The recent accusations of potential fraud in local elections call into question what everyone had assumed to be a well-functioning system; the capacity of Geneva citizens to cast their ballots in elections and to have those ballots properly counted. At the same time the evermore authoritarian president of Turkey is trying to overturn municipal elections, and there continues to be questioning about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections and potential for interference in 2020, free and fair elections are a worthy subject of reflection.
Free and fair elections are essential for a functioning democracy. “The key element in the exercise of democracy is the holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals enabling the people’s will to be expressed” said the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) 1997 Universal Declaration on Democracy. Studies by the IPU have, since 1994, examined the status of free and fair elections “from the perspective of international law and human rights, and in the light of the practice of States and international organizations,” wrote Guy S. Goodwin-Gill in his Introduction to the 2006 second edition of its publication Free and Fair Elections.
The events in Turkey are an obvious example of governmental interference. President Erdogan will not accept the defeat of his party in mayoral elections in Ankara and Istanbul. He has called upon a stocked tribunal to mandate a rerun. But Turkey has never been known as a beacon of democracy.
What about the United States? Are we sure that the patriarch of the Kennedy family, Joseph Kennedy, did not pay to have ballots stuffed in Chicago to allow his son John to carry Illinois in a crucial result that propelled the young Massachusetts Senator to victory in the 1960 presidential election? Are we guaranteed that the 2000 ballot recount in Florida that decided the presidential victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore was entirely above board?
Corruption comes in many forms. The Supreme Court of the United States decided in 2010 in The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the government cannot restrict campaign contributions. In Geneva, and throughout Switzerland, certain parties have more campaign resources than others. While citizens ask for transparency in knowing who spends what and what candidates receive in contributions, there is no limit to how much candidates and political parties can receive and spend. Is that fair? While there have been calls in the United States to limit spending, with guarantees from the government to circumvent undue private influence, money continues to be an essential factor in elections in democratic countries.
And what about George Soros and his Open Society? Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soros spent and spent to encourage candidates running in the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. Was that fair? Was that interference in the internal affairs of a country? Were the Rainbow Revolutions totally self-generated?
Free and fair are not absolute terms. No one is totally free. Life is certainly not fair. (Why should a woman runner be punished because she was born with a high testosterone count? Is it fair that my basketball career was limited by the fact that I am only 1.72?) Some elections are freer and fairer than others. That the United States has had presidential elections every four years since 1789 is a fabulous testimony to a process. But there is no guarantee that the process is free and fair.
The Goodwin-Gill report talks of “Further Steps along the Democracy Road.” That is perhaps the best image; democracy is a road that has no terminus. Some countries are farther down the road than others. Moreover, there are no guarantees that the democracy road is straight. The long delay in women having the right to vote in certain cantons in Switzerland was a roadblock just as the denial of the right to vote of African-Americans was in the United States.
Free and fair elections is an ideal. The steps along the road to democracy in Switzerland are well ahead of most countries. But there is no democracy finish line. The democracy marathon is infinitely longer than the 42 kilometers run in Sunday’s Geneva race.