ballot box

I’ve been vexed by elections going back to high-school student council. The wrong candidate usually won: the quarterback beat the class intellectual, convincing me that “the people” are stupid and democracy doesn’t work.

Voters whose candidates lose often react that way. But what if the problem is elections, not democracy — because elections aren’t all there is to democracy. That may be hard to absorb, since we tend to equate them. But perhaps democracy isn’t just a political system; it’s a core part of being human.

Recent democratic eruptions in diverse places raise such questions.

Take Tunisia. The Arab Spring began there in late 2010. Tunisians, led by the young, rose up, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a feared dictator for decades, soon fled. Cairo’s uprising followed. Then Spain’s Real Democracy Now camps, which led to Occupy Wall St., Occupy Toronto and the likes.

I went to Tunis last November, just weeks after the country’s first free election. What struck me was a disconnect between the “revolution” and the election that had just occurred. Many who went fearlessly into the streets a year before chose not to participate. They didn’t see the connection. One blogger, “A Tunisian Girl,” was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the uprising, but she said she wouldn’t vote. There was even a group called Bloggers against the Election.

In the end, only 55 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot — just one year after an inspiring, democratic catharsis in the streets.

Alhem Belhadj, a child psychiatrist, is president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. “We tell people voting is important,” she says, “but half the population don’t participate and it’s not women, it’s youth. They don’t feel elections are the road to democracy.”

Young people tell her the way to democracy is through economic programs and expansion of rights. Their concerns are free expression, police violence against kids, the fact many of the guilty still face no charges, and the way money and media dominate elections.

Belhadj agrees that the parties are “stuck far behind those who made the revolution” — the young and fed up. She acknowledges the critique of voting isn’t mindless. It’s not because youth don’t care about politics; it’s because they do.

Her own most intense political experience came not from voting but in the street protests a year before, when she felt accepted fully, as a woman and citizen: “The dictatorship denied our ability to be both at the same moment; then you live it on Avenue Bourguiba.”

Those moments were ineffable for many: like the lawyer who wandered the dark streets of Tunis alone on the climactic night of Jan. 14 shouting, “Ben Ali has run away.” In comparison, elections pale.

Asma Nouira is a political scientist. She distinguishes the revolution, which she says wasn’t about democracy in the accepted sense — “it was the apprenticeship of democracy,” from the electoral process it led to. It’s as though there were two trains on different tracks, related but distinct. When one ended its run, the other began chugging out of the station. In the revolution, she says, everyone came together. The absence of leadership made unity easier: “Dictatorship makes so many things clear.”

The transition to elections came afterward, when she was appointed to a commission charged with preparing for them. She saw the electoral sausage being stuffed, and it wasn’t pretty. “There was lying, people tried to delay the election, the distinction between politics and morality vanished, they all acted the same; left, right, secular, religious — they were all idiots.” It’s as if she had a seat on both trains.

As for the election that occurred just before we met, “we’re still waiting to see the effects.”

Those results, giving most seats to Ennahda, an Islamist party, even though it fell short of an overall majority, unsettled many enthusiasts of The Revolution.

“C’est inquiétant,” says Elyes Gharbi, a broadcaster.

During the dictatorship, he stayed under the radar as a producer. But on Jan. 14, the crucial day, he went on air. He knew all Tunisia was watching. He forgot 15 years of caution. “What I lived was like a birth moment,” he says, an image others have used. It’s not a phrase people utter as they step from a polling booth.

But now, a year, an election and an Islamist plurality later, he’s fearful. “After the romantic moment of revolution, we are awakening from this beautiful dream to a nightmare.” Election reality meets popular fervour. “As an opposition, how do you disagree with God? It will be a good or a terrible Tunisia.”

I found the same unease at a meeting of artists in a suburban cinema. They were thrilled and electrified along with others during the revolution. The moment it succeeded, however, everything was frozen for them in public terms. The future became hazy and electioneering took over. So they busied themselves in their work and scattered.

