Democracy, politics, and international relations

August 9, 2013 9:56 am0 comments by:

So Mugabe won the general elections again! And the international election observers (i.e. SADC) declared that the elections were free and peaceful.  There might have been some irregularities in the whole process, but conventional wisdom and experience has it that elections are never perfect. Even the self proclaimed most democratic countries have experienced irregularities in elections. Thus, based on the observers’ declaration and the conventional knowledge, the results of the 2013 elections reflected the will and decisions of the Zimbabweans to re-elect Robert Mugabe.

Although elections are not the only criteria for democracy, they are integral to democratic ideals.  Robert Dahl (1971) presents 8 minimal characteristics for democracy including ‘freedom of expressions; the right to vote; eligibility for public office; the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes; alternative sources of information; free and fair elections; and institutions for making governments policies depending on votes and other expressions of preferences’.  In many countries, especially those that fall in the ‘third wave’ of democracy, the only democratic activity/practice that people engage with is election. These countries have a distance to go before reaching all 8 minimal characteristics.

Now, that we have looked into the minimal characteristics of democracy, we have to understand that the support for democracy in international relations is not grounded on those characteristics or ideals of democracy. Often, the support for democracy or rather the respect for people’s will is determined by the national interests and politics of  powerful states in the ‘international community’.

This is partly why we have seen ‘negative’ news and opinions from international media on the wake of Zimbabwe 2013 elections. The New York Times World, for example, tweeted that ‘Mugabe Declared Winner of Disputed Election in Zimbabwe’. Apart from the African media outlets, one of the international news media that has been ‘positive’ on Zimbabwe elections is CCTV, which tweeted that ‘the Chinese electoral observers in Zimbabwe say polls “credible”’ (interesting that there are Chinese election observers…I am left wondering about their own experience).  Such differences in opinions, presentation, and analyses of Zimbabwe election manifest international politics, which are often driven by national interests.

The overwhelming ‘negative’ presentation and reactions to Zimbabwe elections’ results despite it being expression of the will of most Zimbabweans should not be a shock. When Hamas won elections in 2006, the international reaction was largely negative. Whether Hamas are terrorists or not, the point here is that the Palestinian chose them. This is exactly the point in Zimbabwe today, whether Mugabe is a tyrant or not, his people decided to keep him on power.

The double-standard principle in supporting democracy is what explains close relationships between the U.S.A (the self-proclaimed patron and exporter of democracy) with the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia and also with military regimes and administrations such as what we are now seeing in Egypt. Democracy is thus not a sufficient factor to gain international support. It is almost given that Mugabe will be characterized as a tyrant in his next five-year term as if he had not conducted elections at all. I personally think Mugabe should have given a chance to another member of ZANU-PF to run. He has done his part for many years and he definitely need a rest in his old age. But who am I to say anything if Zimbabweans chose him?

In connection to the above paragraphs, it is evident that practices of democracy in international politics are full of ambiguity. As much as democracy possesses good ideals for societies, the processes of democracy have not always produce good fruits. The Arab ‘Spring’/’Awakening’ (or whatever you want to name it) is a classic example of what ‘democracy’ can turn into. Citizens of North Africa demanded democracy by ousting their decades-long leaders, but since then the region has destabilized to the points of despair. Libya has not been able to return to the same state it was during the 42 years of Gaddafi. One year only after the much-celebrated elections, Egypt is experiencing chaos and loss of many lives. Elections often produce leaders who are, by many standards, not the best people in the society.

Elections’ results depend on many factors that are not democratic on their own right such as unequal competitions (resources, accessibility, etc). On a similar note, it has been argued that democracy is not necessarily compatible to economic growth. There is significant scholarly literature on this supported by data and evidence from authoritarian states that have done well economically.  China is one good example of this. Without democratic system on ground, Chinese economy has grown to become one of the World’s leading economies surpassing the traditional rich-economies of Europe.

So what can we say? Can we disqualify democracy? The answer is NO. Democracy as a phenomenon represents the best ideals through which societies can exist peaceful. The irregularities we see in ‘democratic’ activities are driven by the fact that we have failed to embrace democracy as a whole. For instance, before we say any election was democratic, free and fair, we need to ensure that   at least all 8 minimum characteristics of democracy as outlined by Dahl have been met. Often we hear of free and fair elections but we don’t speak of the pre-elections processes such as incompetent and biased electoral commissions, unequal competitions, millions of dollar campaigns in the midst of poverty and illiteracy among other things.

The international ‘patrons’ or ‘guardians’ of democracy must be coherent in their rhetoric and actions when promoting democracy. If you support democratic regime in one country and oppose it in another country, you are tarnishing democracy. Indeed the USA has tarnished democracy more than promoting it. I remember one former UK diplomat, the author of Kabul Cables, gave a public lecture at the University of Nottingham, School of Politics and International Relations, and argued that the conflict in the Middle East, in particular the Palestine-Israel issue, is partly contributed by the elections in the USA. His argument was that often U.S. Presidents have to please the strong Jewish lobby partly because they think of re-elections and the support of this lobby during elections. I was not 100% convinced by his argument but it rang an alarm and for the sake of this brief column, it’s an indication of how expensive campaigns are!…and we call ‘democratic process’.  A significant number of people in the Middle East are hardly convinced that the U.S.A is democratic. This is due to its double standard in its foreign policy implementation. For example, how can the U.S.A explain it’s support for the Egyptian military and it’s failure to call last month’s event a coup?

We all must respect democracy and if we can’t live up to it, it’s best not to use it. We probably need to revisit the ancient Greek literature to understand it better. We also need to think through our own systems from family level to state level and analyze whether they are democratic or not. Democracy is the best system for human societies. It creates social cohesion, respect to human dignity and equality. It is the foundation of social capital. Democracy is not only about general elections, it’s about individual rights in the society, about listening to people and allowing them to make decisions that concern their daily lives.  Please let us not tarnish democracy but promote it nakedly as it is.






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