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Democracy but something else as well

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2014 Gayatri Chandrasekaran

Depending on your view point, elections can be an exciting affair or a humdrum matter of selecting new representatives. Three elections—and an impending one—in four corners of the world are telling different stories.

India has just saw the swearing-in of a new government under Narendra Modi. The former chief minister of Gujarat rode on a wave of resentment against the previous government that mismanaged the economy and saw the eruption of a number of corruption scandals.

In Egypt, voters are a confused lot as the country’s presidential elections take place. A Pew Global Research Survey released last week found 42% of Egyptians continue to favour ousted president Mohamed Morsi; slightly less than 54% are for the person widely expected to win the poll, the military strongman Abdul Fattah al-Sisi; 54% also believe that a more stable government is more important than a democratically elected government (44%); 38% continue to have a favourable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation whose belief in democracy is largely held to be tactical; 56% continue to favour the army. Egypt is not a liberal democratic paradise.

In Ukraine, the voters’ verdict is out. Chocolate tycoon Petro O. Poroshenko is the new president of the divided country. There is, however, nothing new about him: Poroshenko is a veteran of the country’s corrupt politics of bargain and compromise. While Poroshenko has spoken of leading Ukraine in a pro-European direction, he has extensive business interests in Russia. And the Kremlin is not displeased at the outcome.

The real shocker, however, has come from Europe where a resurgent right-wing has made extensive gains in elections to the European Parliament. In France, the far-right National Front (FN) secured 25% of the vote, pushing the party of president Francois Hollande to the third place. In Britain, provisional results showed the anti-EU UK Independence Party getting 27% of the vote. In Austria and Denmark, too, the right has made impressive inroads.

Oddball country

It is India that stands out as an exception in this regard. Of the four cases, it is here that an economic message can be seen most clearly. India is home to one of the largest collection of young people on the planet, and Indians have voted for a prime minister who has promised them a better economic future. In a country notoriously divided along caste, religion and regional lines, it is hard to read any other message except one of a better economic future.

In spite of its immense diversity, India is a country that wants all the trappings of a liberal democracy—a vibrant economy with respect for individual economic and political rights. The last government trampled on all that could be called individual and enforced collective identities.

Egyptian paradise

Hailed as the harbinger of democracy in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, Egypt has now chosen a different path. After an initial spurt against one dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the country is back to another would-be dictator, al-Sisi. In between, Egyptians took a detour and elected a Muslim Brotherhood government. The Brothers want to use democracy to come to power. But once in power, they want to impose Sharia—an otherworldly imagining of paradise on earth where people live under and obey divine law once and for all.

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, many believed that liberal democracy was, at last, on its way in the Middle East with Egypt showing the way. Such hopes and calculations were also, allegedly, behind the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when it was hoped that a country best equipped culturally for a democracy could act as a magnet and spur a democratic revolution in its neighbourhood.

In both Iraq, since 2003 and Egypt, for the last two years, these hopes have been proved wrong. The dominant cultural and political idea is still religious. Islam remains the starting point (and for many the end-point) of all viable political options. Democracy is a runner up.

European shocker

The far-right, from the French Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Austrian Jörg Haider, has an established presence in Europe. Now and then, it rises when angry populations give it a positive nod and then, after a while, it sinks away.

The current infatuation, while economic in nature—resentment against austerity economics, joblessness and diminishing future prospects—carries a larger message. The dream of a tightly knit, single, European identity is proving hard to realise. In France, England, Austria and Denmark, voters have chosen parties with very strong local roots. This is not a simple, anti-Brussels vote. It is a vote against the idea that local European identities—French, Danish, Dutch or Greek—could be erased painlessly and a new citizen imagined in its place. In every single major vote since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992—barely a year after the Berlin Wall fell—Europeans everywhere have voted against a tighter European Union. Since then, voters in Ireland and The Netherlands, to give two examples, have rebelled against a single European identity. Elites across Europe have rallied across and tried to bypass this disapproval.

The current vote should be seen as another signpost in this continuing reaction.

Into the future

Is the link between elections and liberal democracy real? Except India, the three other examples show the link is either weak or does not exist. Why this is so is something for social scientists to answer.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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