Elections are Dead. Long Live Elections! What do the Mueller Investigation and the Catalan Referendum Protests Have in Common?

On the surface, the Mueller investigation into the Trump-Russia relations and the protests following the Catalan referendum violence for independence seem to be distant, disparate and unrelated events. However, they share one common, albeit implicit premise: both imply that elections are not the sine qua non for democracy. The voicing of discontent with the incumbents is no longer exclusively confined to retrospective electoral accountability. Instead, protests on the street, resorting to legal action and using independent counsellors’ or audit investigations are just a few of the myriad ways indicating the burgeoning anxiety about elections.

The Impotence of Elections: Is Political Science Playing Catch Up?

The study of elections in political science has been slow to recognize the withering salience of elections in politics. Yet, there are two unlikely and relatively unrecognised groups of scholars who were amongst the first to express these initial doubts: they rose from the ranks of public administration and area studies. They were recently joined by students of the ailing Western democracies.

How the “Accountability Revolution” Undercut Electoral Accountability

The field of public management should be credited for orchestrating the so-called accountability revolution (Brookings Institution 2013). The accountability revolution was a game changer in terms of shifting scholarly attention onto accountability and away from elections. Arguably, it was the main factor which transformed non-electoral accountability from a word with only limited “tempting rightness” (Pitkin 1967) into “the hallmark of modern democratic governance” (Dubnick & Frederickson 2011, 329).

 The Accountability Revolution undercut elections indirectly by pointing out that accountability has many shapes and forms, and that this diversity overshadows the importance of elections as the primary accountability mechanism.

It consisted in the broad recognition that there is:

(1) a great diversity of account-givers, meaning that the government is not a unitary actor and there are many ministers, departments that could be held accountable. The New Public Management, a 1980s paradigm which aimed to modernize the public sector, is largely responsible for this shift from a unitary government to a more pluralist governance (Pierre & Peters 2000).

(2) a great diversity of accountability forums, meaning that the locus of accountability stretches far beyond elections and parliament, and reaches out to Audit chambers (Schillemans 2011), European agencies and committees (Bovens 2010), guangos and intergovernmental bodies (Bevir 2010), public opinion (Hutchings 2005), NGOs (Edwards 2006) and the courts (Hirschl 2008). Keane (2009) notes the birth of nearly one hundred new types of power-scrutinizing institutions since 1945.

(3) a great diversity of accountability-holders, which means the electorate is not a homogenous whole, but there are many advocacy coalitions, stakeholders and movements that are willing to seek accountability from the government (Flinders 2001).

(4) a great diversity of criteria for holding the government to account, such as financial accountability, accountability for fairness and accountability for performance and accountability for personal probity (Behn 2001).

None of these four types of diversity could be easily squared with the singular dominance of electoral accountability.

The Dying Electoral Paradigm and the “Export” of Democracy

Area studies scholars issued another challenge to elections. The 1990s democratisation paradigm was built around the notion that “achieving regular, genuine elections will not only confer democratic legitimacy on new governments but continuously deepen political participation and democratic accountability” (Carothers 2002, 15). However, as soon as elections started to coexist with various forms of authoritarianism, their definitive appeal withered away.

The electoral paradigm was further eroded in the process of “exporting democracy” because instead of resolving conflicts peacefully, elections in some case helped to rekindle ethnic conflict. Isaacharoff (2015, 5) recognised that “Elections simply tally up who is majority and who is the minority. By themselves, they neither guarantee civility nor the subsequent accountability of the victors to their subjects.” While the transitologists’ concerns did not significantly diminish the scholarly preoccupation with elections, it built up the analytical momentum towards the desecralisation of elections.

Does the Bell Toll for Elections?

The most influential criticism of elections came from critics of established democracies. The unravelling of the electoral paradigm was a prolonged and gradual process that included the admissions that: elections are a delayed and blunt accountability mechanism of control (Peruzzotti 2014); that citizens do not have sufficient information to make informed decisions at the ballot box (Przeworski 1999); that electoral campaigns can be manipulative (Maravall 1997); that there are systematic causes for electoral failure relating to the electoral college, party finance, voter turnout, the redistricting process and voting machines (Streb 2015); and that socioeconomic, international factors and constitutional power-sharing factors can fundamentally impair elections. While these concerns have been simmering for a long time, they only recently culminated into a distinct pronouncement on the diminished aura of elections.

The Future of Elections: The “Accountablity Turn” versus the “Monitory Turn”

The future salience of elections in the democratic literature hinges upon the outcome of the rivalry between two distinct veins of research: the “representative turn” versus the “monitory turn.” In essence, the representative turn indirectly seeks to rehabilitate the importance of elections by redefining the meaning of elections to include the process of the formation of the “representative claim” (Saward 2010) and by emphasising the procedural value of elections (Urbinati 2014). Beyond recasting elections to include non-electoral means, the  representative turn is fundamentally poised to rescue them by presenting them as “a constitutive act, in which interests are crafted” (Näsström 2011, 506).

By contrast, the monitory turn strays more decidedly away from the electoral paradigm. It attributes greater importance to various non-electoral accountability mechanisms that lead up to such transformative visions of democracy, such as “counter-democracy” (Rosanvallon 2008) and “monitory democracy” (Keane 2011). To these scholars, non-electoral modes of participation are not an extension of elections but distinct mechanisms of their own. Proponents of the monitory turn believe that elections are a decisional moment anchored in time and space, rather than a movement of judgement that lasts indefinitely. Furthermore, they are sceptical of the formative power of various modes of participation. Unlike the representative turn, the monitory turn assumes that public demands are crafted outside of the realm of elections by such exogenous forces as the media, technology and globalisation. Another difference is that the monitory turn gives expression to social diversity, while the representative turn suppresses or homogenises the variety of public voices (Tormey 2017).

The monitory and the representative are both sceptical that the cure for free and fair elections is more free and fair elections. Yet, they recalibrate the paradigmatic importance of elections in different ways and to a different degree.

The success of judicial, social, parliamentary, informal and other non-electoral mechanisms to hold the government to account in between elections will be a pivotal moment in setting the trend of democratic transformation.


Dr Gergana Dimova, Lecturer, University of Winchester, United Kingdom


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