September 21, 2011

Only Yourselves to Blame!

Also known as: "The Idiots' Guide to Developing Democracy"

Not that I'm calling anyone idiots.  It's just a turn of phrase.  OK, I guess I am calling idiots idiots, but not really directly or overtly because that would be mean.  And idiots never know they're the idiots anyway in my experience so it's kind of redundant anyway.  Right.  Now that's out of the way, back to...democracy.

Democracy, or "tabloid rule" as I like to think of it, is a pretty popular concept in a lot of countries, or at least in Europe and America.  It's where every adult gets to vote (even idiots; even total, card-carrying entirely demonstrable idiots), and by some complex system related to that process, someone gets to be in charge of them for a number of years.  Which is fun, I suppose.  Not knowing who is going to be in charge of your  healthcare system or national security.  Just participating in a kind of masked show of hands to select a person.  And that person and a few hundred others also selected by other blind shows of hand, then get to have an open show of hands to choose who's in charge.  

It sounds a bit frightening really, that the girl whose knowledge of current affairs comes mostly from Hello magazine, the guy who has never read a book, and Uncle Joe who won't talk to "darkies" all get exactly the same say.  Equal rights sounds like a good idea.  Equal right to be in charge of all national decision making is a bit less convincing.  And let's not forget, the person you vote for you might not really know.  You might know who he or she has pledged allegiance to, and will vote for as leader, but you might not know the exact position on other issues.  Wars.  Gay marriage.  Currency unification.  International aid.  Whatever your thing is.  

So you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all line up to show hands.  And someone whose future actions you can't really predict gets chosen.  To be one of many you didn't choose who then in turn choose someone you may or may not have chosen yourself.  And even then, the one you chose might change his or her mind at any time and stop choosing the leader they said they'd choose (over a disagreement on a war, gay marriage, etc etc..).  Or worse, keep supporting one despite disagreeing on such a thing.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is democracy.  Not the "mob rule" exactly, more of a mob ritual.  Some people who have the money and the organisational infrastructure, and usually the established brand name (blue, red, nationalist, socialist, whatever..) get to put themselves up to be chosen, leaflet your house and advertise in the media.  And you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all get to say which one you'd like to be one of the hundreds of strangers who choose the one you may or may not like to rule you for, say, five years.

The more alert reader might have decided by now that I'm not a big fan of democracy, which is true.  And you might also ask the question, that if democracy is imperfect, what is a better solution?  Well, the answer in Europe and America is democracy.  The thing is, the process above isn't very democratic.  The referendum (where everyone is asked a question on an issue and the answer is a simple majority "yes" or "no"), is rare.  The number of members of a certain party in the parliament may be entirely disproportionate to the number of votes they won.  And most strikingly, a person can be chosen as head of government when two thirds of voters actually preferred someone else.  No run offs.  No second and third choices. 

The reality of democracy in most of these cases then, is a system evolved over hundreds of years to maintain a status quo: an illusion of individual voices, filtered through weighted processes of access to wealth, design of constituency bounders, seats or electoral colleges or suchlike, and eventually down to a narrow contest between two similar and perennially victorious political cliques.  A president or prime minister in Europe or the USA can be the head of government with 30% of the vote.  And when only 50% of eligible adults vote, too.  15% "majority" rule.  A strange democracy indeed, but now a standard one.

That's not always the case, though.  At  least not when the pseudo-democracies are calling for "Democracy" elsewhere.  For example, as I might have mentioned before, the constitution in "liberated" Iraq is based on a proportional representation (PR) system.  The kind of system that even the pro-PR Liberals in the UK knew was so unacceptable to their governing coalition partners as well as opposition, that they abandoned it even though it had been central to their election manifesto.  The system that, even when watered down heavily to an "alternative vote" system that retained electoral constituencies, was rejected by both main parties who campaigned successfully against it in a unique referendum - on the basis that it would be "too complicated for people to understand".  Basically, "let us decide what's best; you're idiots".  

You might think that the vested interests of  major political parties in established democracies are what keeps these very un-democratic democratic systems in place.  And that might be the case - who wants to have anyone able to make a party and take a proportional share in government according to their popularity?  It would be chaos, right?  Well, that's a fair point too.  Having a distorted "first past the post" system helps stability, in two ways: firstly, it means that a lot of people tend to stay in politics for a long time, gaining experience - whether in government or opposition.  And secondly, it means that small, single issue or extremist parties can't really win a share of government with a short-term craze of public opinion.  With "first past the post" you're establishment, or you're nobody.

