Maintaining democracy requires solid institutions like competent election management bodies and an independent judiciary. But it also takes sustained political leadership and society’s commitment to respect and abide by established norms. The danger of ignoring these norms can be fatal.
Yesterday, the U.S. Capitol building was overtaken by protesters who refused to accept the loss of their preferred candidate, President Donald Trump. The National Guard was activated in an attempt to bring order to the chaos that has resulted in the aftermath of an otherwise peaceful and properly conducted election. In the days, weeks, and years ahead, as the country does some soul searching to grapple with the consequences of eroding democratic norms, Ghana’s history with elections offers some lessons in how democracy is sustained.
Having previously suffered from a series of debilitating coups and military dictatorships, the West African nation has had six presidential elections since 2000, including three democratic transitions in which the party in power lost and the opposition peacefully assumed the presidency.
All of these elections were extremely competitive, and they often resulted in a runoff; on one occasion, in 2012, the losing candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, went to the courts to contest the results. The Ghanaian Supreme Court ruled against him, and Akufo-Addo eventually conceded. For a short period, though, it seemed unclear if he would accept defeat. Nevertheless, he did, and Ghana’s democratic consolidation continued. Four years later, Akufo-Addo won the election and assumed the presidency. Although the country’s democracy is stronger today, its most recent election this past December was messy—a reminder that the democratic process can be untidy and that maintaining democratic norms requires sustained effort.
Through their work in emerging democracies, election experts have figured out a formula that appears to work: strengthening election management systems to reduce the risk of malfeasance, nurturing voices of domestic leaders who promote democratic norms, marshaling international pressure to convince all parties to abide by the rules of the game, engaging citizens to be active participants and stewards of the election process, and encouraging judicial independence. For example, during Kenya’s 2013 elections, the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, eventually conceded, after losing a court battle and responding to domestic and international pressure. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in Kenya famously nullified a 2017 election result after finding the election commission conducted a highly flawed election. The Supreme Court of Malawi did the same in 2020.
The United States produces scores of election experts and has been a leading funder of election support programs in countries like Kenya for decades. The U.S. State Department regularly issues pointed statements calling on candidates to respect the will of the people—including in Ghana after the 2012 election. Beyond its financial and rhetorical support, the United States has been considered a model for what democratic transitions can look like—the 2000 battle between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore being a prominently cited example. In that election, the two politicians fought until the bitter end. The Supreme Court made a ruling ending the recount process and effectively ending Gore’s chances of becoming president. Both candidates and their supporters moved on to fight other political battles.
But what happens when a leading exporter of democracy begins to noticeably backslide? The United States’ democracy has always been a work in progress—full enfranchisement came only in the 1960s, and long after, structural barriers continue to ensure that a sizable segment of the population, particularly Black Americans, remains disenfranchised.
But now, the United States is witnessing the tension that others around the globe face during contentious elections. Despite all evidence that the 2020 presidential election was free, fair, and properly managed, the outgoing president has continued to dispute the election results. In some ways, he did what elections experts recommend and went to court—a lot! At every turn, he lost, and he exhausted his legal options for contesting the elections.
At this point in Ghana’s 2013 election runoff, Akufo-Addo conceded, choosing country first and valuing his own legacy. The institutions played their part, and domestic and international pressure helped ensure the norms were followed. In the United States, this is when norms should have been a guide. It’s when the leadership of Trump’s Republican Party should have called on him to concede. Instead, a significant number of Republican representatives and senators disputed the results of the election as they met to conduct an otherwise pro forma certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory on Wednesday.
It isn’t just politicians to blame. This is when Americans should have signaled that they’re unwilling to sacrifice their lives and the country’s stability for the sake of one man and his selfish ambitions. Instead, a sizable number of citizens claim the election was rigged. Many Trump supporters descended on Washington, D.C., during a “Stop the Steal” rally on Wednesday and brazenly ransacking the halls of Congress.
Instead of conceding and abiding by democratic norms, the man who lost the election felt emboldened because his political party’s leadership enabled him, and enough citizens have not placed adequate pressure on him. Worse, years of fueling resentment and aggression among his supporters resulted in a capital under siege.
As expected, Trump lost his attempt to subvert the Constitution and the will of the people. Yet this election and, in fact, the last four years have reminded everyone that the United States’ democracy is not as mature as many assumed it to be. The damage has been done, and undoing it will take years of dedicated work. The election commissions in each state did their part. The courts did theirs. However, it will also require Republican leaders retaking control of their party and wrestling with their enabling role during the Trump presidency. To his credit, some of them, like Senator Mitt Romney, often remained unequivocal in support of democratic norms. Similarly, half of the American population will need to return to the idea that losing an election does not make it unfair or illegitimate.
Numerous examples abound of citizens in various countries resorting to violence when they don’t trust their political process. This is now true in the United States—although for perhaps the wrong reasons. Such outpourings can be avoided in the future, but maintaining a democracy takes sustained effort.
In the United States, the institutions were tested but held their end of the bargain. It’s now up to the people—leaders and citizens—to tend to the norms that make democracies succeed.
Why Ghana Does Disputed Elections Better Than the United States The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Foreign Policy.