was supposed to be the first time since independence from Belgium in 1960 that Congolese voters peacefully replaced their head of state. Instead, the ballot – flawed, at times farcical – has been so contentious that the US and France sent troops to the region to keep the peace.

epa07275653 Martin Fayulu (top L), DR Congo's defeated opposition candidate for the Presidential election, speaks to a large crowd of his supporters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 11  January 2019. Another opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, was declared the winner on 10 January of the fraught elections. Fayulu has vowed to contest the result in court, according to reports.  EPA/HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM

But more troubling by far is the electoral model outgoing president Joseph Kabila is accused of manufacturing – allegedly striking a deal with opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi to swing the ballot in his favour. It bears all the hallmarks of the trick deployed by Russia's Vladimir Putin, who in 2008 ensured the election victory of a sidekick to replace him as president until he could constitutionally resume office.

Congolese strongman Mr Kabila is seemingly on the same path, with a handpicked successor on the ballot. That he subsequently accepted the apparent election victory of an opposition leader suggests he has taken the Putin model a stage further by co-opting a less obvious candidate. The end result is that Mr Kabila will remain in power, if not actually in office, only now with the fig leaf of having presided over democratic change.

This is one of the myriad ways democracy’s rules are increasingly being bent – and the wider world isn’t doing much about it. There’s some speculation the declaration of Mr Tshikedi as winner might give regional bodies such as the African Union an excuse to call the DRC’s election mostly free and generally fair. But that is hardly likely to inspire the Congolese and their neighbours with faith in democracy and hope in the legitimacy of elections.

FILE PHOTO: Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the Congolese main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, gestures to supporters at party headquarters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

Such manipulation of election outcomes is a worrying manifestation of a worldwide trend. More elections are being held in more countries than ever before but democracy itself is backsliding, with results increasingly disputed. There is a lengthening list of countries that hold regular elections but are steadily making the act of voting less meaningful.

According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of democratic nations is at a post-war high. Nearly six in ten countries have democratic institutions and processes today, with 97 out of 167 countries classed as democracies, 21 as autocracies and the remainder either a mix or unclassified.

But in last year’s Liberal Democracy Index for 178 countries, the V-Dem Project stated: “For the first time since 1979, the number of countries backsliding on democracy is the same as the number of countries advancing”. This is happening in a number of ways. As well as the Russian and Congolese models, there is something called “constitutional retrogression”, the effects of which are apparent in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, India, Bangladesh and even the supposed bastion of democracy, the United States.

The term is defined by University of Chicago Law School professors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg as an “incremental (but ultimately substantial) decay in three basic predicates of democracy – competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the adjunctive and administrative rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive”. It is different from authoritarian reversion, a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is slow, sometimes barely perceptible but stunningly effective.

Sheikh Hasina smiles as she is sworn in for her fourth spell as Bangladesh's prime minister at the Presidential Palace in Dhaka on January 7, 2019. Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as Bangladesh's prime minister for a record fourth term January 7 after a crushing election victory marred by deadly violence and claims of widespread rigging.
 / AFP / Munir UZ ZAMAN

What this means is clear. There are more chances now than say, 15 years ago, of having an election such as the one in Bangladesh, held on December 30, the same day as the DRC. In Bangladesh, the incumbent prime minister's coalition won an improbable 96 per cent of the vote. There was a time when such an election would have been discredited or at least seriously questioned by the international community, possibly even censured by the Commonwealth. It was marred by weeks of violence, the mass arrest of opposition activists, multiple allegations of voting irregularities and a lack of access for international monitors. But the world has accepted the Bangladesh election, despite indications that the government has used state tools over the years to engineer "retrogression" by weakening the opposition and clamping down on judicial and media dissent.

Elections are no longer synonymous with a healthy democracy. But the irony is that the people’s vote itself is being used to erode democracy.

TOPSHOT - An activist distributes election leaflets in support of presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin on a street in downtown Moscow on March 16, 2018.
Russia will vote for president on March 18, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Yuri KADOBNOV