May 22, 2011

Demonstrators Go Home! Enemies of Democracy!

I might have mentioned elsewhere that I'm not a big fan of democracy (ooh!), and maybe I'll come back to that in another piece.  But in the mean time, let's just assume for the purposes of this rant that democracy is great.  Or even just good.  Or just something that "some people" think they want.

"Some people", allegedly, include the demonstrators who have excited their government, their neighbours and some small corners of the international media by sitting on roundabouts and occasionally breaking windows, in various parts of Oman.  There have been many reasons cited for these outbursts, and many causes attributed to the participants.  But overall it is difficult to imagine that all of them have a common cause:  Every commentator, blogger and placard seems to say something different, from "end corruption" and "sack the minister", to "give me a job" or just "give me money".  But if you average all these out somehow, you get an overall picture of what the demonstrators have in common:  They feel poorly represented, poorly served, and in many cases, just poor.  Bummer.

In the latest adventure, an alleged "three thousand" demonstrators sat on the floor in Salalah (other witnesses put it closer to a couple of hundred, but it doesn't really matter - let's take the biggest estimate at face value).  They were, depending on whom you believe, asking for an end to corruption, the replacement of Indian management at a company, or to have their personal loans paid off by the Government because they couldn't afford them.  I won't even comment on that last one.  But I'll take a wild guess that once the crowd began to gather, elements of all three were probably there somewhere.

As we know now, the Government has decided that all this running around waving placards and blocking roads has to end, or there will be trouble.  And there was.  A jail full of people, some ringleaders carted off for a more intense conversation up north and possibly an accidental nut-kicking along the way, and a general sense of loss and foreboding among the good people of Salalah.  Not for the first time, demonstrators have been summarily removed.  And you know what?  Quite right too!

No, I'm not a Nazi or any kind of totalitarian by nature.  Well, apart from supporting benevolent dictatorship as the most efficient form of government, but I said I'd skip past that.  The reason I'm against these demonstrations mostly, is that they are fundamentally against the democracy that the media claim they espouse.  Many, if not all on some level, are supposedly raging at the lack of representation of the common man's (or woman's) needs within government.  And yet, how is this representative?

The most ardent advocate of democratic reforms in Oman has always been Sultan Qaboos himself:  an odd position you might think for a man added to the "dictators" list in international media.  But with no political pressure, certainly not internally, he took the decision to begin elections to the Majlis al Shura (consultative council) a generation ago.  The franchise has been gradually expanded, and in the last couple of elections, every Omani adult (over 21) has been eligible to vote (except the security forces - and not many "dictators" would be bold enough to remove the "payroll vote", even if they did have elections - this is unique to Oman).

One could argue that the Majlis has had no powers to make legislation.  Neither has it the authority to debate matters of foreign or defence/security policy.  But both of those things are irrelevant:  none of the recent demonstrations have been concerned with those two areas of policy, and as of March - literally within days of the first major demonstration (or the first one to feature violence, if you want to look at it that way) - the Majlis had new powers to legislate.  What's more, some new ministers would be appointed from within it for the first time.  And just to make this more relevant, the registration deadline for candidates was quickly extended.  In short, if you demonstrated in Sohar to ask for more power to the people, the removal of certain ministers and increased help for job seekers, you got the lot.  In a week.

It's hard to imagine any "democratic" country responding so quickly and dramatically to the demands of a few hundred (actually only a few dozen initially) demonstrators.  And in some ways, perhaps it is wrong that a small amount of disruption should be allowed to have such an extraordinary impact on national policy.  After all, of a million adult Omanis, who are these few to call for such a change by themselves?  How undemocratic!  But again, this goes back to the personal will of Sultan Qaboos: the will to bring about gradual, iterative political reform was already there, so accelerating it by a step or two was perhaps a smaller decision than it appeared.  And listening to the pulse of the people; recognising that this small emergency represented a broader groundswell of frustration with the economic realities, and the danger of imitating the crises elsewhere, is just smart.  I would say that these reforms were not the signs of a leader out of touch like a Ben Ali or a Mubarak, but of one far more in tune with reality, and already committed to the political and social progression that others have talked about, but within the framework of national tradition, and without the need for chaos.  There is a lot to be said for leaving a man in a job for forty years - he can learn a thing or two!

In a few months' time, the Majlis elections will take place.  Elections that have a more serious meaning than ever before.  Those who win a seat will be able to argue for completely new legislation, and if they convince their elected colleagues, they will be able to draft it and impose it on the whole country.  That's real power.  That, in any political system, is enormous.  And with fewer than a hundred seats, one voice can be very loud indeed.  What's more, if five of those elected members are to be chosen as ministers, there is a good chance that any talented candidate can make himself a powerful instrument of direct government.  For most campaigners in March, this must have been beyond their wildest expectations.

Now, back to the demonstrators in Salalah, Sharqiya or wherever.  I am wondering, as these reforms have been announced and implemented, what on earth are they doing sitting on roundabouts, obstructing the public, and trying to bully local government offices into their viewpoint?  If, as they would have you believe, they represent the true voice of their communities, the majority unspoken view of the masses, then they have the tools to do something about it for real:  choose the most capable spokesman, campaign for his (or her) election, and get their new representative to propose whatever changes they want from the very heart of Government.  Even if they don't want to stand for election, how about holding their local candidates to account?  Ask them for their manifestos!  Insist that if they want your votes, they have to commit, in front of the community sabla, to pursuing the demands of these people who are now protesting.

