Relevance of Elections to Representative Governments

by Sam Kargbo

It is not enough for us to assume the importance of elections to representative governments. If we say elections are one of democracy’s defining characteristics in that they confer legitimacy on elective governments or that they aggregate the will of the people, then we must give the concept more than a cursory examination. We should try to identify the benefits or contribution of elections to democratic governance. We must know their capacity to settle or exacerbate tensions or conflicts in pluralistic societies. Although common sense is indispensable in this exercise, it is helpful for us to borrow the thoughts of philosophers    – those known to have excelled in critical thinking.  Philosophers who align with John Lock’s proposition that the liberty of man in society is to be under no other political authority than the one established by the consent of the people see elections as the expression of that crucial consent of the people. For those who believe in the rightness of the general will of the people, elections do not only define the general will of the people but also aggregate it. Some believe in the power of elections to enhance accountability. They believe in the capacity of elections to control elective officials by requiring them to submit to regular and periodic elections. This set also believes that elections help to solve the problem of succession in leadership and thus contribute to the continuation of democracy. For philosophers who believe in their capacity to educate the people, elections allow political parties to exhibit their records and future intentions to popular scrutiny and serve as forums for the discussion of public issues, facilitating the expression of public opinion.

I believe in the capacity of competitive elections to provide education for the people and subject democratic governments to the will of the people. I also believe that elections are meant to legitimise and stabilise political power. In some cases, elections link up and unify people around and along with common causes. Elections often bring the worst out of human beings, but the positives of elections are underscored by the fact that every successful round of elections is validation or confirmation of the viability of the polity.  Their ability to expose a country’s fault lines simplifies the job of political leaders. Like prescriptions, political leaders have their jobs cut out by the issues that are debated or contested at elections. In that sense, elections help to facilitate social and political cohesion and integration. Elections also serve as a reality check on the aspirations and plans of political leaders. No matter how lofty one’s ideas about governance are, those ideas can only be actualised when one is voted into the office that is empowered to execute or actualise those ideals. That is why the ritualistic aspect of elections serves as courting strategies for the vote of the people. When politicians engage in campaigns with such alluring dramatic rituals like rallies, public speeches, debates, television adverts and the like, they do so to call attention to their intentions and promises. If the people find their expressed intentions and promises attractive or better than those offered by others, they are more likely to be the people’s choice at the election.

Elections also have their downsides. Because of their capacity to link and unify people with common interests and goals, they can push through agendas that entrench fault lines and engender disunity. During campaigns that precede elections, suppressed biases and prejudices are suctioned and released to the polity where they are validated by political actors who may see them as winning tools. The flip side of this is that losers at elections may not have the psychological strength to accept defeat and may therefore hunker down and go underground with the purpose undermining the polity. Many people believe that extreme leftist or revolutionary groups are sent underground by their inability to win popular votes or access mainstream opposition parties.

Another concerning aspect of elections is the dominance of political parties in the process. In most democracies, political parties are central to the electoral process. Political parties are meant to provide the pool of talent from which candidates are drawn, and are to simplify and direct the electoral choice and mobilize the electorate at the registration and election stage. As lofty and useful as the role may be, political parties are dividers and polarizers. They encourage rigidity and non-accommodation of opposing views and positions. In this sense, political parties have been fingered as capable of tearing nations apart. The platforms offered by each party are seen as increasingly presented as an all-or-nothing scenario. There is also that level of righteousness assigned to political parties, making those who disagree with a political party to be perceived as “wrong” and those who agree with it are perceived as “right.” Political parties may encourage opinions, but only if those opinions agree with the platform. In Africa in particular, political are most times agents of tribal, religious and regional divides. They are also vehicles of corruption.

There is hardly any place where these thoughts on elections are expressed in concrete form as the United States of America (USA). Elections in the USA are for a long time now a contest between the Republicans and the Democrats. Both parties hold differing views and opinions on many aspects of American society. In general, the Republicans are regarded as conservatives whereas the Democrats are said to be liberal. In economics, the Republicans believe that lower taxes, free-market capitalism, deregulation of corporation and restriction on labour unionism are better for growth and development. On the other hand, Democrats are tended towards economic policies that promote equitable distribution of the wealth and capital of the nation. The Democratic party encourages mixed economy and unionism for the enhancement of the right of the worker at the workplace. The party believes in the taxing of the rich to spread the wealth of the nation to the middle and lower classes of the American population. Whereas the differences between the two parties may not be remarkably different in concrete economic terms, the social values of the two parties are miles apart. The Republicans are predominantly conservative and Christian-oriented in their value sorting and identifications. They are uncompromising on their rights to guns and they have restricted room for abortion rights and same-sex relationships. On the other hand, Democrats believe in the right of the individual to make his personal and social choices. Democrats see the concepts of civil liberties and social equality as enthroning the right of the individual over the general dispositions of others. To them, what is not prohibited is certainly permitted. Their values are often in conflict with traditional Christian values. Because of their Christian influence, Republicans do not seem to be comfortable with policies that grant unrestricted freedom to other competing religions. They support restrictions on immigration because of the tendency of immigrants to flock the country with values that can neutralise Christian based values.

Americans go into elections mainly to protect these values and not so much about the personality or the character of the candidates. To many outsiders, President Trump is too unconventional to be the president of the USA. He lacks the characteristics and personality of the conventional American President. That he had over 70 Million votes at the last election should mean something. He has been faithful to the Republicans. He is everything the majority of Republicans wish for America. I wish him well as he retires to his property and profiteering business.


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