Voting in a time of turmoil

World View: Elections can heal divisions or fuel conflict

Iraqi elections are seen as a “democratic watershed”, though they  may lead to deepening tensions. Above, municipal workers clean up at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad. Photograph: Thaier al-Sudani/ Reuters

Iraqi elections are seen as a “democratic watershed”, though they may lead to deepening tensions. Above, municipal workers clean up at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad. Photograph: Thaier al-Sudani/ Reuters


When voters flocked to the polls throughout Afghanistan in unexpectedly large and enthusiastic numbers 10 days ago, they were doing far more than just electing a government.

We in the jaded old democracies forget too easily that, particularly in conflict-torn societies, elections represent a moment of perceived personal empowerment for many people who for most of the year remain victims, not makers, of their country’s history. An election is a moment, fleeting and sometimes with contradictory results, when the little people become agents of change, and when they cherish their right to express their preference for a peaceful political path.

To witness such moments can be deeply moving. I remember vividly the day breaking in a small Cambodian village in 1993 when that country, emerging from terrible violence, underwent its first democratic election.

Out of the forest and along the pitted country roads streamed the old and young, entire families stacked on mopeds or walking with animals, and then crowding round polling stations for hours. But they did so good-humouredly, determined to put the past behind them; the election was a moment of personal and national catharsis.

In South Africa a year later they queued, and for many hours too, but with the same patience and enthusiasm, their personal stamp on the ending of apartheid.

Fuel conflict
But if elections can be the culmination of a healing political process, they can also, paradoxically, the democratic impulse notwithstanding, feed disintegration, fuel conflict, and legitimise dictators. And there is not a few of those on the go at the moment. Polls this month and next in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Egypt are, if anything, likely to deepen political crises or consolidate dictators’ positions.

In Algeria, which went to the polls on Thursday, and Syria, voting in May, both incumbents, presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Bashar al-Assad, are set to be re-elected with stonking majorities, though perhaps not quite the 90 and 98 per cent votes they got respectively last time out (2009 and 2007).

Widespread fraud is alleged in Algeria, while few outside Assad’s circle believe a fair election can be held in a country still at war and a third of whose population have become internal or external refugees. The votes will provide the thinnest of veneers of legitimacy to both men.

First-round voting takes place on May 26th in Egypt, where the almost certain election as president of former defence minister and military strongman Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was copperfastened this week when a court in Alexandria prohibited candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup in July last year and it has been designated a terrorist organisation, with its members shot and imprisoned in large numbers by the army. The election will do nothing to bridge the chasm between the country’s Islamist and secular communities and is likely to serve only to embolden the military authorities.

The Iraqi election on April 30th, taking place for the first time in the absence of foreign forces, has been described as “a democratic watershed in a divided country”. But the likelihood is that polling will see the return of the Shia-led coalition under prime minister Nouri al Maliki – his third term – and a deepening of the sect- arian tensions with the Sunni minority that has fed a virtual uprising in parts of Iraq.

Matthew Schweitzer of the University of Chicago argues: “Elections are not the promise of stability for which many Iraqis dream, but rather the stabiliser itself. Once over, the slow sense of entropy in Iraq may well accelerate.

“The elections had inspired a tired hope that political objectives, hitherto pursued through violence, would be achieved peacefully. But if Maliki remains prime minister, as appears probable, opposition moderates will have lost this powerful argument. Maliki, in turn, will use electoral victory as a mandate to punish his rivals. These tremors could intensify the sectarianisation of Iraqi politics.”

Ukraine’s presidential elections on May 25th are likely to be more democratic and representative than any of the above, but the process is unlikely to aid reconciliation.

Essentially it will recognise and reinforce new realities, emphasising the country’s east/west division by electing a westerner and giving a democratic legitimacy to the government in Kiev that it has lacked so far. And, ironically, it was the exercise of the people’s democratic mandate in 2010, electing Viktor Yanukovich ahead of Yulia Tymoshenko, that precipitated the country’s descent into its present chaos.

Democracy for good and ill.

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