Equating the ballot box with democracy across the Arab world

As elections season gets under way in earnest across the region, the most pressing question on many minds is whether the ballot box can be equated with democracy and the rule of law.

The Turkish municipal elections has been a clear example of the people making their voices heard by backing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite rumors of corruption swirling around his administration. Erdogan described his decisive victory as an “Ottoman slap” for his opponents — a reference to an open-handed blow to the head that was supposedly a combat technique of Turkey’s former imperial troops. He certainly achieved that, and hinted he would stand in August’s presidential elections.

Erdogan now has a tight grip on key elements of the state including the judiciary, the police and intelligence services. He had also banned social media websites Twitter and YouTube. While the chattering classes will no doubt launch barbs at the man, his record of boosting his country’s economy and global political profile is clear. In any case, the assessment that matters is that of the Turkish people, who have spoken loudly that they still want him and the AK Party in charge. His opponents should respect the will of the people.

Defining elections

In principle, elections are a way to define the direction people want their leaders to take. Democracy, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Elections are often beset by fraud, particularly in developing countries, but if there is political will, combined with the best technology, then this can be reduced. In developed nations, losing candidates mostly congratulate the winners, which is an awareness that the process is much more than about numbers.

Democracy is a system that involves a series of checks and balances between various parts of the state, a strong civil society, independent judiciary and legislature, and free media.

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

The Iraqi parliamentary elections are due at the end of this month and the Egyptian presidential elections next month. The Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki wants a controversial extension to his two-term rule deemed as unconstitutional by many. Al-Maliki wants to stay in power and have greater control over decision-makers in Baghdad. It is here that the ballot box supports an illegal move. Al-Maliki will obviously argue that the elections would be the litmus test of democracy in Iraq. Elections are, without a doubt, a crucial element of democracy, but can be misused to stoke racial, religious and sectarian divisions. The question under these circumstances is whether they truly reflect the will of the people.


Democracy is a system that involves a series of checks and balances between various parts of the state, a strong civil society, independent judiciary and legislature, and free media. If it is reduced to the ballot box, it paves the way for autocratic leaders. Adolf Hitler was voted into power, despite his ideology of a supreme Aryan race, which led to World War II. Democracy, however, cannot be blamed for starting the war, it was the subversion of it that did so.

There are many leaders across the world who understand what true democracy is. It can give and take away power, especially if a leader fails to live up to his commitments to his people. It doesn’t normally end well for those who cling onto power at all cost. US President Richard Nixon, leader of the most powerful nation in the world, resigned from public office in 1974 in the wake of the illegal activities of his Republican administration, including the Watergate scandal, which saw him orchestrate a break-in at the Democratic Party offices, and bugging the phones and offices of his opponents. His fate was subject to the rule of law.

For an election to perform its function, it needs the right conditions to enhance and support it, including improving education and community awareness, and having the media play a strong watchdog role. This is especially important in this region, where Arabs tend to be emotional and fickle. A country that institutes democracy has to have strong and credible institutions and guarantee the separation of powers. Democracy is like being married, it can only be legitimate and successful if it is certified by witnesses and based on the law.

This article was first published in Arab News on April 8, 2014.


Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
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