x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Elections fail to deliver results in the absence of institutions

The charge sheet against democratic rule is long and damning. People are already concluding that democracy is a fair-weather system, useless when tough decisions have to be made.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Anyone looking around the world today could plausibly argue that democracy is failing as a system of government. In America, all policy - financial, diplomatic, military - is viewed by the White House as a lever to secure Barack Obama's re-election in November. While the US is in full campaign mode, even previously secret intelligence, such as the details of the US cyber-war against Iran, are revealed to make Mr Obama look like a winner.

Europe, the birthplace of liberal democracy, is meanwhile sunk in a morass of debt with rescue attempts hampered by weak leadership. Since 2008, every rescue plan that European Union governments have agreed on has been at least a year too late, and the EU leadership still shows no sign of getting ahead of the financial markets.

Greece stands out as a poster boy of democracy gone wrong. Since the end of military rule in 1974, the two parties which have cycled in and out of power, New Democracy on the right and PASOK on the left, have pillaged the state to fund their party clients, leaving it with a mountain of unpayable debts.

With both these parties discredited, the Greek body politic is close to collapse. In May, while claiming that they wanted to keep the euro, the Greeks voted for parties that rejected the necessary steps of austerity to get the country's finances in order. These included the maverick Syriza, a coalition of the radical Left, and extremist fringes which venerate Stalin and Hitler. With neo-fascist gangs fighting immigrants and anarchists in the slums of Athens, some commentators see parallels with the chaotic era of Germany's Weimar Republic, which brought Hitler to power in 1933.

Lacking any credible leaders at home, the Greeks were bullied into voting again by a foreign strongman - or in this case, a woman, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Through gritted teeth, the Greeks have put New Democracy into power to negotiate with Greece's creditors, to the great relief of Syriza, which wanted none of the responsibility of running a bankrupt country.

The irony is that Ms Merkel, while caricatured as bestriding Europe like a modern-day Kaiser, is in thrall to the opinion polls no less than Mr Obama or any other democratic politician.

In the Arab world, the situation is even more dire. Only a year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime, enough Egyptians are discontented with the fruits of democracy that the military, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), feels confident enough to start rolling back the revolution.

Scaf has dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament and given itself the right to draw up a new constitution, which will no doubt preserve the military's privileges dating from 1952. The result of the presidential election, apparently a close call between the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a holdover from the old regime, has been postponed. Whatever result is announced will likely be denounced as a military fix or the product of fraud, opening the way for a new period of instability.

Revolutions in Libya and Yemen have not led to stable government. And this will not be a passing phase. Almost a decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is stuck in a fake democracy where the rival parties divide up the ministries and use state funds to provide jobs for their cronies.

Qualified experts are sidelined, ensuring that important projects -such as providing a regular power supply - are neglected. For Iraqis, democracy means that citizens in a rich country have to rely on private generators.

The charge sheet against democratic rule is long and damning. People are already concluding that democracy is a fair-weather system, useless when tough decisions have to be made.

Despite the weight of evidence, I do not think the defendant is guilty as charged.

To start with Europe, the failures of the euro-zone states stem not from too much democracy, but too little. Countries that joined the euro zone were able to shrug off responsibility for their budgets, since their financial sovereignty was pooled. Political leaders were infantilised, and gave into the temptation of buying votes with borrowed money. Democracy without responsibility is mere populism.

A country like Greece, a neighbourhood weakling, got to join the German euro-zone gang and zoom around in a BMW. Those days are gone. Clear responsibility for budgets will force European leaders to grow up, as is happening with previously distressed economies such as Ireland and Latvia and, over a longer period, Sweden, which had its own banking crisis in the 1990s.

In the Arab countries, the situation is more complex. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood made great steps toward becoming a democratic party but it lost credibility as soon as it took over the parliament. There are many reasons for this, and perhaps the problems facing Egypt - economic decline, insecurity and political drift - would have defeated any party.

Ultimately, this is an issue of the institutions of the state. The army, for better or worse, is an Egyptian institution which is bigger than the generals who head it. The parliament, alas, is not. Democratic institutions have to be more powerful than the individuals in them.

How long did it take for stable civilian rule to replace the military state in Turkey? Half a century. How long has it taken Indonesia to shrug off military rule? Fourteen years, and the process is far from complete. These are the yardsticks against which we should measure Egypt's progress. Democratic institutions are not created overnight; they have to earn respect and prove that they work. Only then will power - which is always taken, never given - be theirs.

So democracy remains the goal. This is what launched the protests in Syria against the discredited rule of President Bashar Al Assad. This is the only way to avoid the stagnation that has gripped much of the Arab world in previous decades. If Islamist parties are to be reconciled with popular sovereignty, as they have been in Turkey and Indonesia, they must have a stake in power.

The events in Egypt show that last year's revolution was just the first stage of a long process. The simple act of casting a ballot in a clean election is very far from the end point.

aphilps@thenational.ae. Follow him on Twitter at @aphilps.