Skip to main content

Annan: Why we should grade countries on their elections

By Kofi Annan, Special to CNN
updated 12:55 PM EDT, Thu September 20, 2012
Mexicans casting their ballots on July 1 to vote for the country's next president.
Mexicans casting their ballots on July 1 to vote for the country's next president.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kofi Annan: Democracy is a universal value and aspiration, unbound by region or culture
  • Annan: For democracy to fulfill its potential, we must have fair and credible elections
  • He says threats to democracies -- both old and new -- must be overcome
  • Annan: We can grade countries on their elections and sound off alarms on electoral malpractice

Editor's note: Kofi Annan is the chair of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security. From 1997 to 2006, he served as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations.

(CNN) -- Democracy is a universal value and aspiration, unbound by region, ethnicity, culture or religion. In the last two decades, it has spread across the world in unprecedented ways.

Elections are fundamental to the ethos and principles of democracy. They provide citizens with a say in the decisions that affect them and governments with a legitimate authority to govern. When elections are credible, free and fair, they can help promote democracy, human rights and security.

But when elections are fraudulent, as we have seen in a number of countries, they can trigger political instability and even violence. This means that for democracy to fulfill its potential as a means of peacefully resolving social and political conflict, the integrity of elections is crucial.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan

Threats to electoral integrity are not limited to poor, divided or war-torn countries. They can be found in every democracy. Many of the countries that embraced democracy in the last 20 years now struggle to entrench democratic governance. In some long-standing democracies, citizen trust and confidence in democratic institutions have dropped precipitously.

Opinion: Politics by mob in China and Mideast

Global recession and rising inequality are putting pressure on older democracies to show that they are relevant to their citizens' concerns. The infusion of money in politics, for example, threatens to hollow out democracy.

And recent events in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate that revolutionary transitions hold both opportunities and dangerous pitfalls.

In response to these concerns, a group of former political leaders and leading figures have come together to create the report, "Deepening Democracy," which stresses the crucial importance of integrity in elections in advancing democracy, security and development.

Elections with integrity by themselves will not build citizen trust in democracy. But they can be an important step in achieving the goal. Our report identifies five challenges for countries to overcome.

First, the need to strengthen the rule of law so that elections and the rights of voters and candidates can be protected.

Second, professional and independent national bodies should manage elections so that they are credible and the results are legitimate. I saw for myself in Kenya the catastrophic impact of the failure of the country's electoral commission to deliver these goals in the 2007 disputed presidential contest, when 1,300 people were killed and over 600,000 displaced in waves of unprecedented post-election violence. We must prevent this kind of tragedy from ever repeating.

Third, greater efforts are needed to build the institutions, processes and behaviors that are vital for genuine multi-party competition and division of power. They would bestow legitimacy on the winner, provide security for the losers, and end the "winner-takes-all" politics that discourages democratic practice.

Fourth, the integrity of elections requires political equality. The barriers that prevent voting and wider participation in political life must be removed. Too often, women, young people, minorities and other marginalized groups are not given a full opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.

Finally, unregulated money in politics undermines voters' faith in elections and confidence in democracy. Vote buying and bribery of candidates, including by organized crime, have to be prevented in both aspiring and mature democracies. And we must tackle the explosive growth in campaign expenditures that is damaging confidence in electoral equality by strengthening fears that wealth buys political influence.

These are all, of course, political challenges. But politicians cannot resolve them alone. Civil society and the media play their roles and have responsibilities as well.

Opinion: What if U.S. stops policing the world?

In addition, international funding ought to support democratic reform and electoral integrity rather than, as happened too often in the past, prop up authoritarian regimes. This entails increased efforts to prevent abuse throughout the political and electoral cycle and not just around a particular ballot.

Our report provides a strategy on a global level. Governments need to regulate political donations and spending, and require full transparency and disclosure of donations with penalties for non-compliance. Organizations that manage elections in each country must come together to create international standards of professionalism, independence and competence against which they agree to be measured.

A new transnational organization should be created to grade countries on their elections and to sound the alarm about electoral malpractice. The international community can then agree clearly on "red lines" of extreme electoral abuse, which would trigger condemnation and, if necessary, sanction.

Such a program for delivering elections with integrity -- with its emphasis on inclusion, transparency and accountability -- can promote better governance, greater security and human development.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kofi Annan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT