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4 Jan, 2008

Do Democratic Elections Really Fulfill Their Lofty Purpose?

Originally Published: 4 Jan 2008

Elections are claimed to be the heart of the democratic process, a kind of panacea for all prevailing ills. But many of the elections and electoral campaigns in 2007 have been violent, dangerous, controversial, divisive, vituperative and hugely expensive.

Are they really fulfilling the lofty purpose they are supposed to?

Several elections were held last year, but the more significant ones were in Thailand, Australia, Kenya, South Korea, France and the Indian state of Gujarat. New prime ministers took charge in the UK in June and in Japan in September, without the formal trappings of a full-scale public electoral process.

This year, elections in Pakistan, the US and Russia will offer further evidence of an increasingly polarised world order.

The outcomes of Thai elections are well-known, especially the social, cultural and geographical splits they created. In addition to underscoring the power of money, the Thai elections broke new ground in the global democratic process by proving that political leaders can win by proxy; they do not have to physically contest the elections, nor even be in the country when they are held.

In Pakistan, elections originally to be held this weekend have been postponed to February 18 following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, triggering massive violence and raising fears of civil war and a break-up of the hugely divided country.

Even worse violence has erupted in Kenya following the December elections. The issues notwithstanding, the violence certainly proves that “Islamic terrorists” are not the only ones prone to blood-letting.

In France last May, the French people opted for Nicolas Sarkozy even as his own wife opted out. He then had to deal with a debilitating public transport strike.

His desire to catapult himself on the world stage has seen his ministers taking an aggressive stance against Iran, effectively replacing the UK’s Tony Blair as America’s new front-man in Europe.

Sarkozy also has a penchant for taking vacations by availing of the private jets of his businessmen backers. In Indonesia, this would have led to charges of “cronyism.”

In Australia last November, former Prime Minister John Howard gambled on winning a record fifth term in office and lost, not just the election but his own seat in his own constituency, a humiliating and punishing end to his political career.

Although economic issues had kept him winning past elections since 1996, this time environmental issues and Australia’s pro-American stance in the Iraq war also figured prominently.

In December, Gujarat voted back into power the Hindu fundamentalist leader Narendra Modi, who is denied a US visa for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, which led to the deaths of hundreds.

He now wants to export his brand of communal “Moditva” across India. The Hindu religious party, the BJP, which lost the last national elections in 2004 to the Congress Party, has been re-energised and is now seeking to make a comeback.

Although the Indian economy is booming, elections reflect the divisive battleground between communal and sectarian forces that are interwoven into the social and cultural fabric of the strongly traditional country.

Also in December, in Korea, Lee Myung-bak, a conservative Christian businessman and former head of the Hyundai group’s construction arm, was elected to power.

He reportedly told a prayer meeting that he will become a CEO-type leader but “actually, the best model of a CEO-type leader was Jesus Christ.” A new union has been created between evangelism and capitalism.

Gross National Happiness country Bhutan, too, has just embarked upon its democratic path. Its first foray into the world of elections was extremely peaceful, perhaps because there are not too many controversial issues to bicker about, and its politicians are not yet skilled in playing divide-and-rule games.

But more trouble is looming.

In Lebanon, a strategically important Middle East country, the various political parties are still unable to agree on a President.

In Russia, an even more strategically important country with vast natural resources, President Putin now wants to become prime minister. Accusations are rife about the role of “foreign elements” seeking to influence the outcome.

Perhaps the most divisive electoral process is under way in the US, a show that will engross the world all year, even as the outgoing Bush administration leaves the world wondering whether it will exploit its advantage of unaccountability to make things better or worse.

Perhaps the only common thread running through global elections is that they are hugely divisive. Although all elected politicians invariably call for “national unity” after their triumph, their path to power is based on everything but building unity.

In theory, democratic processes are supposed to benefit the people by giving them honest, scrupulous, principled leaders. Not only is this belief proving to be a total fallacy, the hypocrisy of a democracy is being exposed via a yawning chasm between what the people want and what those who really pull the strings want.

Most politicians are funded by businessmen who obviously seek to ensure a “return on their investment”. Hence, the entire “democratic” apparatus has become a high-stakes business in its own right, with massive manipulation by the media, marketing gurus and pollsters, among others.

In addition to the prevailing forces of Big Business, the military, civil society, religious leaders, unions and many more, there are strong indications of dynasties becoming more entrenched – the Gandhi and Bhutto dynasties of India and Pakistan, the father-and-son Bush dynasties and the recent phenomena of husband-and-wife dynasties in the US and Argentina.

Eventually, where does all the sound and fury lead? Certainly to more conflict and controversy. One proposes, another opposes and a third disposes. And thus the wheel continues to turn.

Over the New Year break, one of our former maids came down to Bangkok for her annual gratuity. She lives in Nakhon Pathom and makes a living selling scrap metal.

I asked her if she had voted in the recent elections. She said she had. I asked her whom she had voted for. She said, “Candidate Number Two.” And whom would that be, I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The village headman told us to vote for Number Two, and that’s what I did.”

Aaah, the beauty of “democracy.” Did someone say it is the best form of government there is?