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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT