Elections without choice

MIN READJun 25, 2012 | 16:12 GMT

By Oana Popescu, for Center for Conflict Prevention and Early Warning

A few weeks ago, in a debate at the Copenhagen Business School, moderator and CNN anchor Richard Quest was asking panelists and students which of the numerous and important elections this year would be more instrumental in setting the tone globally – both from an economic and political point of view. US? France? Russia? China? Greece? All of the above? Or will none change the course of the world in any radical way?

Of all options, the last one seemed the unlikeliest to even consider, while the world’s greatest powers and Europe’s worst troublemaker are deciding their leadership. However, evidence is already showing the opposite.

In the US, despite the somewhat competing visions put forth by Obama and Romney on a number of key issues, both candidates have been accused of ambiguity or ambivalence in policies and in charting a firm course for long-term, sustainable economic recovery. At the same time, the American system is notoriously restrictive on the president’s powers and so ultimately, the way forward will be largely defined by Congress and its relationship to the White House. Here too, the Republican-Democrat race is yet too close to call – but hardly to be expected that America will be a radically different actor on the world stage depending on which side the blue-red balance tilts to. Major decisions will most likely have to be bipartisan anyway, especially on what next once the tax cuts passed under president George W. Bush expire at the end of this year.

In Russia, Putin has followed Putin and despite the unprecedented massive street protests, it will be a while until Moscow may see any “spring”. Mr Putin may not be a fully predictable character - although the world has known him for 12 years now at the helm of Russian politics - but any major shift in Russian global positioning would depend on him alone and it was certainly never a function of popular option. If anything, Kremlin’s stance varies rather with the price of oil. But no reason for worry there; Putin has bet on high prices in drafting his policies for Russia this year and the tense situation in the Middle East does its job to keep them there – with due help from Moscow, of course.

Talking about which, if evolutions in the US and Russia are marked by a high degree of continuity (whether good or bad!), the emblem of change, Egypt, has seen rather little of it during recent elections. Democracy has been rolled back, as the military has been frantically consolidating its grip on power – on grounds that it is doing so precisely to protect the state from the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is feared to promote anti-democratic, Islamist policies that would restrict civilian rights and freedoms.

The drama in Egypt’s case is not just the limited democracy it has got for itself in the end. Middle East analysts have been adamant about the goals of the Arab revolutions NOT being democracy, at least not in the liberal, Western sense - but rather dignity, national pride, the right to individual self-determination and social modernization. So that makes it more about precisely the lack of real choice. Elections in the flagship ‘Arab Spring’ country may have been decently free and fair. The alternative, however, is hardly acceptable, either by Western or other standards: do you prefer a hard line, centralized military regime that will do everything to preserve its Mubarak era control and privileges, at the expense of your freedom and of respect for the constitution, in the name of security and stability? Or an Islamist movement which will seek to firmly install its own power network in place and will most probably restrict your freedoms too, in the name of democracy, national emancipation and freedom of choice? This is what the Egyptian voter was essentially asked at the polls.

Unfortunately, options are indeed limited for both Egypt and its other revolutionary neighbors. One thing the West, as well as the Arab world, would do well to acknowledge, as demonstrated even by the earlier (more fortunate and contextually more favorable) experience of Eastern Europe, is that regime change is never about dramatic reversals, but rather a painstaking and lengthy negotiation between the old order and the new. The final result is highly dependent on circumstance. In Egypt’s case, it can at best range between, on the one hand, a degree of continuity which allows for stability (such as keeping together a vast and diverse country of 80 million, plagued by dramatic internal and regional challenges!) but also the gradual penetration of opposition voices - or, on the other hand, an accelerated weakening of the former system, opening it up for other groups, a lot of which will seize the opportunity to promote a religious agenda. Most of these will of necessity rebrand their Islamist orientation as “Freedom and Justice”, for instance, to accommodate the political aspirations of many in Tahrir Square – a good and real step toward moderation, but still a long way to go to live up to these labels. Individual choice, therefore, will play a minor role meanwhile.

