Normally, what counts at the end of an election is what the winner proposes to do with his victory. After all, the winner wins control of the resources of the state plus the right to set the national agenda. However, there are circumstances in which what matters is what the loser intends to do with his defeat.
This was the situation we faced in Iran- last June.
Hours after the voting had ended what mattered most was not what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the officially declared winner, said or did but the attitude of the loser, Mir-Hussein Mousavi.
Mousavi refused to accept his status as loser and used his defeat to anoint himself as the moral winner.
The implicit message was simple: Ahmadinejad may have won physical control of government but it was Mousavi who commanded the true loyalties of a majority of Iranians.
The split produced by last June’s election could shape Iranian politics for years to come.
Elections were invented as a means of resolving political conflicts without violence. In fact, electoral politics is a form of civil war in which rivals settle scores with ballots rather than bullets.
For such a system to work, it is important that the winner take into account the vital interests of the loser. However, it is more important that the loser should admit defeat and, hoping to win in a future election, acknowledge the legitimacy of the winner’s position.
Iraq’s experience since its liberation in 2003 is a brilliant example of elections functioning as a substitute for civil war.
Terrorists, insurgents and revanchist Baathists did all they could to provoke a civil or, at least, a sectarian war, but failed. The reason was that most groups in Iraq realized that they could win a share of power through elections.
We may be witnessing a similar situation in Lebanon.
The Hezbollah, backed by the Islamic Republic in Tehran, has the guns needed to seize power in Beirut or, at least, provoke a civil war. However, it is keeping its powder dry because it still hopes to win control of the country through some future elections and in coalition with Iran-backed Maronite groups led by ex-General Michel Aoun.
What mattered in Lebanon’s recent elections was not the fact that the 14 March coalition won most seats in parliament but the fact that the “Iranian camp” accepted defeat.
In cases when that does not happen, elections, rater than being a substitute for civil war, could become a pretext for civil war.
There are many examples of this in history.
The Spanish Civil war of 1936-39 was caused by disputed elections in which the conservative groups were not prepared to accept the victory of leftist and anarchist parties.
More recently, the Algerian election of 1992 became the trigger for what amounted to a civil war for a decade.
The Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS), winner in the first round of that election, made it clear that it would ignore the vital interests of the losers by introducing changes that would turn Algeria into an “Islamic” state, whatever that means.
The losers, for their part, feared that under the system represented by FIS, “one man, one vote, one time”, they would never get a chance to win in the future.
More recently, disputed elections in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have led to “velvet revolutions”, that is to say regime change without significant violence. In every case, the loser provoked a crisis by refusing to acknowledge defeat.
In Turkey, refusal to accept the results of elections was the root cause of the three coups d’etat that the armed forces staged in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The losers refused to admit defeat and persuaded the army to install them in power against the popular will as expressed in elections.
Turkish democracy attained maturity only this century when the army made it clear that it would no longer try to second-guess the verdict of elections.
In a week’s time, as the final results of last month’s presidential and provincial elections are announced, Afghanistan will reach a crossroad.
Indications are that President Hamid Karzai is set to collect the 50 per cent plus one of the votes needed to win in the first round. His nearest rival, Dr. Abdullah Zamariani, is credited with 35 per cent of the votes while Ramazan Bashardoust, the “third man” in this 34-candidates race, may end up with 10 per cent.
Even if he wins, Karzai will be in a weakened position.
He won his first mandate with more than 55 per cent of the votes evenly spread across the country. This time he wins with a lower percentage and a narrower geographical base. Results announced so far show that most of his votes came from ethnic Pushtuns and Uzbeks. His position is further weakened by the fact that voter turnout was around 35 per cent compared to 65 per cent last time.
Some observers believe that the best solution is for the election to go into a second round. That could encourage a higher turnout because the August election showed that the Taliban were not able to disrupt the process by threatening to kill or maim candidates and voters. At the same time, the fact that the choice would be limited to two candidates might galvanize more people to vote.
However, a second round poses immense problems, ranging from ensuring the security of the exercise to provoking an even more dramatic division across ethnic lines.
Elections hat were supposed to bring Afghans closer together may actually drive them further apart. To avoid such a disaster is the key issue of Afghan politics today.