Elections do not a democracy make

The road to full democracy goes through elections, but elections alone do not a democracy make

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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It is the season of elections in key Arab states. But these elections are not about real and free choices, as we have seen in Algeria, or as we will see soon in Egypt. And definitely we are not about to see these countries enter a season of true democracy.

Three years after a wave of uprisings overthrew four Arab despotic presidents-for-life in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and threatened other entrenched autocrats in Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere, the euphoria of that ‘moment of enthusiasm,’ when many in the region and beyond believed that these states were on the cusp of transformational change, gave way to disillusionment, resignation and even despair.

Egypt will revert to its previous status since 1952 as a country ruled by a retired military General, Libya is ungovernable, and Yemen, infamous for its fractured politics, is in chaos, and Syria has descended to multiple civil wars. One could argue that it is too early to render anything but a tentative judgment about the long trajectory of the Arab uprisings.

But equally one could also argue that we may be seeing a counter wave by a reinvigorated Arab authoritarianism, asserting itself in some countries swept by the uprisings such as Egypt and Syria.

Countries that so far avoided this storm such as Iraq and Algerian by burnishing its image with new constitutions, or revised electoral laws allowing some facets of democracy and pluralism such as multi-candidates in presidential elections, and multiparty parliamentary contests, are on a new paradoxical quest for ‘electoral legitimacy’ without democracy.

There is a relatively long intimate history of elections and autocracy in modern times. This was true in Europe in the interwar years, just as it was true in East Asia during the cold war and also in the states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Strong autocrats, ambitious military men and populist leaders were adept at manipulating elections, creating the institutional facades of democracy and other trappings of open governance, exploiting the legitimate grievances of their peoples and at using the resources and structures of the state to prolong their rule.

Arab autocrats no longer resort to referendum to ‘reelect’ themselves; they are creating the charade of allowing opponents to run against them, that is candidates as stalking horses, or candidates who are denied the wherewithal to win, such as access to media, funds, and other arbitrary restrictions that would make it impossible to defeat an incumbent.

The election fever and the ceaseless grotesque quest of Arab autocrats to wrap themselves with ‘electoral legitimacy’ has reached Syria’s Bashar Assad, who has been ‘elected’ twice with overwhelming majorities (in 2007, the unopposed Assad got the ‘yes’ vote of almost 98% of alleged Syrian voters).

Although this time, the elastic Syrian constitution has been amended to allow other contenders, and already a token candidate has entered the race. Of course, the amendments make it impossible for any serious candidate to challenge Assad -- if one can imagine elections in a country literally on fire-- since they stipulate that a challenger has to be a resident in the country for at least a decade, which eliminate those who live in exile, in addition to other restrictions.

This is by far the cruelest display of hubris put on by an Arab despot in modern times. Assad, who in a more just international system, would have been indicted as a war criminal responsible for dragging his country to a horrific war claiming at least 160,000 people, uprooting 9 million Syrians and driving 3 million of them to neighboring countries, has the arrogance to engage in such a farce election.

The bet among Syria watchers is that Assad’s majority this time will be less outrageous and may not go above 90%.

But the history of liberal democracy in the West in general and the United States in particular shows that democratization is a long process, and that it can be messy and at times destabilizing, because there will always be forces in society that resist some of the basic tenants of democracy and its habits and traditions.

Hisham Melhem

The recent presidential elections in Algeria were less of an affront to the Algerians, than the previous one, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won his third term with 90% of the vote.

This time Bouteflika, who is 77 years old, has allowed an opponent, who had no chance of winning to run against him and made sure not allow his landslide to exceed 81% of the vote. The sight of Bouteflika, casting his vote from a wheel chair, was a painful reminder to many Algerians that the weak health of the president reflects the health of the country.

The making of a myth

The former army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who has been Egypt’s de facto leader since he toppled the country’s first freely elected president last year and after adding Field Marshal to his many ranks, is waiting for a majority of Egyptian voters to confer electoral legitimacy on his coup.

For months, Sisi has been hard at work to create a cult of personality around him, the likes of which Egypt has not seen since the heyday of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950’s and 60’s. The mythmaking around Sisi is unique even by Egypt’s loose standards when it comes to adoring strongmen.

As one female commentator gushed, Sisi ”exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few. His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless… Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.”

The general in his labyrinth

But after the Egyptians toppled two presidents in less than three years, and after contested presidential and parliamentary elections, the field marshal cannot run unopposed like the three military men who preceded him.

Since, once again, the revised election law allows for multi candidates, he will face the former parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahi in next month’s election, after a third minor candidate withdrew from the race after receiving a ‘sign from God’ that Sisi will win.

The election, or rather the elevation of Sisi, comes after unprecedented turmoil in modern day Egypt. The harsh crackdown that Sisi led against the increasingly autocratic regime of President Mohammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, alienated a relatively large stratum of the Egyptian electorate and created an atmosphere of fear and loathing particularly after jailing thousands of Brotherhood activists and outlawing the oldest Islamist movement in modern Egypt.