How about Western hopes then, of democracy and freedom spreading around the world? Rami Khouri, professor at the American University in Beirut, once responded to that: “well, look at us: we in the Arab world have built operas and theatres and shopping malls and institutions like in Europe, so we do regard the West as a model. But we will adapt it to our own circumstances; we won’t just copy-paste it”. In brief, the West can and needs to do just this: understand that our universal values are no more universal perhaps, in others’ view, than we consider theirs to be, so we need to make them attractive and worthy of their efforts to adopt them, should they ultimately do so. We need to stay the model.

However, looking at European elections, in Greece and France, of late there also doesn’t seem to be as much actual choice in the word ‘election’ as the dictionary assigns to it.

The Greek election was important in that it put before us all, in the EU, the challenge of dealing with some of the structural problems we’ve been dragging along from the beginning of the crisis and even before that. The French election was perhaps even more important, because it showed where we actually were collectively in terms of solutions and our joint capacity to respond to these fundamental issues.

Athens mainstream parties Nea Democratia and PASOK presented few credible options to their electorate. They were pretty much on the same line and the radical shift in EU debate to a simplified “Greece stays or goes out of the Eurozone” pushed their political platforms even closer together. Syriza had to come from outside the system to challenge many of their policies and their shared role in perpetuating them throughout the decades. The EU response was also hesitant and rather vague. Greece will be renegotiating the initial austerity measures at the European Council this week, Spain has requested its own bailout package, but a consolidation of the EU financial architecture is still far from being achieved. Still, even the current debate (Eurobonds vs. German centralization proposals) was largely encouraged by the French citizens’ vote, which emphasized jobs and growth as an essential complement to just austerity. The French election, after all, may have been the one with the most choice involved, as Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s political programs were more clearly differentiated.

It still remains to be seen however if EU leaders can also propose meaningful options for a sustainable economic and political arrangement, a revigorated European project, beyond momentaneous firefighting. The absence of such alternative ideas being submitted for public debate by mainstream politics has so far generated the flurry of fringe parties, whether populist, extreme right or extreme left, gaining ever larger support everywhere on the continent. The problem with these ‘outsiders’ is not just that some of their ideas are morally and politically unacceptable, but also that they challenge the system itself. French economy Professor Catherine Samary says “yes, but when the system is underperforming to such an extent and seems to be so deeply compromised, I think we should accept that it be challenged; it’s the only way to help it regenerate!”

True, but if the mainstream does not find ways to integrate the acceptable ideas into its core structure, while rejecting the ones incompatible with its values and purpose, the risk is that even its most intrinsic and valuable principles may suffer or be lost. Amid growing worries about European competitiveness, stability and recovery from crisis, the Europe/US-bashing and China/India-praising rhetoric is gaining ground. The West is losing its value as a model and its credibility, not just for the world outside, but even internally.

Thrown into a defensive stance, the EU is increasingly seeing xenophobia, neo-fascism, neo-communism, racism, restriction of basic rights (see Schengen border controls, ACTA etc) at home. The European vicinity (the Western Balkans, Ukraine, the Caucasus) is losing the fascination with the West which prompted speedy reforms starting with the early ‘90s in former communist bloc countries which are now full members. Hence, EU neighbors are drifting away towards Russia or Turkey or are simply plunged into internal confusion. Glorification of the BRICS may be well deserved in many respects, but it also indirectly contributes to promoting values which are often opposed to modernity and human dignity.

If the EU and the West as a whole cannot find ways to bring choice back into their formulation of both policies and a grand strategy, into the relation between institutions and citizens (re-energizing democracy and leadership, in fact!), the course of the world may well be determined this year by a selection, with very little democracy to it, namely the succession process in China, rather than by the numerous other elections everywhere else. It is already, undoubtedly, one of the leadership changes to watch most closely, with long-term impact and most significant consequences globally. But China will need to work out its numerous and dramatic challenges back home before it can become a beacon for others and a responsible mentor, as Europe or the US have been for the past hundreds of years.

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