TRUDY RUBIN: Can the Arab awakening retain its faith in the power of democracy?

By Trudy Rubin

Next month, I’ll be traveling to Tunis to observe the first election of the Arab Spring. Tunisia and Egypt – which I’ll also visit – have the best odds in the region of building democratic institutions.
Yet they are embracing electoral politics just as more experienced countries are souring on the value of the ballot. ”Protests Rise Around the Globe as Faith in the Vote Wanes,” says a New York Times headline, with examples from India, Israel, Britain and Spain. I’ve witnessed similar frustrations about the value of the vote develop in Russia and Iraq – not to mention in our own country.
So, just as Tunisians gear up for their first free vote, is electoral democracy losing its global status as the most desired political system? And what are the lessons to be learned?
These questions are too big to answer in one column, but let me offer some thoughts.
Countries that have taken part in the Arab awakening are still hopeful about the ballot. ”If you’re not free, you don’t scoff at elections,” notes political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, rightly. Arabs who fought hard to dump authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya – and who are still struggling in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria – want to choose their own rulers.
But cynicism is already on the rise among many Egyptians and Tunisians about the fairness of election regulations. That bodes ill for the future.
What’s even more disturbing is the dismal fate of democracy in some key countries that embraced it after the end of the Cold War, when it seemed that the liberal democratic model had triumphed. There, the ballot is no longer held in esteem.
In post-Soviet Russia, where I spent time during the 1990s, the population was initially thrilled by the right to vote. Yet public enthusiasm was sapped by a decade of instability, economic collapse and massive government corruption.
In return for stability, Russians were willing to accept a return of authoritarian rule – that permitted some personal freedoms. Soured on elections, most Russians don’t care that the balloting is totally controlled by the Kremlin. And they are willing to tolerate corruption, now that they get a share of the oil pie.
In Iraq, I witnessed huge excitement over the first elections in 2005 (remember the purple fingers?). Yet a decade of bloodshed and massive corruption soured Iraqis on the value of the vote. Today, they regard the ballot as a permanent guarantor of power for the majority Shiites, and payoffs for the well-connected. Most Iraqis are disgusted with parliamentarians who don’t deliver services but gorge on the spoils of oil.
The lessons: In countries with no democratic history and high expectations, frustration is inevitable. It takes time to build democratic institutions. If living standards stagnate while a new political class enriches itself, voters lose faith in elections. Would-be strongmen wait in the wings.
And there’s one more factor that sours the global image of elections. Not long ago, democratic wannabes in the Arab world and elsewhere looked to Western models as examples of what they could achieve if they had freedom. The publics in developing countries believed that democracy guaranteed a high standard of living. This belief fueled the global democracy boom after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In these hard times, Western models look less attractive. Many young Europeans – hit by high employment and severe economic woes – have lost faith in politicians of any party. The young gather in huge demonstrations, some violent, often drawn by the Internet, but are alienated from traditional electoral politics.
Huge protests in Israel over social inequality, and the anticorruption crusade by hundreds of thousands in New Delhi, also signal growing frustration in older democracies with electoral politics. And then, there’s the Tea Party phenomenon here.
Obviously, Europeans and Americans aren’t seeking an end to elections, but they are frustrated by their paralyzed political systems. What worries me most is that radical parties, or undemocratic leaders, will feed on that frustration – via the vote.
We can see this phenomenon bubbling up here (although I still believe that basic American common sense will reemerge before elections). Radical parties are already gaining new strength in Europe.
In the Mideast, Islamists will tout the failures of Western systems and gain strength in initial elections. But all Arab politicians will face steep odds, as impatient publics demand better living standards. Oil-wealthy Libya can buy off popular discontent, but Tunisia and Egypt aren’t so lucky.
Those Arab leaders who curb corruption may earn themselves more time to deliver. But – at a time when publics worldwide are frustrated by elections, and Arab publics are street-ready – that time frame won’t be lengthy. Faith in the virtues of the ballot could fade fast.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.