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The early 1990s saw a wave of competitive multiparty elections in Africa. These contests can be described as “founding” elections in the sense that they marked for various countries a transition from an extended period of authoritarian rule to fledgling democratic government. By the middle of the 1990s, this wave had crested. Although founding elections continued to be conducted in African countries that were latecomers to the political-reform bandwagon, they took place less frequently than earlier in the decade. Meanwhile, in countries that had experienced early regime change, expiring electoral cycles gave rise to a groundswell of “second” elections. Less glamorous than the landmark contests that gave birth to democracy, these events nevertheless held out the possibility that democratic routines might be deepened.
The consolidation of democracy involves the widespread acceptance of rules to guarantee political participation and political competition. Elections — which empower ordinary citizens to choose among contestants for top political office — clearly promote both sorts of rules. But analysts do not agree on the role that elections play in the consolidation of democracy. Some, like Samuel P. Huntington, use electoral criteria for measuring consolidation: the so-called two-turnover test. Against such an approach, Terry Karl has raised the specter of a “fallacy of electoralism.” As experience with “illiberal” democracies shows, elections can coexist with systematic abuses of political rights and the disenfranchisement of much of the population.
I hold a middle view in this debate: while seeking to avoid the electoral fallacy, I try not to commit its antithesis — what Seligson and Booth call the “anti-electoralist fallacy” –by assuming that elections never matter for democratization. I recognize that elections do not, in and of themselves, constitute a consolidated democracy. This end-state also requires civil rights and due process of law; checks on arbitrary executive power; civilian control of the military; and an independent press and civil society. In a consolidated democracy, citizens and politicians alike accept that this array of institutions is the only legitimate arrangement for governing public life…