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Limits of electoral democracy

Mohammed Al Rumaihi

Published: Updated:

Last Monday’s edition of French daily Le Figaro featured a frontpage manchette reading: “Eggs on Macron’s chest” following the incident where a citizen threw an egg at the republic’s president during an election meeting.

A few months earlier, the world saw Macron receiving a slap on his face from one of those who were supposed to be cheering him. In Paris, the downtown gets disrupted each Saturday and car traffic stops, due to the large demonstrations staged to protest a law which forbids unvaccinated people from entering public places. Restaurant and café owners themselves are now breaking the low by allowing and welcoming in anyone who wishes to be served in their premises. A French daily commented on this breach of the law saying that it is the first of its kind since the “mobs” stormed through Paris more than two centuries ago during the French Revolution. A law is being violated publicly while the French state is incapable of reacting.

This is the situation with democracy implementation in one of the European countries that have a long-established democratic tradition. Turning to the US, the world knows that the Chief of Staff issued orders to his subordinates to ignore any request by the US president to activate the nuclear button, and even on his own contacted his Chinese counterpart without any consultation or permission, to reassure the latter that “everything is under control.” In the same vein, the defeated President Donald Trump refused to concede and, instead, incited his “mobs” to storm what is known to be the castle of democracy in Washington DC, the Capitol, to hinder the official declaration of his successor, which is a routine process. Afterwards, Trump scornfully departs from DC without participating in the inauguration ceremonies of his successor, still in defiance of the results, after he was banned from using social media while still being the President at the White House. He was the kind of man by whom abnormal behavior was expected to be the norm, an exceptional phenomenon in the post-independence US political history.

As for Mr. Joe Biden, he is referred to by his “memory lapses” by some media outlets, probably in an attempt to play down the rhetoric of his political rivals who claim that his old age does not assist him in carrying out his full presidential responsibilities.

Hence, we can see that electoral democracy in a country like the US is facing problems that do not seem to have a near solution, particularly the problem of electing people who for one reason or another are “incapable” of assuming large responsibilities – only because the electoral system permits it.

When we move to the UK and its Brexit story, we find that the percentages of those who voted for and against Brexit were almost equal, albeit with a very slight majority in favor of it. Since this is stipulated by the system, the opinion of this slight majority was implemented - while disregarding that of the almost other half, which means that in a democratic system one more vote in favor of a particular side makes that side “gain the lion’s share.” However, from an ethical and political point of view one wonders if this is fair, especially in terms of power sharing in any country!

In the third world countries, the ballot box is used in a vulgar manner – if one could say – and some researchers noted this early on. For example, after considering the repetitious failure of electoral democracy in the third world countries, Samuel Huntington suggested that these countries need a somewhat lengthy preparatory stage, where people should be trained not on casting their ballots, but rather on respecting the results of those ballots. Anyway, this is the role of emerging states, and thus no side is entitled to ask others to “blindly implement democracy” only because it likes to see this happen.

Furthermore, Arab experiences are a mere repetition of this relative failure. In Lebanon, we hear the new Prime Minister Najib Mikati reiterating his resolute willingness to hold the public elections on time, although each Lebanese citizen already knows the results of such elections, that are dominated by sectarian calculations – among other factors which will result in the same apparatus, probably with a slight and insignificant change. Another ongoing Arab experience is that of Tunisia, which was praised until recently as an “icon” by writers who rushed to proclaim it as the sole success of the Arab Spring. However, the country is deteriorating because of ballot boxes that do little in an environment of advantageous alliances and bias. Hence, we find that the elected council is distributing booty among its private supporters, and exchanging benefits with particular sides, in full negligence of people’s public interests, a negligence that extended to a dissociation from the people and an aspiration to establishing a new regime, as the current events indicate.

This leads us to another noteworthy experience. Last July a new book was released by the Kuwaiti periodical “the World of Knowledge,” namely, a translation of Daniel Bell’s ‘The China Model’, which is quite a remarkable book that discusses the Chinese political experience in terms of what it called ‘political efficiency.’ Bell thinks that China is coining its own model in running public affairs - a model that is the third one globally - where Beijing departs from Leninist and even Maoist ideology, rather developing a system that is inspired by the Chinese imperial history when examinations were held throughout the empire to pick the best people for administrative positions. Bell notes that the current Chinese president stepped from a city district to a city, a province, and finally to the public national level, adding that each time he competes with other rivals he wins, an illustration of his political efficiency, which, the writer thinks, is prevailing in most if not all Chinese administrative layers. Bell opines that thanks to its effectiveness, this political efficiency attempts to open up to the Chinese laypeople, as in most cases the system is aware of the local languages and customs, interacts with the influential elite, and represents the country in the best shape. Bell points out that the main reason behind the success of people’s representatives in China under this system is that they were nominated only because they succeeded through a number of tests while competing against other rivals, and not thanks of nepotism or being relatives of the president. The dilemma of electoral democracy is that, thus far, it has proven to be incapable of developing.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that the West’s persistence on exporting its own version of democracy might stem from internal pressure, and that this persistence ignores the reality of other diverse cultures where the ballot boxes are exploited for entirely different purposes, which already happened and is happening! Probably it is time to point out that democracy is not merely a ballot box. It is a method, rather than an objective.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.