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Democracy and Prosperity: What Role for Free and Fair Elections?
by Mr Charles Ebereonwu
JANUARY 27, 2011
Mr Charles Ebereonwu

Democracy has been described as the best form of government. Best defined as “Government of the people, for the people and by the people”, advocates of democracy as a form of government state that it is the most consistent with natural tendencies. It allows humans the highest possible freedom of expression, association, worship, and even dissent. Democracy, in practice, requires that leaders are selected through free and fair elections; institutions exist which foster a shared distribution of political power; and the citizens have extensive opportunities to participate in political activities.

Three factors have been identified as reasons why Democracy is best able to generate sustainable prosperity for the vast majority. They include: Shared Power, Openness and Adaptability.

Shared Power
Democracy considers a broad range of interests in the dispensation of power. In so doing, priority is given to the interest of the general public. Selfish, individual interests are easily identified and isolated.

The decision making process under democracy is open to a multiplicity of influences. These influences lead to a moderation of policies and ultimately enhance the steadfastness of democratic development. The existence of several interest groups is the hallmark of democracy. These interest groups not only have more influence over decision-making, but because democracies generally guarantee basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association, the citizens are better informed of the goings-on in society. As a result of the free flow of information, healthy debates are stimulated; these in turn increase the likelihood of broader options and concerns being taken into consideration.

Society’s shortcomings are exposed rather than concealed. Uncensored discussion of the problems of society usually acts as a check on vices like corruption. And efficiency is promoted not only by preventing the misappropriation of resources but also by enhancing a better informed, more balanced allocation of resources/investments while deepening investor confidence in the market system.

Some leaders especially in Africa posit that democracy is at its best if it is “home-grown”. By this, it means that the democratic process should evolve over time in a manner consistent with the culture, tradition and aspiration of the people. As a matter of fact, there should be no universal model of democracy. It is by trial and error that democracy finds its most suitable trajectory.

Be that as it may, democracy realizes superior development since it tends to be more adaptable principally because the citizens are continually engaged in gathering more information, adjusting their positions and reassessing progress. Although democracy does not guarantee that the right decisions will always be made, it however, guarantees the right to change wrong decisions. The flow of ideas within the public, private, and civic institutions and sectors makes room for greater versatility, timeliness, as well as capacity for adjustment in the adoption and implementation of policies. This same adaptability of democracy allows it to rid the system of corrupt or ineffective leaders. Free and fair elections make this possible.

A Free and Fair Election
Elections play a critical role in democracy; that is from where the definition of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” derives . Not only does election give the citizens the ultimate power in the selection of their leaders, it makes it possible for corrupt and inefficient leaders to be replaced in a non violent manner.

For any election to achieve the above, it must be free and fair.

Components of a free and fair election
For any election into political office to be and be seen to be free and fair, it must be predicated upon the existence of certain parameters. They include among others: Legal Framework, Electoral System, Electoral watchdog, Right to Elect and be Elected, Voter Registration and Registers, Political Parties and Candidates, Democratic Electoral Campaigns, Media Access and Freedom of Expression, Campaign Finance and Expenditure, Balloting, Vote Counting, Role of Representatives of Parties and Candidates, Election Observers, etc.

Legal Framework
This comprises the electoral law governing voter registration, political parties and candidates, as well as the media. The framework for elections has to be transparent and comprehensible taking all issues necessary for the achievement of a democratic election into consideration.

Electoral System
There should be a guarantee of political inclusiveness, providing a clear electoral formula for the transformation of votes into political/legislative seats.

Electoral Watchdog
The independence and impartiality of the electoral commission (INEC in the case of Nigeria) should be held sacrosanct. The body should be able to monitor the efficiency, effectiveness, professionalism as well as the transparency of the electoral processes without fear or favour.

Right to elect and be elected
Every citizen should have the right to elect or be elected without any discrimination on the basis of colour, race, gender, language, religion, and political/sexual orientation.

Voter Registration and Registers
There could be no credible election without a valid voter register. For a voter register to be valid and acceptable, it must be comprehensive, inclusive, accurate, and up to date. While the process of voter registration must be transparent, the right of an eligible voter to register should be protected and the unlawful, fraudulent registration/deletion of voters must be prevented. A law providing for adequate penalties at the occurrence of any such should be enacted.

Here, it becomes very clear that the on-going voter registration exercise in Nigeria is critical to the organization of successful elections that will ensure at the end of the day the emergence of the people’s government; all things being equal. The entire election is marred and its credibility in doubt in the absence of a generally acceptable and transparently assembled voter register.

Political Parties and Candidates
Every political party and candidate should be treated with equal consideration. The legal framework for elections should clearly make room for notification of dates for beginning and end of registration of political parties.

Democratic Electoral Campaigns
In order to achieve a free and fair election, the electoral system must ensure that every party and candidate has equal access to the media for the purpose of campaigns; there must be equal access to finance-this is relevant where the law provides for state sponsorship of political parties/activities.

Media Access and Freedom of Expression
Here, the ruling party should not take undue advantage of incumbency by unfairly dominating media coverage. All parties and candidates should have unrestricted access to the media especially those owned and/or controlled by the state.

Campaign Finance and Expenditure
If state fund is distributed to parties and candidates, it should be proportionate and limitations on funding of campaigns should be reasonable and equal among the parties and candidates.

Balloting/Vote Counting/Election Observers
Polling stations should be accessible while the secrecy of the ballot should be guaranteed. All votes should be counted and tabulated in a fair and transparent manner in the presence of the representatives of the parties and candidates, as well as election observers.

Creating prosperity via the “invisible hand”
Democracy is able to create prosperity because the government ensures an enabling environment for the interplay of market forces-the “invisible hand”. It has been said that governments have no business in business. Business and economic activities should be left in the hands of the private sector - investors and businessmen and women. But the government must supervise, regulate and sometimes intervene in order to ensure the welfare of citizens and check-mate the excesses of markets.

Here comes the role of corporate organizations and multinational companies like Total which continues to work with its host countries for the enthronement of good governance and the translation of natural resources to improved standard of living. It is obvious that no meaningful, lasting business activity could take place in an environment of anarchy, anomie, and precariousness.

The stability that democracy enthrones, the supremacy of the people’s will, equal/fair distribution of party representations, equitable allocation of resources/investments, and a combination of other factors lead to a widespread distribution of the wealth of nations.

It is not within the scope of this piece to discuss why poverty still persists in countries that practise democracy especially countries in Africa. But suffice it to say that a mere totemic installation of democratic architecture, in the form of political parties, elections and civil rule without the basic components articulated above cannot equate to the democracy that creates prosperity. Where corruption and the absence of rule of law are the norm, one is left with no option but to agree with Alexander Pope when he said, “For all forms of government, let fools contend, what is best administered is best”.

Nigeria is at present in the middle of organizing general elections with the on-going registration of eligible voters. Regardless of the hitches, there is no viable alternative to a valid voter register as a foundation for a free and fair election.


The Democratic Advantage: How Democracies promote prosperity and peace. Source: Open Society Institute, OSI, USA.

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