I’m all for holding elections. But the US right wing misunderstands elections as equalling democracy, which they do not. In fact, what we have seen since George W. Bush began backing neoconservative talking points is that elections in the Middle East have most often been subverted by authoritarianism and have contributed to social divisiveness.
The holding of elections in Iraq gave rise to a spate of articles on how may George W. Bush really did change the Middle East and maybe Iraq is turning out all right after all. These arguments derive not from analysis but from a desire to bolster the Republican Party and its ideology (which combines militarism abroad with Marie Antoinette-style lack of empathy with the woes of the common person domestically.)
The demand Sunday by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani of Iraq that a recount of ballots in the March 7 parliamentary election be conducted points to a different possible conclusion.
That is that pressure from Washington, combined with the ambitions of local elites, and the increasing ability of Middle Eastern publics to mobilize and express their discontents, have produced not democratization but a move to what Marina Ottaway calls semi-authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. In fact, the most marked movement from authoritarianism to multiparty democracy in the past decade in the region, that of Pakistan, took place through popular mobilization and long-established political parties in the teeth of heavy support by Washington (i.e. Dick Cheney) for military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Ottaway argues that during the Cold War, the opposition between authoritarian regimes and democratic ones was more stark and that hybrid forms falling in neither camp were rare. “Semi-Authoritarian regimes” have political parties and NGOs, hold elections, and look on paper as though they at least have some democratic attributes. But behind the scenes the power elite makes sure it remains in power and reduces the ‘democratic’ activities to a shadow play for the benefit of a restless domestic public and for that of international bureaucrats.
We have seen a string of farcical or stolen elections in the Middle East in the past decade, which have been used by often Washington-backed regional elites to reinforce their power rather than to allow the peaceful succession of one government by another.
Not only are the prime minister and president of Iraq strongly implying massive ballot fraud in Iraq (an allegation that al-Maliki admits could spark a return to ethnic violence), but recent elections in the region have more often been seen as fraudulent than as fair.
Afghanistan’s presidential election of August, 2009, was repeatedly denounced as having been marred by electoral fraud to the benefit of incumbent Hamid Karzai. Karzai remained in power, but at the cost of losing legitimacy in the eyes of some Afghans, especially Tajik supporters of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The US response has been to back Karzai unreservedly and to attempt to bestow on him hundreds of thousands of new troops and police so that he can exercise stronger control in the country.
Iran’s presidential election of June, 2009, provoked massive demonstrations in summer of that year on the part of those who believed that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen it, leading to the establishment of the dissident Green Movement around presidential challengers Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. In the aftermath, the regime became more authoritarian and the military and security forces came to wield more power than before.
The January 2006 election in the Palestine Authority produced a Hamas-led government, much to the dismay of Israel and the US. Those two worked to undermine the Hamas government and ultimately backed a successful coup against it in the West Bank, but failed to dislodge the elected government from Gaza. President Mahmoud Abbas is now acting extra-judically and extra-constitutionally, since further elections have not been held and there has been no judgment rendered by any competent legal authority as to the legitimacy of his government vis-a-vis that of Hamas.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak reacted to pressure from then secretary of state Condi Rice to open up the presidential elections by allowing his main rival to leave prison and run. After Mubarak trounced him, he was sent back to jail. And, some 88 Muslim Brothers (a group the US abhors) gained seats in the lower house of parliament. Some thought that for the Mubarak regime to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to do so well was itself a warning to Washington. It said that pressure for democratization will backfire and lead to Muslim Brotherhood regimes.
Even Israel elected its most rightwing government ever in February, 2009, and persons that might formerly have been shunned because of their extreme political views, such as Avigdor Lieberman, were allowed to serve in the government. Lieberman wants to administer loyalty tests to Palestinian-Israelis and would very much like to strip the latter of their Israeli citizenship and expel all 1.5 million of them from the country. For a man of Lieberman’s views to become Israeli foreign minister is a step toward semi-authoritarianism in that country. Likewise, the Israeli state has been cracking down on peace groups such as B’tselem and other NGOs, with methods more familiar in Egypt or Syria than in the freewheeling Israel of earlier decades.
So some authoritarian regimes are moving to put up democratic facades and so becoming semi-authoritarian. And the few regimes that seemed earlier to make a place for more democratic governance–Israel, post-2001 Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, post-2003 Iraq– seem to be moving toward semi-authoritarianism and slipping back from democracy.
Ironically, the most genuine steps toward democratization have taken place in Turkey and in Pakistan. But Bush and the neoconservatives had backed the Turkish and Pakistani militaries, so this heroic story of the little people attaining their rights was never celebrated by the US mass media. Democracies are unpredictable and hard to control (as Bush found out when US allies like France and Turkey declined to line up behind the invasion of Iraq), and so Turkey and Pakistan are disturbing the world status quo. That is the real reason for which some Obama administration officials have talked about Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world. They did not speak that way when Gen. Pervez Musharraf was in control of the country. You have to wonder how committed most Washington elites really are to democratization, and have to wonder whether semi-authoritarianism in Middle Eastern allies might not be perceived as holding benefits for the US.
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