They dropped back in a year later, after the election. The success of Ennahda unfroze them. “Islamists have two problems,” says actor Anissa Daoud, who organized the meeting, “art and women.” Following the election, they demanded control of the ministries of culture and education.

They got neither and formed a coalition government with secular parties. So far so good. Tunisia remains the poster child for the Arab Spring.

But the forebodings weren’t misplaced. Just last month, an art show was attacked by Salafists — radical Islamists — and other malcontents, for being blasphemous (“Allah,” spelled out by ants, etc.). There were riots, someone died, many were injured and arrested. The leader of Ennahda denounced the attacks, but also denounced the art.

The main conflict right now may be between Islamists; Al Qaeda has called for the destruction of the Tunisian revolution and Ennahda sees itself as Al Qaeda’s chief combatant. On the other hand, there was a protest march by tourism operators demanding government action so tourists won’t stay away from the country’s famous beaches. All in all, this looks like the somewhat ragged shape of real democracy.

This disconnect is becoming familiar. In Egypt, for instance, in last month’s presidential elections that followed Cairo’s own spring. The runoff pitted the last prime minister under the old regime against a candidate from the venerable Muslim Brotherhood — as if no vibrant popular movement in Tahrir Square had made it all possible a year earlier.

There, too, many youth endorsed a boycott to depress an already low first-round turnout in order to discredit the legitimacy of whoever won. The eventual turnout was reported as 51 per cent, a suspiciously narrow majority of eligible voters, making one wonder if it had been even less. And the vote was preceded by a supreme court dismissal of the elected parliament alongside a reassertion of military power. You’d have to give points to any youth who’d voiced doubts about the electoral version of democracy versus the preceding in-the-streets kind.

It’s tempting to dismiss these disconnects and rejections of elections as signs of political naivete and inexperience: a failure to accept that the apprenticeship is over and now the tedious but unavoidable electoral realities begin, with all their frustrations.

But that might be hasty and simplistic. I talked in Tunis, for instance, to Ahmed Bouazzi, an older man in a business suit, a veteran of one of the parties allowed to function under the dictatorship, though just barely. They plugged away for years but were surprised by the sudden outburst of democratic passion.

“It was like a snowball,” he said, as we sat surrounded by desert on the shores of the Mediterranean. “Still,” I said, “people here have only known dictatorship” — implying they may not be ready for the next phase: elections. He looked puzzled. As if to say, this isn’t about experience with elections; people yearn for freedom as they breathe air, it’s a natural process no one has to teach you.

“What I see in young people,” he said, “is the natural desire to be part of decisions. What they normally want is to express themselves, not just individually but publicly.”

He went on to proudly describe the deep roots of the democratic impulse in Tunisia. In 1846, it abolished slavery two years before France and long before the United States. In 1861, it wrote the first Arab constitution. In 1956, polygamy was abolished and women won the right to divorce — before Italy and Spain. In 1959, women gained the right to vote before Swiss women.

That Tunisian snowball has been rolling for a long time.

I heard similar sentiments from Said Ferjani, of the Ennahda party. He spent 22 years exiled in London and returned after the revolution.

“I wish in the West they would focus on our non-violence when they talk about Islam,” he said. “How the masses of people did not react, even to incredible abuse. Here you see love of freedom and non-violence, yet we are dismissed as unsuited to democracy.”

Western critics of the Muslim world, believers in a “clash of civilizations,” clearly get in his craw. “Yes, we are Muslims but we share with the world an attachment to freedom and democracy. And these things go not only from the West to Muslims but from Muslims to the West.”

There are inklings of a democratic disconnect in the West, too. The U.S. equivalent is the looming dropout from this fall’s elections by many who campaigned ardently for Barack Obama in 2008. It was their Tahrir moment, but they see little connection between it and the Obama policies that followed. Many joined the Occupy movement.

One of their mentors, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, says: “Voting will not alter the corporate systems of power. Voting is an act of political theatre. Voting in the United States is as futile and sterile as in the elections I covered as a reporter in dictatorships like Syria, Iran and Iraq.”

