Skip to main content

Annan: Why we should grade countries on their elections

By Kofi Annan, Special to CNN
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1655 GMT (0055 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT