03/27/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

Elections for Dummies: Why Do We Let Elections Legitimize Tyrants?

Every year the international community (meaning the developed Western nations, the UN and the European Union) spends millions of dollars bankrolling ballots in profoundly undemocratic places (1). Why do we bother?

The recent Crimean "referendum" should have given us pause for thought about these expensive exercises in futility. Yet, we continue to enable deeply flawed regimes to conduct elections in places where there is neither free speech nor a free media to report what opposition politicians say.

Despite evidence to the contrary, our diplomats go through the motions, pretending these votes confer credibility on corrupt and brutal monsters. Do we really have such faith in a swift dose of democracy? Or do we endorse the election pantomime because we can't be bothered to find political solutions to the underlying problems causing conflict, oppression and poverty?

Next year the international community will probably hand over huge sums to the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to conduct elections. Four years ago the UK alone contributed $20 million (£11.8m) (2) to legitimize a voting process in which the "impartial" members of the National Election Commission were regime stooges who openly stuffed ballot boxes (3). Unsurprisingly, President Bashir, a man indicted for genocide in Darfur, won. The foreign policy default position, "Better the devil we know," prevailed.

An "Election for Dummies" guide might reasonably suggest everyone eligible should be able to vote if they want to. In Sudan there are three separate wars being conducted by the ruling National Congress Party regime against its minorities (in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states). Millions of people are either in refugee camps abroad, in displaced peoples camps within Sudan, or hiding in caves in the Nuba Mountains. Many more have joined the brain drain of talented people who have moved to the USA and European Union. How is a reliable census possible in the middle of repeated airstrikes by the Sudanese Armed Forces?

The UN confirms that just this month another 100,000 people in Darfur have fled their villages. On February 27 and 28 the regime and its proxies destroyed another 35 villages. On March 15 and 16 witnesses say they saw Sudanese Air Force planes attack 54 times in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur. It would be quite a challenge to compile voting lists, let alone ensure access to polling places in these circumstances (4).

Another essential for a free and fair election is the ability of opposition candidates to voice their opinions and to have those opinions reported accurately by the media. Diplomats enthusiastically greeted President Bashir's recent "national dialogue initiative." (5) They did not seem to notice that in the same week he closed down most of the few remaining independent papers (6).

On March 19 the National Consensus Forces, representing 12 opposition parties, pointed out there could be no national dialogue without media freedom (7). A recent peaceful march by Khartoum University students was met by tear gas, with police beating demonstrators. One student, Ali Abakar Musa Idris, died (8). Shortly after, on March 13, a human rights lawyer, Abdel Monem Adam, was arrested by four plain clothes officers of the much-feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Adam is being held incommunicado and without charge at the NISS political section in North Khartoum, famous as a place of torture and "disappearance." (9)

All this is just a recent slice of everyday life in Sudan. Amnesty International (10) and Human Rights Watch (11), among others, have documented the serial atrocities and abuses endured by the Sudanese people over the years. How, in an atmosphere of repression, fear, violence and outright war, do we imagine there can be a fair election?

The international community persists in believing elections are the "one size fits all" cure to trouble spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and oppressive dictatorships like Sudan. After spending an estimated $500,000 on the 2006 DRC election (12), every Congolese village could boast it had an election registration officer. Sadly the same could not be said about having a doctor, nurse or teacher. Nor were soldiers being paid, giving rise to industrial scale looting and rape. But it enabled our diplomats to tick the box and move on.

Certainly our aim must be to let people speak through elections, but the context is all-important. We might do better to recognize that fundamental problems underlie persisting conflict and misery. We could also use our time and money better by bringing all sides together to seek a more equitable allocation of power and resources in places like Sudan. We consistently underestimate our soft-power leverage, timidly tinkering, offering words of condemnation (see Crimea) while ignoring the effect targeted and robust smart sanctions can have on the architects of genocide and war. By making sanctions personal and punitive we might persuade career-kleptomaniacs and ethnic cleansers to think again. Conferring legitimacy on them through the ballot box is appeasement by another name.

(1) Electoral Systems and Processes | UNDP

(2) Parliamentary answer, March 13 2014, Baroness Northover, [HL5704]

(3) BBC News - Sudan opposition claims video shows election fraud

(4) Darfur conflicts displace 100,000 in one week | Radio Dabanga

(5) March 3 2014. UK Ambassador Peter Tibber on FB page UKinSudan

(6) Sudan security seizes copies of 11 newspapers in a week: RWB - Sudan Tribune:
Plural news and views on Sudan

(7) The Citizen, March 19 2014 "Sudanese opposition body reportedly rejects to participate in national dialogue" (Print only, available via BBC Monitoring service)

(8) Khartoum security arrests 110 Darfuri students, attacks protesters | Radio Dabanga


(10) Sudan | Amnesty International


(12) DRC: To hold a credible election, bring in the foreigners -- Good Governance Africa