So it begs the question: why do the UK, US etc try so hard to export an ideal of democracy that's totally unacceptable to them at home?  Iraq is a model example, with full proportional representation, leading to the effective impossibility of a single party forming a majority government, leading to government that has to happen entirely by consensus, and so crippled by constraints such as a two thirds majority to make any important decisions (in the UK or US it can be one vote...they literally wheel people in on hospital beds to vote sometimes), that there is really no government at all.  Parties are largely of ethnic or sectarian identity, all have to agree, no one position holds any real power, and nobody can realistically "win" an election.  And who wrote this constitution?  The UN, with technical support from the US, UK and Australia.  Who all use a first past the post system and require simple majorities for legislation.  Even the UN's people were American and European.  

Bizarre.  So why did they?  I know the answer: because, they decided, no more Saddam-a-like dictators could possibly emerge in a country that had a constitution where nobody's allowed to be in charge, to win, or to be able to change the constitution.  That probably seemed like a smart idea in the Green Zone at 2am after a marathon negotiating session, but it did have the small and ever-so-slightly disastrous effect, of not allowing the possibility that anyone could realistically form an effective government.  As Homer Simpson might have said, had he been part of that constitutional drafting team: "Doh!".  And I'm not saying he wasn't.

The "West", then, is pretty confused about democracy.  It's something that, at home, needs to be controlled, managed, filtered and diverted, to produce a midde-of-the-road, moderate, mainstream and preferably predictable outcome.  This guy might win or that guy.  But they both dress the same and the people who will vote in the house of representatives to support or oppose them, will already have been there for an average of two to three previous terms of government.  But if you're selling it abroad, go crazy: get right back to Plato.  Everyone has a say, nobody can rule anybody else.  From the Republic, to the Tower of Babel.

In the context of all this, then, more democracy is coming to the Middle East.  Either at the point of a gun, in Libya (we'll see), after much chaos, confusion and indecision in Tunisia, or whenever the army decides they will allow it in Egypt (great job there, guys..).  Having seen the way it's turned out in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, I'm not convinced it's a great idea - especially if it's the undiluted, overnight instant-acting version doled out to those countries, regardless of context, culture, history or sensitive stomachs.

Amidst this madness though, a small glimmer of sanity: Oman.  A lot of strange things have happened in the GCC over the last couple of decades: Saddam's sudden interest in seaside vacations in 1990.  Oil at $9 a barrel in '98.  King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah going on a world tour dressed as a cowboy (maybe at that price he was trying to fit in in case they had to hitchhike).  Al Qaida discovering airports are a faster route to attention than supermarkets, ships or embassies.  And everyone in the GCC being against another war in Iraq apart from all of those who participated secretly.  Which was everyone.

But one of the first things that happened was democracy in the Gulf.  After the massed ranks of everyone came and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, there was a strong insistence that it was time to modernise the whole culture of government in the region, and that meant being more "democratic".  For Kuwait, most indebted to the democracy-sellers, it meant jumping straight into a full-on parliamentary democracy with an uncertain model of constitutional monarchy, and predictably, only massive oil wealth could keep troubled political waters more or less under control.  In other Gulf countries, the idea was either do nothing at all and wait for this nonsense to pass while smiling politely (UAE, Qatar maybe), or like Oman, be a little more strategic.

In 1991, Oman began its first democratic experiment in the modern era.  A consultative council (the Majlis al Shura).  Every five years since, the franchise has been extended, the role talked up, even the membership expanded.  A British-style upper house i.e. appointed rather than elected, and from those who've already achieved some status, was included, and together they make the equivalent of an Omani parliament.  Step by step, the Majlis is now at a critical point, where anyone can stand, anyone 21 or over can vote (unless they work for a goverment security body in which case they can't - kind of the opposite of Egypt...), and it has more say than ever in how things are going to work.  Twenty years on, with the fifth election just around the corner, the Majlis is serious.

In March this year, the Diwan announced that as of this election, the Majlis would have legislative powers for the first time.  What's more, some of its elected members would be chosen as ministers.  Although the extent of those legislative powers and the exact authority of either house is not yet confirmed, both of these things are enormous.  What they mean is that the old, tired criticisms of the Majlis al Shura as "irrelevant" or a "talking shop", are torpedoed.  The Majlis matters.  Which means that voting in the coming election, understanding who the candidate is, and what they stand for, matters too.

In previous elections, a lot of people either didn't vote (although ironically, voter turnout was still comparable with the US or UK), gave their votes to others to cast (how or why this is possible are interesting subjects for debate!), or voted simply for the person they associated most with their family. tribe or father's opinion.  Sorry stuff.  That's not to say Omanis vote for stupid reasons: some do, but then that happens everywhere,  but some just didn't take it seriously.  

On the latter point, it's a pity.  The role of the Majlis, even without law-making powers, was as an intermediary between the citizen and the top levels of public administration.  Instead of the traditional routes of tribal leader, wealthy and influential friend, or camping outside a VIP's office, they created a channel for seeking better services or dealing with problems.  A channel that could increasingly be based on meritocratic competition for votes.  So even without the power to change the law, the Majlis should always have been important.  Its had four terms to establish a culture of constituency representation regardless of ethno-sectarian or other narrow allegiance.  To show that an elected official works for everyone the same, whether or not they voted for him.  To breed a culture of accountability.  Perhaps it has just not been "marketed" in that way sufficiently.

Now though, no excuse.  Whatever those powers are, they mean something.  Also, more than ever before, candidates can promote and explain themselves and compete in public.  They have websites (mostly awful) and socal media accounts where they talk about their views (mostly vain platitudes but hey, they are aspiring politicians), and basically just more freedom to reach an audience.  If you're an Omani voter, you have more choice and access to more information than ever before.  And you'll need it: that guy (or girl, please let there be some girls..) you elect isn't just someone to ask about the regularity of your local garbage collection.  That person might vote for a law saying you have to collect your own.  Or become minister of garbage collection, and be in charge of yours and everyone else's directly.  Or  minister of education, or health - big stuff.  That guy or girl on the poster.  How important do you think your decision is now?  Yeah, quite.

I was pretty depressed yesterday reading a forum which is populated mostly by a privileged, highly-educated younger generation of Omanis.  In other words, exactly the people who should be most informed about this election.  There was a discussion of the subject in which none of the participants seem to have noticed the new importance of the Majlis al Shura.  The same tired old excuses for disinterest and cynicism were trotted out again.  I don't know whether it's just laziness, lack of information or stupidity.  But I'm starting to think they deserve what they get and I hope that the new Majlis passes a law making luxury cars illegal for the under 25s.  Maybe they'll notice that.

I've always had the view that since day one, His Majesty has intended a gradual, iterative transition to a participatory political system based on a constitutional monarchy.  Every step over the last four decades has seemed like a step towards that.  Yes, slowly, but without the chaos seen in other countries - a product designed for its market.  And now, with this latest small step, a quantum leap in giving power to the electorate.  If he reads the ill-informed and inelegant reactions of the cream of this country's youth, I imagine he might wonder why he bothered.

Anyway, the point of all this is simple really: after centuries of democracy and its transformation (erosion?) in some countries, people who have always voted can be lazy, sceptical and stupid with their votes.  But while others, rightly or wrongly, all across this region are seemingly begging for the chance to choose, I think Omanis need to wake up to how important these new rights are.  I'm not Omani, just an outsider who's lived in a few countries and feels an urge to share an opinion.  But I love this place, and I love my friends and colleagues who make it my home.  And to them I just want to say: someone is going to get elected, and with these changes, that someone is going to affect your life.  So think and choose carefully and participate, because if you don't and this country changes in a way you don't've only yourselves to blame.

P.S.  I never did say what I thought was the best system of government: absolute rule by a wise and benevolent leader.  I'm willing to be considered in at least an advisory role :)


AZ said...

"Democracy" gave to my country the endless rule of an old, corrupt and disgustingly rich pimp who, on a number of occasions, succeeded in making me feel ashamed of where I come from. I could not agree more with you: this type of "Democracy" is not the solution.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I have to admit I've a soft spot for Mr Bunga-Bunga. But then I feel the same about Qadhafi while not wanting to be governed by either of them.

Welcome back, AZ :)

Anonymous said...

The definition of democracy is the peoples ability to get rid of the government, or leader without violence. Therefore no arab countries have democracy - agree that countries like Oman, Libya, UAE, Yemen etc is not ready for true democracy due to the structure of the society (tribal). Imposing true democracy takes generations as you have to change the mindset of the people.

blewyn said...

AZ - so persuade your countrymen to vote for someone else !!

Disturbedsleep said...

It's doubtful whether democracy can truly exist in a group of over ten but the right to choose your representatives and remove them if they are not performing is the essence of civilisation. There is also a requirement for free speech and a free press to distribute different points of view and there lies the real problem.

Thinker said...

And an open mind to consider options.....

Clashing in the Gulf said...

The USA is a Constitutional Republic not a democracy. “A Constitutional Republic has some similarities to democracy in that it uses democratic processes to elect representatives and pass new laws, etc. The critical difference lies in the fact that a Constitutional Republic has a Constitution that limits the powers of the government. It also spells out how the government is structured, creating checks on its power and balancing power between the different branches.”

AZ said...

Thanks LS :)

Blewyn, I wish I could! What can you hope for, if the election system designed by his government is commonly known as "porcellum"? The thing is so mindboggling that I think he could be elected with his own vote only :)

Leaving aside Silvio, have you seen the posters of the Majilis candidates? They appeared all of a sudden during the weekend (I think). What do they say beside the candidate's name and, in some cases, GSM number? My Arabic reading skills are NOT good enough to read while driving...

clemenssl said...

"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried." Winston Churchill