Power sharing or votes?

OPINION: What's the use of having elections if leaders can share power regardless of the outcome? Who needs elections if leaders can talk it out and share power?

Elections are a pillar of democracy in which the people have a voice in the political process. An increasing number of nation-states are embracing democracy and elections will be the political hallmark of this century. Democratic governments secure their legitimacy and authority from the power of the ballots and not from the power of their armed forces.

Newly-democratizing states are pressured to hold elections. Aid from the international community, especially the West, is often contingent upon the conduct of elections. This is what happened in Timor Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Relatively new democracies such as Kenya and Zimbabwe conducted their presidential elections to strengthen their resolve for democracy. However, both Kenya and Zimbabwe experienced violence and unrest during and after the conduct of their elections.

Both elections were controversial and contested.

Kenya was able to end its violence and unrest through a power-sharing deal between the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a fellow African, brokered the power-sharing deal in Kenya. It appears that Zimbabwe will follow the same route with the South African President Thabo Mbeki acting as mediator.

Are violence and power-sharing deals expected outcomes of contested elections in new democracies?

Democracy is fairly new to these two countries. Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963. In 1982, it had one-party rule. It could hardly be said that there was an election in 1992, although the opposition fielded candidates. Only in 2002 was there a democratic and free election where the sitting President Mwai Kibaki won.

On the other hand, Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain in 1980. Since then, it has only had one leader, the sitting President Robert Mugabe who led the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence.

In December 2007, Kenya had its presidential elections. The incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner. The losing candidate from the opposition, Raila Odinga, cried electoral fraud with accusations of rigging. Consequently, unrest and protests followed in the post-election environment.

Ethnic violence and clashes between the supporters of Kibaki, mainly the Kikuyus, and the followers of Odinga, mostly Luos, resulted in more than 800 deaths and the displacement of thousands of fleeing Kikuyus and Luos.

In March 2008, Zimbabwe held its presidential election which was seen as a fair and free election by international observers. But the vote counting had signs of manipulation and tampering. The opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, received the highest number of votes, but was unable to reach the majority of votes to automatically win the presidency. Supporters of Mugabe with some help from Zimbabwean police and army allegedly attacked and harassed opposition members.

Consequently, a runoff election was scheduled pitting Tsvangirai against the sitting and long-time president Mugabe. Violence against opposition members and sympathizers intensified during the runoff election campaign. This prompted opposition candidate, Tsvangirai, to withdraw from the race.

Thus, the runoff election left Mugabe unopposed. The West branded the election a sham. Some Western leaders even called Mugabe a legitimate president. The United States and the EU imposed sanctions on the Zimbabwean government to pressure Mugabe to institute reforms and stop the violence against opposition members.

Currently Mugabe and Tsvangirai are close to striking a power-sharing deal. Tsvangirai hinted that he is open to being a prime minister with executive powers. Mugabe will remain president and in control of the military. Violence in Zimbabwe has ebbed since the commencement of talks.

The two events from the same side of the world have presented a post-election dilemma for new democracies. After a contested election, violence and power-sharing deals may be the painful pills that a new democracy has to swallow on the way to establishing a stable democracy. They may not be necessary but when they happen, the lessons and experiences can hopefully build politically mature and democratic institutions that are strong, fair and dependable.

But these lessons and experiences are also undermining the legitimacy and function of elections in a democratizing political world. I dread the day when leaders will just talk and decide by themselves who will run the government, marginalizing or denying people’s participation in the important political process of democracy — elections — simply to decrease the tension and prevent more violence in a post-election scenario.

The writer is an intern at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and a graduate student of International Peace Studies at University for Peace in Costa Rica and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. He can be reached at his blog (http://mensab.wordpress.com).