The system for people to be heard is there.  The reins of power have moved substantially to the hands of the electorate.  So why are you sitting on the floor?  In the 2007 elections a healthy 63% of voters turned out.  But that's 63% of the 390,000 registered voters.  Which by my estimation means that fewer than half those eligible to vote actually registered, and fewer than two thirds of those actually got around to it (please comment and correct if those figures are wrong).  That's a pity.  But the stakes for the 2011 elections are much higher.  This majlis is not just a talking shop, it's a policy-maker, an executive tool of the people.  Instead of blocking the road and complaining about your lot in life, how about registering to vote, campaigning for a candidate you can believe in, and holding him to public account with serious policy commitments?  

A Wikipedia piece on the Majlis states that in the last election "Generally, people who emphasized their professional and educational background lost, while candidates who mainly campaigned based on their tribal and family ties won".  Now, whose fault is that?  The people are not represented by gangs of unemployed boys eating chips on the pavement.  They are represented by a new democratic structure, but only if they want to be.  They must speak, with the greatest deliberation, by voting.  Demonstrators need to go home, think about what they want, organise their views and ensure they are expressed at the ballot box later this year.

If you have the option of making changes and don't use it, then you've forgone the right to complain.  Now get out of the damn road, will you?


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Assuming you are indeed correct about the new powers of the Majlis,then this is a brave new era of Oman. I question whether any form of democracy can work without an effective middle class, but this is a gradual process and Oman is well positioned to attempt it. One thing people forget is that HM is acutely aware that he can only rule Oman with the consent of the vast majority of sensible people. At the same time I am sure he is wise enough to recognise that the days of Constitutional Monarchy may have arrived. How would the demonstrators have been treated if the Army and Police had been acting on behalf of a supposedly democratic government? I have great respect for the Armed Forces of Oman, but I am sure everyone would have been crying out for Baba Qaboos......

The Linoleum Surfer said...

The new legislative powers for the Shura, along with the plan to appoint a number of ministers from it after the next (October this year) election, were announced in mid-March. This was within days of the first demonstrations in Sohar, and came alongside the removal of the Ministers of the Royal Office (intelligence etc.), National Economy and Commerce, along with a broader re-shuffle. A new job seekers' allowance was also implemented.

I think you make a very valid point, one which I often echo: Never underestimate how much traditional Gulf rulers, be they kings, sheikhs, amirs or the Sultan, rule by the consent of their people. They may not be elected, but feel no less pressure to please their people than their "democratic" counterparts.

His Majesty's enduring popularity has barely been tarnished by the recent events, partly because of the prompt and dramatic response in terms of political changes, and partly because of the comparative restraint in dealing with disorder. But I believe that the allocation of legislative powers to the Shura, and the gradual steps towards a constitutional monarchy, have been in the pipeline for 20-30 years. The Shura was founded in '91 and the franchise has been universal since 2003. New powers are the obvious next step, and although perhaps accelerated by a term, always in the Sultan's grand plan, I'm sure of it.

Thanks for commenting by the way - this is by far the most read post on the blog, but people are shy about commenting on domestic politics. Maybe too shy. So I'll just say what I have to say anyway...

Anonymous said...

Well said!!! i could not agree more..people were still sitting blocking roads afterall the changes!! makes me wonder if there just unappreciative or unaware!!

This should have been posted in the newspaper & translated!! people need 2 know and appreciate the power they've been given!!

p.s u can still send this to any of the local newspapers!! I think a lot of people are still unaware of the changes in majlis al shura!!

Anonymous said...

"I would say that these reforms were not the signs of a leader out of touch like a Ben Ali or a Mubarak, but of one far more in tune with reality, and already committed to the political and social progression that others have talked about, but within the framework of national tradition, and without the need for chaos."

I like this quote. Cool to hear these opinions and read this blog!

Question for you - what if there was compulsory voting? Does this remove the inherent choice in the essence of democracy? Or ensure that voices are heard?

Also, does this make sense in our context, in our society?

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Interesting question. I am in two minds about compulsory voting. If there is a democratic structure, it's important to use it so I can see that forcing people to engage is one way of doing it.

But I think the problem in Oman is not the turnout alone - it's that too many people vote without thinking why they are voting or for whom. Many, especially women, just hand their ID cards over to Uncle Falan to use their vote by proxy. Compulsory voting at the moment would just increase that kind of behaviour.

I think the Government needs to promote the importance of the Majlis over the next few months, and educate people about using their votes wisely. And at the same time, although I would hate to see a cash-funded competition in advertising to voters, I would like to see candidates identifying themselves with key issues, and a universal manifesto of what a member is expected to do for his (or her) constituents.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Very interesting, I see what you mean - whether compulsory voting would have the intended outcome. And yeah, it would be good to see the candidates identify with issues, in a tactful, constructive, meaningful way.

About promoting, if the government is promoting the importance of the Majlis, would they also promote the importance of voting?

Who would people listen to, to be encouraged to start thinking about their vote?

Interesting questions to ponder.

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