"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Elections and democracy

I'm working on a project that is time-eating (though rewarding), but I am going to dip my toes into some dangerous and uncertain water here.  

Next year's parliamentary elections have been uncertain for a while now.  This isn't terribly surprising, given the political and security chaos inside of Yemen.  Elections are always difficult when a large part of the country wants to secede (for some perspective, read the Times' fascinating blog about what was happening in the US in 1860).   And, clearly, despite attempts to democratize in the late 90s and early 00s, President Salih has gotten increasingly paranoid and authoritarian, as he seeks to hang on to and perpetuate his rule in one form or the other.  Add to this the fragmentary and uneasy alliance between the two main opposition parties- the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, joined in the Joint Meeting Party (JMP)- and you have a perfect electoral mess.

Next year's elections were supposed to be a re-do of ones previously canceled due to a JMP boycott.  I think Salih looked things over, and decided that it was better for him to elongate a term rather than have an election more tainted than usual.  But it is also clear that he wasn't going to leave things up to chance, and this has led to more uncertainty.  A recently-passed law shifts electoral oversight from the parties to judges. Now, in theory, this is a good deal.  Judges, right- but who selected the judges?   The law was passed by a GPC (ruling party) dominated Parliament, and seems to ensure that any and all oversight will be in the hands of one party.  Needless to say, this is precipitating another boycott.

But this time the GPC is saying the show must go on.  In a vacuum, this would be a canny move.  Oversight was shifted to the august judiciary, but it still wasn't enough for the rapacious JMP, who want to see sacred elections tainted by party politics, and, failing in that, will take their ball and go home.  But who needs them?  We're going to have an election, because, by gum, this is a democracy.  But we aren't in a vacuum- Salih's government is badly delegitimized, and I really don't think people are going to fall for this.

Now, here is where it gets a little dangerous.  I think I'm in the "elections don't make democracy; democracy makes elections" camp.  It is an uncomfortable place to be, because it goes against a lot of gut instincts and deeply-held emotional beliefs.  It also can tend toward being at best patronizing, at worst insulting ("These wogs just aren't ready for democracy, my good man!").   But in an unstable society, elections have the ability to bring out the worst in people and to heighten divisions, as people tend to vote for the alliance that will protect them, and that often falls along tribal/ethnic lines.  

I think there are some things which mitigate that in Yemen- namely, the unlikely alliance, no matter how frail, of a religious party and socialists, who in the last Presidential elections put up an incorruptible (and alas, unelectable) candidate.    But of course, the JMP can't influence the system unless it takes enough seats from the GPC, and the GPC will use all their influence to keep the JMP from getting seats.  

In this atmosphere of disunion and violence, where the GPC is certain to do everything it takes to continue winning, is an election wise or even desirable?  I honestly think that having a tainted election will provoke even more unrest than not having one at all.  But that is rewarding Salih with very bad behavior.  I honestly don't know, and am looking forward to having some time next week to think about all of this, which is how I usually spend my Christmastime.   But in the meantime I am looking forward to comments.

Yes, this is a weasel ending, but I don't have a solid opinion yet, and have been trying to avoid the bloggy tendencies toward strident opinions on everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment