People of this region have been busy over the last few months voting in many elections — parliamentary, local, presidential and referenda. Yet, most of it seems predetermined with no surprises in results. Though elections in other parts of the world, especially in established democracies, are witnessing declining turnout of voters, people’s participation in elections in the region is on the rise. This is not only due to the region’s thirst for democracy, but is in part a by-product of the so-called Arab Spring witnessed more than three years ago. ‘Over-doing’ of elections is another means to show that there is ‘real’ change. Majority of ordinary people in the countries of change are not buying this pretence, especially as they see no ‘change’ in their lives except for the worst.
Elections in our region are being used to spin popular legitimacy for some sort of ‘enforced’ arrangements. The remarkable beginning was the first general elections in Iraq after invasion and occupation, which the occupying powers wanted to show as a good result of the bloody destruction of Iraq. ‘Democracy Party’ was a big media event, with ordinary Iraqis raising their inked fingers for the first time in decades. Continuous deterioration of the situation in Iraq, which came close to being a ‘failed state’, did not prove that elections were a good reward for almost a quarter of a century of strangulation through sanctions and the destruction of war.
All rhetoric about ‘democratisation’ of the region did not reach beyond the few thousands of mediapersons and pundits. The general public still goes to vote, but almost the same way as they used to under totalitarian regimes. Ironically, societies with no elections are becoming more content with their status while watching what ‘democracy’ has brought about in countries that are in turbulence and decline because of it.
Even the only example of some sort of democracy — Lebanon — is losing esteem of its unique way of running a multiethnic and multifactional society.
One is not questioning the notion that free and fair elections are the best way available towards achieving representative democracy, ensuring an inclusive political stability. Without crediting the argument of totalitarian rulers that their societies ‘are not yet ready for democracy’, how can we explain the little worthiness of repeated elections in the region that are not helping at all in the march of these countries towards democracy?
No doubt that democracy, like other established ideas of the 20th century, is under a re-think in its established domains, while others on the peripheries are looking forward to a ‘developed’ form of political rule. An abstract analogy (that may not be right) is that some in the world are looking to get technological innovation to replace a traditional way of human activity, while those who developed that innovation are dropping it as they develop a new one.
Since independence from colonial occupation in the middle of the previous century, countries of the region that chose to be republics opted for a hybrid system of governance that involved ‘elections’ in some form. None of these countries managed to develop into full-fledged democracies because of various reasons. Most are still there even after the last three years of turbulent changes. I always remember covering one of the most transparent elections in an Arab country in 1996, when many candidates ran for parliament, but not one result was different from what everybody had predicted, reducing the entire exercise to little less than a well-orchestrated show.
A friend who studied in Harvard and returned at the time to his country explained to me that even he had voted along family (tribal) lines. That was why the results were all predetermined. Going from referendum to election, then protests and new referendum and further elections in a couple of years is not enough for a country to proclaim that it has become ‘democratic’. It is just elections without borders (as some employees mock the numerous meetings in workplaces as ‘meetings without borders’ — implying, a waste of effort).
No wonder the military — that provided the backing to regimes in many post-independence republics — is coming back to power bluntly, though through ‘elections’. This is not only evident in Egypt, Libya and Thailand, but is emerging as a trend that may lead to a new form of semi-totalitarian, semi-democratic (in the sense of Third-World democracies) form of political rule.
So, do we still need elections — even as a show? Yes, we do — whether you call it meaningless or argue that it is the ‘modern’ means to democracy or believe that elections without borders will eventually lead to ‘real change’ among people and not only among elites and regimes.
Dr Ahmad Mustafa.