Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Election Uncertainty

One reason for restarting this blog has been the silence from other media regarding my work. Back in June I penned a piece for the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' section reflecting on the relationship between elections and civil society but which received zero interest. Moreover, given the recent and apparent fraud in Afghanistan's election, it still seems relevant. And here I have editorial license, so here you go:
"Iran is the latest election where the result has been contested, prompting protests in the street. President for the last four years, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed victory with 66% while his principal challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, states that there have been vote irregularities. Thousands of mainly young people have taken to the street in arguably the biggest protests seen in that country since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"Iranians’ resort to the street follows several other countries that have experienced political instability after the polls ended. Last year in Zimbabwe the failure to release the results of the presidential election for more than a month prompted suspicions about the nature of the polls. This was followed by a delayed second round election during which time President Robert Mugabe sought to bolster his position against the opposition through political violence, prompting his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw a week before the poll. Months earlier in December 2007, Raila Odinga claimed electoral manipulation against Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, setting off two months of violent protest and targeted ethnic conflict against the Kikuyu people, of whom Kibaki is a member. And in July 2006 centre-right candidate Felipe Calderón beat the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a margin of 0.6%, prompting cries of electoral fraud and widespread protest.

"And it hasn’t only been in recent democracies that election results have been contentious. Although the first round result of the 2002 French presidential election wasn’t questioned, thousands of protestors took to the streets against the presence of the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen against the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, in the second round. And two years previously the problem of political instability was kicked off in the United States. For it wasn’t at the ballot box that George W Bush could claim legitimacy for his first presidential mandate in 2000, but rather the verdict of seven judges of the Supreme Court.

"One thing that these countries have in common is that these crises have all occurred after presidential rather than legislative elections. This is explainable for two main reasons. First, presidential elections polarise societies. Their winner-takes-all nature means that only one candidate and his or her supporters can triumph. The rest are therefore excluded. The situation is exaggerated further in cases where the difference between victory and defeat is marginal, ensuring that the difference between majority and minority is slight. By contrast legislative elections tend not to result in the same degree of social and political polarisation. While different electoral systems will contribute to more or less proportion between votes and seats, the all-or-nothing features associated with presidencies is reduced.

"Second, presidents have arguably become more powerful in practice than theory presumed. Here the American case is especially instructive as it was here that the presidential model was introduced. The Founding Fathers sought to prevent the excesses of an overreaching executive with legislative and judicial checks and balances. In contemporary political systems though, the cult of leadership has arguably grown to the extent that such constraints tend to be overlooked. Despite Bush’s questionable legitimacy such considerations were soon put aside in the aftermath of 9/11 as legislative scrutiny all but evaporated over the Patriot Act and planning for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The response by political elites to these crises has followed two main forms. In some cases the beneficiaries of these elections have sought to brazen it out, hoping that social opposition will eventually dissipate. In Mexico and the US this largely happened following the inauguration of Calderón and Bush as presidents and their exercise of power. To a lesser extent the same occurred in France, with Chirac relying on a boosted turnout to defeat Le Pen, including from disgruntled socialists. In other cases incumbents have come to realise that the only way to achieve political stability is to establish governments of national unity with their political opponents, as happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

"However, while Ahmadinejad may still be able to opt for either path at the moment, neither the persistence of social exclusion of limited inclusion of rival political elites will deliver a long-term solution. The rise of social protest over the past decade reflects a more deep-rooted crisis than the institutional nature of presidential systems. Instead it suggests a more problematic issue of social incorporation into representative democracy since the 1990s when democracy emerged as the principal game in town.

"That isn’t to say that the ‘third wave’ of democratisation in the last quarter of the twentieth century was problem-free. But what appears to have changed over the past decade is the promise of what democracy can offer by society. Previously representative democracy had come hand in hand with economic liberalisation. Consequently its impact was largely procedural; while masses could vote there seemed to be an implicit acceptance that this would not lead to any substantial change.

"By contrast today the rules seem to have changed – at least for the voters if not the political elite. Increasingly public are demanding a more responsive form of democracy, a democracy that is substantive rather than procedural. It means going beyond the mere inclusion of rival political elites to accommodate the demands of the masses. It means making electoral choice more meaningful. It involves challenging the winner-takes-all mentality of presidential systems and the sustained representation of the minority in the face of the majority.

"For Iran and other countries that have experienced post-electoral instability, it seems clear that voters are taking democracy increasingly at its word. The question for political elites is whether they are prepared to dispense with their current preference for periodic ballots in favour of meeting social demands for a more engaged and participatory form of democracy."

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