Op Ed: The ballot box alone is no guarantee of real democracy

Edmonton Journal

Op Ed: The ballot box alone is no guarantee of real democracy

BY HARRY STERLING, FREELANCE MAY 11, 2012

Democracy. Free elections. Lofty and much admired concepts.

But not all who might claim to support democracy and its intrinsic component of free elections necessarily share the same values when it comes to the purpose of elections within society, especially societies experiencing the joy, but also the chaos, arising from overthrowing oppressive regimes.

The so-called Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East is a timely reminder of such differences and the potential dangers they may unleash with totally unpredictable consequences.

And those differences are extremely sobering for Western nations such as Canada, whose views on democracy and free elections might diverge from what’s happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain – and in Syria, where more than 9,000 people have been killed during anti-government opposition against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have caused concern for some because of the strong showing by Islamic political parties that now effectively dominate their parliaments.

Amplifying such concerns, fundamentalist-minded Muslim clerics, politicians and others have called for major changes that would significantly affect the lives of ordinary citizens, in some cases with highly negative consequences for minority non-Muslims, non-Arabs, females and Shiite Muslim minorities.

Others fear the Muslim Brotherhood might already dominate the main coalition group opposing Assad, the Syrian National Council operating from Turkey.

Many in Western states regard democracy as a system that, although far from perfect, enables a nation’s population to express its views about proposed policies of different political parties. Those parties then cede power when defeated.

In many other parts of the world, elections are primarily take-no-prisoners showdowns between rival groups frequently based on tribal, religious, ethnic or racial loyalties, each intending to pursue their own narrow interests benefiting their followers, not society in general.

Until recently, nations like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were dominated politically by family dynasties. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and other Persian Gulf states are still in thrall to tribal-based rulers.

Interestingly, the various divisions within such societies were kept in check by military-backed regimes that overthrew various traditional rulers in the Middle East during the period following the Second World War, such as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya. Elections in such countries were merely elaborate orchestrated charades.

However, democracy is not just the right to cast a vote in a ballot box. Real democracy is something that must already reside in the human spirit and brain, a concept requiring an openness and tolerance for the different views of others.

For true democracy to flourish, human beings must be prepared to treat fellow humans as equals and accord them the same rights and dignity they want for themselves. In countries with a tradition of governments that base their policies on advancing their own group’s special interests, elections are often decided by the barrel of a gun.

This is especially pertinent in the case of “true believers” who insist the right course of action for all people is to follow a particular religion or ideology and not question what has been unilaterally declared to be the truth and right behaviour for loyal citizens. Those who criticize entrenched power groups run the risk of being ostracized, intimidated, even jailed.

For opportunistic “true believers,” their commitment to democratic elections and respect for others’ rights may only last as long as necessary to gain power.

In Egypt, although the Muslim Brotherhood leadership maintains it will honour democratic norms, elements within that movement have called for a much stricter implementation of Islamic cultural practices, including treating Coptic Christians as second-class citizens . Some demand a total ban on alcohol and ending diplomatic relations with Israel.

Egypt’s extremely fundamentalist Salafi movement, which won 20 per cent of the parliamentary vote, is highly vocal about its lack of respect for non-Muslims. Its more radical faction, which opposed presenting candidates in the election, insists there’s absolutely no need for secular laws when everything Muslim believers require is already clear from the words of Allah transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an.

Unlike the West, such societies rarely have the kind of social infrastructures that contain private organizations that can serve as independent bodies capable of representing viable and nonconfrontational views on society’s needs and whose influence can place restraints on dogmatic closedminded groups whether religious or otherwise.

Whether such open-minded groups will be able to make meaningful headway in the Middle East in coming days could be crucial in deciding the fate of authentic democracy in that region.

Thus, for democracy to evolve in the Middle East it won’t be sufficient to simply change governments but rather to change the nature of entire societies as well.

Harry Sterling , a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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Posted on May 11, 2012, in Arab Spring, Morocco News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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