Legitimacy and Elections

So Ukraine now has a legitimate government. Or does it? Viktor Yushchenko has been elected with 52% of the popular vote. His opponent received 44%. Observers confirm that infringements of the electoral rules were but minor. Yet questions remain. The defeated candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, contests the result. The country is deeply divided. Will the miners of Donetsk start the next revolution, this time in red against the orange of the protests staged by Yushchenko’s supporters against the original election with its clearly illegitimate result? Will there be a secession movement in eastern Ukraine?

Legitimacy is a delicate, yet utterly important feature of stable democratic politics. It is also complicated. Was George W. Bush the legitimately elected President of the United States in his first term, having gained office only after America’s Supreme Court ordered an end to the Florida recount and with Bush having secured only a minority of the votes nationwide? Are the presidents of some former Soviet republics who seem to command 90% of the popular vote legitimately elected? Will the planned elections in Iraq be regarded as legitimate internally as well as externally?

It is vital to remember that elections alone do not guarantee legitimacy, even if they are seen to be free and fair. Americans find it hard to understand this, as do others in the lucky democracies of the Anglo-Saxon world. For them, legitimacy simply means that voting and counting votes happens according to undisputed rules. What is legal, they think, is also legitimate.

For many others in the world, however, at least two other questions remain. First, turnout is crucial: who has voted and who has not. The second question is whether there remains any systematic, potentially violent opposition to the outcome.