Another Country, Another Election

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare.

Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance?

This is the blindness caused by ideology. It is just like the faith in the magic of the free market that is always supposed to get everything right. The same blind faith that prevented everyone from taking note of all the bubbles that were inflating and popping till the entire financial world collapsed in a heap. And now people ask themselves: What were we thinking?

These ideological blinders have serious effects – people get hurt, people are put in jail, people die. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused lost jobs around the world and the power void it created led to the Second World War in which more that fifty million people died. FIFTY MILLION.

Isn’t it time to think why these kinds of elections don’t work in some countries instead of blithely moving from one election to the next? Isn’t there a need to realize that at times elections make things a whole lot worse?

What was the logic of holding an election in fractured, war-torn, foreign-occupied Afghanistan at this time? I understand the American government went into Afghanistan to rebuild it. I know there was a “Transition Initiative” with the goals of developing economic and social infrastructure and fostering democratic governance. But are elections the only way of fostering democratic governance in a country that is fast receding into chaos and anarchy? Is it because the Americans know of no other way of fostering democratic governance?

Surely there must be some indigenous institutions and mechanisms in tribal and ethnically diverse societies that could provide alternative ways to build consensus. Has there been any effort to try and understand if some other route may hold more promise? Would bringing back the king in Afghanistan have provided an authority (without power) to which everyone could have been loyal? So what if the Americans did not think much of kingship or kings or this particular king (now dead)?

Spain comes to mind. Two days after the death of Franco (in 1975), the monarchy was restored and the king successfully guided the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. With high approval ratings he is still considered amongst the most popular leaders in his part of the world. An alternative could have been to call immediate elections without restoring the monarchy (monarchy being so outdated) and the outcome could have been quite different.

The point is not that monarchy is a necessary condition. It is that there are times and places where an externally determined objective implemented mechanically can be seriously counter-productive and can set back the process of recovery and reconciliation. It is easy to forget that elections are divisive and need a cohesive society to absorb its strains and work. The point is also that there are indigenous traditions that cannot just be cast aside because elections are the only modern route to political governance just as the free market is the only modern mode of economic governance.

Well, the market has imploded and the state has to step in to pick up the pieces. If one looks at the evidence in many developing countries, “pure” democratic governance has also been imploding. It is time to sift through the evidence, to reckon with the experience, to revisit the countries where intelligent adaptation of the democratic form has yielded much more stable outcomes. It is also time to explain the (Indian) exception instead of assuming that it is the norm that could be painlessly replicated in every other country.

It is time to take off the ideological blinders. It is time to put on the thinking cap.


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