Yet for all his presumed popularity, and because of the rising violence of Brotherhood activists and other radical Islamists who would like to exact vengeance against him, General Sisi lives in relative isolation and rarely leaves Cairo, and according to Eric Trager a noted Egypt analyst.

The enduring power of the old order in Egypt, including the entrenched military establishment led by Sisi, was on display in the crucial days that preceded the coup against President Mursi, when large demonstrations were organized in the streets of Egypt’s large cities and led by the movement known as Tamarod (rebellion).

Tamarod was formed by few young activists representing secular reformers, who felt that the Brotherhood has stolen the January 25th uprising. The movement supposedly collected millions of signatures calling for the resignation of Mursi.

It is clear now from press reports and statements of former leaders of Tamarod, that the movement was being manipulated, financed and later controlled by the Egyptian military which used it as a grassroots front against the MB. One of the reasons why autocrats win political confrontations is that they are good at manipulating and dividing their opponents.

The military did not care for the youth movement, and they used them and treated them as infantile leftists, and the supposedly secularists of Tamarod have proven by their support of the coup and the harsh repression of the Brotherhood that they are anything but liberal democrats.

Fear and loathing on the banks of the Tigris

The parliamentary elections in Iraq may not be predictable, but they may have far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s future and its integrity as a unitary state. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who would like to be reelected for a third term, has ruled as an elected autocrat driven by parochial Shiite considerations and interests.

Should he succeed in securing a third term, he is likely to continue his dangerous policies of marginalizing the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and consolidate his monopoly of centralized autocratic power. The Iraqi political system, based on dividing powers and spoils according to sectarian and ethnic quotas, has been strengthened and became more entrenched through elections. Democracy in countries like Iraq or in Egypt under the MB means majoritarian rule, brought about by popular vote.

Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies, legitimized by two flawed elections, could lead to wider sectarian conflicts if he is elected to a third term.

Illiberal democracy

Elections are a necessary component but not a sufficient condition for democracy or more specifically a liberal democracy. A modern democracy cannot exist without free, fair and transparent elections, but elections alone do not a democracy make.

Democracy is a system of checks and balances, separation of powers, a constitution that respects and protects basic civil and political rights and freedoms such as freedom of expression and assembly, the right to form political parties, the civilian control of the military, a free press, and an independent judiciary.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, elections took place in the new emerging republics, from Belarus to Georgia all the way to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. With the exception of the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia which succeeded in establishing modern democracies, all the rest of the former Soviet republics reverted at one time or another to the control of strong autocratic, and repressive regime through what scholars call ‘electoral authoritarianism’ or ‘illiberal democracy.’

The persistence of the old order

In these countries and others, elections, controlled and manipulated by the powers that be, have become synonymous with democracy. This primitive concept of democracy, which is devoid of the other liberal components of liberal constitutional democracies, is what Fareed Zakaria has called ‘illiberal democracy.’

There was no chance for the reformers or the nascent democratic movements to win in these elections that took place in the new republics which were swept away by elements of the ancien régime.

The former communists immediately changed their coats and became nationalists and alleged reformers. They knew the art of political organization, the effective means of popular mobilization, and they used rent effectively and were masters at exploiting a complex system of state patronage.

They had long years of bureaucratic experience, and they knew how to use the media, and they had plenty of resources. The reformers and the democrats lacked most of these skills and resources, and they ended up either marginalizing themselves or being marginalized by a resurgent old order.

We are witnessing a similar development in some Arab states, where the old order is trying to reassert itself and even making headway.

The tortuous road to liberal democracy

Liberal democracy did not make deep roots in the West until the middle of the 20th century when adult citizens enjoyed full civil and political rights. This was possible with the emergence of a strong middle class, the development of healthy free markets, and a large educated population active in voluntary associations in a viable civil society.

A democratic system based on political competition among political parties, creates political values and traditions built on compromises, and the concept of political coalitions. In other words, you cannot have democracy without active democrats.

But the history of liberal democracy in the West in general and the United States in particular shows that democratization is a long process, and that it can be messy and at times destabilizing, because there will always be forces in society that resist some of the basic tenants of democracy and its habits and traditions.

The Declaration of Independence, America’s cherished symbol of liberty, states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The declaration was a revolutionary document, and was ahead of its time but alas, it was not immediately put into action. After all, the free men then were only white men who owned property, and excluding Native Americans, not to mention that America then was inflicted with the curse of slavery.

It took a horrible civil war to end slavery, and women did not get their universal rights including suffrage until 1920. It is instructive, that the U.S. is celebrating right now the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which finally guaranteed the rights of African-Americans to vote without impediments.

The road to full democracy goes through elections, but elections alone do not a democracy make.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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