The United States has been involved in many debates about the merits and detriments of its involvement in overseas democracies. Currently, this subject is coming to a head with regard to Libya. Valerie Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University, presented a lecture on this topic on Sept. 27. Titled “When U.S. Democracy Assistance Works,” her talk gave insight into the complex world of U.S. involvement in the color revolutions in post-Soviet countries.
Many post-Soviet states have experienced a form of government that hovers between authoritarianism and democracy. While these governments suffer from authoritarian, oppressive rulers, they also offer the opposition a voice in the form of elections. However, these elections are frequently manipulated and unfair to any opposing candidates. Despite the nature of such elections, the opposition has won on numerous occasions in the early 2000s. These instances became known as the color revolutions.
Bunce argues that the color revolutions have nearly always led to higher levels of democratic performance, as measured by the levels of independent media, civil society, and electoral process. In other words, when the opposition wins, democracy gains a significant boost. Her most recent book, co-authored with Sharon Wolchik, focused on 11 elections in particular that spanned nine post-communist regimes.
To evaluate the results of each election, Bunce combined four sources of data: journalistic and scholarly accounts, electoral and public opinion data, aggregate indicators, and “unusual information” such as personal interviews. She then categorized the elections as “successes,” resulting in turnover, or “failures,” in which the authoritarian incumbent won. Interestingly, factors such as the level of corruption, the state’s economic performance, and the level of regime authoritarianism did not significantly correlate with the success or failure of each election.
Instead, Bunce offers an “Electoral Model” that lays out the main factors that seem to influence the success or failure of an election. Among these factors are unity of opposition, ambitious campaign, voter registration drives, voter turnout drives, pressures on election commissions, collaborations between civil society, youth movements and the opposition, public opinion polls, exit polls and parallel voter tabulation.
The United States was involved in all the color revolutions to some degree, and it is this involvement on which Bunce focuses. During the color revolutions, the United States contributed travel support, training and funds as well as support for opposition unity and youth groups. Often, this was done not to support a particular candidate, but rather to support the underlying democratic process and to encourage political turnover in these semi-authoritarian states. Bunce points out, however, that the U.S .was not the only contributor, and that the color revolutions owe much of their success to a transnational network, of which the United States is only a small part.
The model shows that, on the whole, opposition unity and voter involvement are the most important factors in such elections. The opposition must present itself to the public as a “credible force” that deserves trust and votes. The United States has helped build up opposition support in former-Soviet countries, but ultimately the entire process of change stems from an international community.
Bunce’s lecture was part of the Levitt Public Affairs Center’s Security program.