This week Zimbabwe’s official electoral commission delayed the publication of results of a presidential election for five days after the poll. Zimbabwe and its worldwide audience were left hanging. Zimbabwe’s stalemate is a vivid reminder of recent troubles in Kenya. In both cases there was a vote but the new government that should follow, as night follows day, was somewhat slow in emerging. And in Kenya at least, when it finally did emerge, it was the outcome not of a simple election but of all the complexity of tribal violence, internationally sponsored power-sharing talks and constitutional amendments.
In theory, votes should be decisive.
People are consulted; a new government is formed; the losers accept the result and political discussions begin again on a new basis. In Zimbabwe, the vote was cast but nothing is settled.
In elections throughout the world, the link between vote and outcome is increasingly questionable. What should in theory be a straightforward process is becoming gradually more marred and murky.
After Georgia’s January presidential race, the opposition staged a hunger strike to contest the results. A bloody outcome followed Armenia’s ballot in February. In Thailand in December and then in Pakistan elections removed power bases of military dictators but left a lot unclear and undecided.
If you include Belgium, where a new government took nine months to settle and seems to have been formed with independently of the poll result, you find that of 21 countries which have elected new governments in the past four months, in at least six cases outcomes were inconclusive.
Why are so many elections inconclusive? Most apparent is the fact that elections are taking place in new democracies where the network of institutions needed for democracy to work is not yet in place.
The elections are only part of a complex democracy machine. Alone and unsupported they can do more harm than good.