Can Lebanon reverse the trend of futile elections in the Middle East?
Thus, Lebanon returns to the polls on Sunday. Excited? No, me neither. Elections in the Middle East tend to follow a pattern as predictable as “Star Wars.” You show up at the polling station, you wait patiently in line in the heat, you vote, you get your fingers inked, you go home, you rejoice in democracy in action and, when you wake up the next morning, absolutely nothing has changed.
Iraq is currently offering a non-stop political cabaret vividly illustrating the problem. At first glance, the main winners of the national elections last October were the Sadrists. They may not have increased their total number of votes, but those votes have been distributed where they have had the most impact. Their main opponents, the grouping of Shia parties now known as the Coordination Framework, were dismayed, but not discouraged. They simply prevented the formation of a new government with a variety of delaying tactics straight out of the playbook used to slander the effect by Nouri Al-Maliki in 2010, including co-opting the chief justice and exploiting cynical of the ambiguities in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. They have been helped by divisions between the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who each claim the presidency for themselves.
The Coordinating Framework has the audacity to claim that it acts in the name of democracy and constitutional propriety – on the grounds that no government should be formed without securing political control of the Shia bloc as a whole. They oppose the Sadrists’ attempt to exclude them and instead include independents and Sunni and Kurdish parties. They are supported in all of this by Iran, which fears losing its influence if Iraqi politics were truly to become more open and sensitive to the real and material needs of all Iraqis, and not just a small number of ideological stooges driven and power hungry. So much for the national interest…
But that’s exactly what you get if you have a system of “muhasasah,” known in English as consociationalism — the distribution of political representation along community lines, as defined by self-appointed gatekeepers. Some would say it’s a convenient way to control communal tensions, guaranteeing proportionate shares of political benefits to mutually suspicious groups. In practice, it guarantees corruption, political opportunism and the freezing of all positive political development.
And of all the countries in the region, the one with the longest experience of this slow-moving car accident is poor Lebanon. I understand the reasons for the 1943 National Pact – and why the 1989 Taif Accord did little more than modify the framework of representation to accommodate changing demographics. After all, civil wars are exhausting and stopping them is always a priority. But consociationalism is not a long-term answer. It promotes the representation or well-being not of individuals or the community as a whole but of small predatory groups and their leaders.
Electoral democracy is a process, not a result. It is the product and not the cause of a political ideology.
Mr John Jenkins
In Lebanon and now in Iraq, it has produced professionally communalist politicians who make decisions not on the basis of voter intentions revealed by elections, but in closed-door negotiations with other elite groups including the main objective is to preserve their power and access to the state. resources that this power offers – and which in turn sustains the clientelism on which such a system depends. This provided fertile ground for external actors such as Iran to sponsor the growth of militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq. In both places they have blocked change and obstructed good governance and, in the interests of their sponsor, are now effectively holding these entire countries hostage.
Where does it end? In Iraq, massive economic inequality, environmental catastrophe (with chronic water shortages, agricultural failures and, in recent days, some of the worst sandstorms in living memory), utterly inadequate national infrastructure, the anarchy and the looting of state coffers. In Lebanon, it is still the same, as vividly illustrated by the total failure of responsibility for the explosion in the port of Beirut last year, the collapse of the central bank, a dire economic situation and rapidly increasing poverty.
If you look at the evidence from elections, social surveys and other opinion polls in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 (or in Iraq since 2003), it is clear that many, if not most Arabs – and in fact Iranians, Kurds, Amazighs, Tuaregs, Turkmens, Armenians, Assyrians and Yazidis want to have a say in choosing clean, competent, efficient, accountable and accountable governments. The absence of such governments was a major driver of the events of the Arab Spring.
But if you then consider the actual results of those elections, you see a graphic illustration of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s observation – made against the backdrop of 1930s Europe – that the new cannot be born, the former will not die and the struggle between the two gives rise on the contrary to a variety of more or less morbid symptoms. Most notably, you see the continued hold that systems of tribal, clan, ethnic, religious, sectarian and other affiliation have on the politics and sociology of the region and its constituent parts.
Neither Lebanese nor Iraqi elections have produced a permeable and removable class of politicians who represent the interests of their constituents to the best of their ability and judgment. Instead, they confirm in power a set of elites whose power derives not from the ballot box but from the accumulation of social capital, clientelism and the deliberate construction of ethnic, communal or sectarian boundaries.
This story repeats itself with variations across the region. Some observers believed that the Arab Spring would produce better and more accountable governance. Instead, it produced insecurity, social unrest, the instrumentalization of religion, the rise of often violent identity politics and, where elections were held, callous and corrupt faith-based elites who looked much like to the old ones. And, therefore, in all elections in the region since 2011, we are now seeing the slow decline of popular trust at the polls in response to endemic and persistent problems of poor governance, corruption and state capture. If voting doesn’t change anything, why bother voting?
Electoral democracy is a process, not a result. It is the product and not the cause of a political ideology. In Europe — where political liberalism is an exception to be explained rather than a normative rule to be exported — the electoral systems expressed in different ways in different countries are the result of a highly contingent set of historical experiences and are underpinned by an articulated ideology of individual rights and freedoms whose origins go back to Roman and customary law.
And in the West, modernity was a cultural project before being an institutional project. Successful electoral democracy requires the development of enduring habits of mind and social practices and a shared sense of past and future. It needs an acceptance that power can be transferred peacefully, a living memory of effective, non-predatory state behavior, and an unintimidated civil society. It needs a common sense of justice and acceptance of the rule of law. And it needs strong, independent and impartial state institutions to arbitrate.
So the real question is: how do we think the conditions can be created in which a functioning electoral democracy can be born and sustained in Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia or elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa? At the heart of this is a question not about democracy but about the state and about governance. Most people want strong, accountable states that provide security, prosperity, services and jobs. Political systems like those in Lebanon and Iraq have failed catastrophically to fulfill this desire. Sunday’s elections in Lebanon will not solve the problem. They will simply illustrate it.
Wherever these systems persist, there is likely to be a majority of people in favor of something different. But first, the existing systems must be swept away or, at the very least, radically modified. And that comes with its own huge risks, especially in places where murderous militias have a foothold. Nevertheless, there is perhaps some comfort to be drawn from the courage of those people – often young people – who have taken to the streets in recent years in Beirut, Basra, Baghdad, Sidon, Tripoli and Tire to demand fundamental change. In Iraq, some even got elected. If their Lebanese counterparts could come together around a single agreed platform, they might just make progress. It will be slow, it will be hard and it will be dangerous. And he will first have to build a strong and effective state rather than just a collection of Potemkin ballot boxes. But something has to give, doesn’t it?
• Sir John Jenkins is Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. He served as British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.
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