Maliki calls for Recount, warns of renewed bloodshed; Is Iraq slipping into Semi-Authoritarianism?

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.

End/ (Not Continued)

11 Responses

  1. Great post! And it's not just the ME-proper – I'd put Russia in the same category, my own country too (Italy) has been heading that way fast under Berlusconi.

  2. Your description of semi-authoritarianism sounds familiar. The United States, too, has farcical elections, in which real issues are beyond debate, and whoever is elected serves the agenda of unelected elites that run things as they please. And of course the United States doesn't want democracy. Ask them in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and now Honduras. They can have democracy if they vote right, to be screwed by multinational corporations and have their people robbed under the direction of the IMF. But if the people vote wrong, for their interests, democracy won't do – and not in the United States either.

  3. Quote: "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.

    Excuse me, but isn't this a pretty accurate description of the American political system?

  4. "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."

    The truth is Washington is NOT committed to democracy in Middle East or in Muslim World.

    Everyone knows it's very easy for Americans to control the election databases in Iraq

    Welcome to the American Democracy, we only choose our SLAVES.

  5. Juan,

    The definition you gave of Semi-Authoritarian regimes fits the current situation in the US to a "t". We have political parties and we appear, on paper to have some democratic attributes but like other semi-authoritarian regimes the power elite (the super rich and Corporate Executive class) "makes sure it remains in power and reduces the 'democratic' activities to a shadow play".
    I'm sure your realize that this is the only explanation that makes sense for the disconnect between the polls on war sentiment and the actual actions of the US.

  6. Brilliant analysis. America cares nothing for democracy in the Middle East or Latin America for that matter. Remember Honduras?

    link to guardian.co.uk

    March 18, 2010

    The anti-Venezuela election campaign: Venezuela's election is not until September, but the international campaign to delegitimise the government has already begun
    By Mark Weisbrot – Guardian

  7. "Semi-Authoritarian regimes" .. 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."

    Sounds like historically typical neo-colonial rule, the subvervient version of what occurs with more fluidity in the U.S.

  8. This posting, and the frustration concerning semantics in the various responses, might be addressed by thinking of "NEO-authoritarianism" instead of semi-authoritarianism.

    Think of neo-authoritarianism as a kinder and gentler, Hill & Knowlton recasting of the classic version, in line with other updates, viz Neo-liberal economics and neo-colonialism.

    Not to be cynical, but when we are able to see things properly though clearer understandings and definitions, it removes the frustration that comes when we try to kid yourselves about the way things are, and we can get onto working with the reality of things.

    The only way we get away from the continuous consolidation of elite power at the expense of "little people", who have no real control over the means of production, is with a revolution. At best this amounts to a reset. Otherwise, all you get are delaying actions (ie, FDR's new deal, LBJ's great society).

    The nature of for people to tend to their primordial relations: that's elite theory in a nutshell, and it's as much a given as Darwinism. George W. Bush got elected for a reason and if it wasn't him it would've been Jeb.

    The US is an exception to the rest of the world only to the extent our elites realize their interests (may) be better served by not being so quick to press for redistribution to themselves domestically. They don't want to look as bad as these developing countries, and THEY are the ones that stand to be milked before turning their attention inward. It may not be nice, but that's just the way it is, and its why we as a country can afford to consume so much of the world's resources. Think of your own lifestyle and ask yourselve(honestly) how much you really want to complain.

    We are indeed an exceptional country, in that we have not had such overt and overbearing elites. What we really are talking about through all this is nothing less than management style.

    Again, I'm not trying to inflame things. It's just that when you look at things as they are, it becomes far easier to do whatever you can with the circumstances, otherwise you become effete.

    Don't believe this no-zero-sum rhetoric for a minute. The nature of reality is the zero-sum game, whose object is ALSO to put distance between you and the losers, and in a dog-eat-dog world you cannot have too much space.

    So, just play the game. Odds are anyone reading this is in the upper 1% of the world population in terms of overall opportunity, and you have nothing to complain about. If you (or your relations) fall behind the power curve, its your own fault.

  9. In court, both Bush and Obama's lawyer's have argued that during wartime (even when the duration is indefinite and the battlefield is defined as the whole world) that there is effectively no limit to a President's authority (not even laws made by Congress such as FISA ,or decision by the Supreme court like Hamden v. Rumsfeld, or treaties prohibiting torture).

  10. If the US political right sees this as a vindication of Bush-Cheney policies, they are either unforgivably stupid or so desperate to get out of Iraq that they're willing to overlook the fact that Maliki is in Tehran's pocket. All of our blood and treasure have resulted in Iran being the power player in Iraq. (Of course 'Nejad, as they call him there, and his supporters may have their days counted, but that's another story.

  11. Dear Mr. Cole

    You've surely heard of the Kerry-Lugar bill, as well as the billions of aid we gave to General Musharraf, so it's difficult for me to see how you can say that the US hasn't supported the Pakistani military. Indeed, they continue to do so in the form of General Kayani, who most see as the true wielder of power in Pakistan, with Asif Zardari as his puppet.

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