The politics of elections and the universal ideals of democracy

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The neo-cons’ commitment to promoting democracy in the Muslim world was quietly discarded after Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, when they finally realised what most observers had been saying all along: that free elections in Muslim countries would almost invariably result in governments that the West would not like because they would promote the concerns and interests of their own people above those of Washington. Nonetheless, the image of democracy and electoral politics retains the status of a universal ideal in the West, as has been demonstrated by recent elections in other countries.

Most prominently, the electoral process has been playing itself out in the United States itself, where senior members of both the Republican and Democratic parties have been vying to be adopted as their parties’ candidates in the presidential election in November, when George W. Bush’s successor will be chosen. We have also had elections in Pakistan, Malaysia and Iran in recent months, all under very different circumstances and treated in very different ways by political observers and analysts in the West.

As far as the US elections are concerned, most analysts generally buy into the mirage of democracy working as it should work, with people choosing their future leaders for themselves by a largely free electoral process. The main interest is in the Democratic caucus, partly because the Republican one has already become a formality, and partly because it is widely expected that the Democrats will win in November. This has declined into some of the dirtiest political tricks seen in the US, with both racist and sexist undertones, and is dominated more by political spin and strategising than by ideas and policies. This is widely recognised by commentators, who view the process entirely cynically, recognising it as little more than a high-stakes spectator sport in which money and dirty tricks are the most important factors. Yet this cynicism does nothing to shake the same commentators’ faith in the democratic process, or to raise questions about the relevance or effectiveness of the process in terms of the democratic ideals than it is supposed to represent for the world that the US claims to lead.

In Pakistan, the elections were a similarly blatant carve-up between elements of the established political elite, with the main political parties all more worried about the interests of an outside power, the USA, than about the concerns of the people they are supposed to represent. The result: a government of kleptomaniacs that is more likely to give civil democracy a bad name and justify another period of military rule than to achieve any benefit for the masses who voted for them. In Malaysia, even allowing for the unexpected successes of opposition parties, we had another coronation for UMNO, the party that has ruled the country without a break since the British left Malaya in 1957.

Ironically, perhaps the most meaningful of these elections took place in Islamic Iran, the only country which, although broadly democratic, does not hold democracy up as its political ideal. In Iran, where the elections took place under the shadow of the US’s long-established enmity and political warfare, allies of president Ahmadinejad maintained their dominance, but the point that many Iranians are unimpressed with elements of his domestic policies was also clearly made.

The key point that emerges from considering these very different electoral experiences is that elections on their own signify very little. The institutional framework and political context in which they take place are everything. In America, the economic-military-political elites are so secure in their dominance that they can allow the people a full role in their maneuverings, confident that whoever wins will represent their interests before anyone else’s. In Pakistan the US has a similar role; in Malaysia UMNO is so entrenched in the institutions of power and the state that the elections by which it legitimises its position have become only measures of dissatisfaction with it. Only now, for the first time, are there signs that its position may be challenged; how it will react remains to be seen. Only in Iran do the elections offer the prospect of genuine and meaningful change, as occurred when Khatami won in 1997, and then Ahmadinejad defeated him in 2005; and that is because they are primarily about policy issues in a system whose principles — those of Islam — are clearly defined, shared by the vast majority of the country’s people, and openly upheld and protected by a leadership that sits above day-to-day politics.

As Muslims around the world compare this with their experiences of elections in their own countries, and what they see in the US, it is little wonder the US fears the consequences of giving them real choice.

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