The ballot box is the icon of democracy, but in too many countries dishonest elections are just a tool for tyrants.
Dirty elections do more harm than good
The world's electoral calendar is crowded this year. Yemenis just voted, Russians do so next week, the French this spring, Egyptians in June, Americans in November and South Koreans in December, to name some of 2012's presidential elections (although "election" may be a misnomer in Yemen's case). Syria just had a referendum. Iran is one of many states holding parliamentary elections. Is this democracy in action?
Up to a point. In some countries, electoral democracy in practice comes close to the theory - the free choice of leaders by the people. But elsewhere "elections" are cynical frauds that do more harm than good. Even in the US, dysfunctional campaign politics distort the process.
It is instructive to examine some of these cases. Syria's referendum, political theatre of the absurd, need not detain us. Yemen's election, despite having only one candidate, Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, was not as bad. When a country is in dire crisis, a show of sham democracy may be better than no democracy at all: the deal that elevated Mr Hadi does include plans for real elections in two years. And 60 per cent of the electorate showed their approval by turning out for the vote.
In fairly recent years, Russia might have been an exemplar for Middle East politics, but no more. Vladimir Putin has intimidated, arrested or chased away plausible opponents; protests are widespread but state media depict participants as dangerous, or duped, or both. The legislative elections in December were clearly rigged in some districts. Russian "democracy" looks increasingly like the version practised in Zimbabwe and several other African states: intimidation, violence and fraud leave the process a mere rubber stamp for the local big man.
But the people, even when powerless, understand. Egyptians know that the lawmakers they have just chosen - in evidently fair voting - will not supplant the army's power, and that their presidential choice may be more limited. Iranians know the cause and meaning of the bloody suppression of their "Green Revolution" after the disputed 2009 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and they understand where power really lies in their theocratic state. Iraqis see that their elections led only to self-interested scheming by those who took office.
In theory, choosing leaders by vote empowers the public. But in practice, it often empowers only the clique that controls the process.
The soul of political freedom is found not just in the ballot box but also in the rule of law and institutions. Even in the most spurious of democracies, many people make the effort to vote, not because they are deluded but because the democratic ritual carries an implicit promise of the rule of law. But without impartial justice and restraints on state power, voting is just another tool for tyrants.