The now literally unlimited power of big money to dominate U.S. election campaigns following a Supreme Court decision plays into the same sense. It undermines any sense of an even minimal level of democratic debate. You hear people quote Emma Goldman, the revolutionary anarchist: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” But this deep skepticism about elections comes from people who are fervent democrats.

So is it a crisis for democracy or just a crisis for elections? Maybe we’ve shoehorned the concept into too tight a box. We believed too readily in Churchill’s claim — that democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. By democracy he meant a system like Britain’s, that traces itself back to ancient Greece and was passed on to places such as Canada, then sprinkled around the world.

But what if democracy is less a specific historical system than a basic human instinct?

In Athens last February I asked protesters outside Greece’s parliament if they were furious because their views were being ignored right here in democracy’s birthplace. They said they were doing what normal people do anywhere when their rights are denied. (They also pointed out that democracy in ancient Athens wasn’t so democratic: women and slaves were excluded.)

Have we had too narrow, and too historically anchored, a sense of the term?

For help with this, I visited British anthropologist Sir Jack Goody, now 93, at Cambridge University. During his years in a World War II PoW camp — “for the first time in our lives we didn’t have books or pencil and paper” — he got interested in non-literate peoples. That led him to switch, after the war, from literature to anthropology and do field work in West Africa. His recent books challenge the notion that certain ideas were invented in the West: democracy, capitalism, individualism, romantic love. He finds evidence instead that they’re rooted in human nature and can occur almost anywhere.

I asked what he might say about democracy as a basic instinct, to people who hadn’t read his books. “When literacy arose,” he replied, “you might have got a special form of consultation but before that you had other forms.”

That’s already interesting: he’s implying that consultation rather than voting could be the essential component.

He recalled the chief of a West African tribe who wanted to move camp. He consulted every tent, or all family heads, for their opinions. “That form of consultation is general but it’s the impulse that evolved into democracy and in some places led to elections. It’s been called primitive democracy. A chief doesn’t only make decisions; he wants people to follow him so he consults.

“Sometimes people come together and raise their hands. I remember a group in Ghana who dropped a stone in a box to make a choice. You had that often. I think of Greece as one of many places in the Near East that had a version of elections. They did it every four years but ancient Carthage (now Tunis) did it yearly, making them more democratic in that sense.”

So democracy might include elections in some form, but then again it might not.

“Democracy is far wider than we think,” he went on. “Even if the idea of a king seems authoritarian, you may have representatives operating at lower levels, so he can test people’s opinions. If you’ve spent time in a simple society as I have, the power of the chief is limited. Consultation occurs. Any human community must consult in order to get things done.

“I knew a West African tribe where the ruler was called ‘the man who speaks last.’ He was an important, powerful chief but he always went around the room and took the sense of the meeting, as it were. He didn’t decide alone.

“What is the prime minister except the man who the king consults, who took the opinion of commoners to the king? I think our conception of the constitution of democracy has been very narrow. This kind of thinking opens a box in a sense.”

What box? Well, there’s the box that contains the idea that ancient Greeks and no one else (or only a few others) invented democracy. But there’s also the box that says democracy equals elections. What if it is as much, or more, about consulting “the people.”

Elections may sound more democratic to us. But we elect governments that go away for four years and do things they never mentioned during the campaign without asking our opinion. In that case, ongoing consultation might be more democratic than occasional elections. And are there other options? How would you decide which is “truer” democracy?

Maybe you don’t have to. What if it isn’t a specific thing, with a definition you can look up. Maybe instead it’s a general capacity or potential, built into us — like our capacities for language, musicality, love and so forth — which finds various ways to express itself, none “right” or inevitable? So that the idea would be to open the box occasionally — or the concept — and let it breathe.

The point isn’t that others are somehow democratically right and we’re wrong, or vice versa; it’s that democracy’s future may be a more open book than we thought.

This is part one of a six-part series. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.