Don’t be daft: It takes more than an election to make a democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Beyond the immediate joy of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, it is far from certain what their ultimate outcome will be, including potentially further instability if not civil war. Democracy will not come easily or quickly by virtue of elections alone, but rather through the slow and steady development of political parties, civil society and interest groups, write UK Conservative MEP Nirj Deva and Samantha Feinstein in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.

This op-ed was authored exclusively for EURACTIV by UK Consevative MEP Nirj Deva, who is vice-president of the European Parliament's international development committee, and Samantha Feinstein, a former desk officer at the International Rescue Committee for the Middle East.

"Peace in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is on the cusp of history. The omens are not good, pointing to increasing instability and potential civil wars.

The international community is of course concerned over the absence of the rule of law in Egypt, civilian killings in Libya, political executions in Iran, and the inability of governments in the MENA [region] to provide their people with jobs and food. Yemen, for example, is number eighteen on the failed states index and is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Yemen is also home for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula working against Western-style freedoms.

Yet the West remains hopelessly divided and impotent to do anything practical about them. In Libya, we are experiencing a repeat of the same mistakes in Iraq. Is there a global case of amnesia, or have we forgotten what resulted when the United States was finished playing cowboy taking down Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Whether or not there is a regime change in Libya, the West is missing the mark once again.

There is little room for committing to endless wars with unclear goals, especially when the MENA [region] is merely in the early stages of a long-term transition. Military interventions in Libya will set the precedence for global expectations which are, practically speaking, unmanageable and unrealistic to implement. Yemen may soon be the next Libya, and some of the bloodiest revolutions may only be emerging now because the higher the risk, the longer it takes to organise civilian resistance.

Looking ahead, the global community must consider the long-term consequences of how armed forces are engaged. You cannot protect civilians in Libya from up in the sky and killing [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi does not mean there will subsequently be an election and then a democracy. Democracies take centuries to build.

Our usual quick fix solution, our global panacea for all political ills, is to call for quick elections. Holding elections now will not be a cure but a long-term disaster for MENA if they come about before major improvements are made to the socio-political fabric in the region. Hastily conducted elections in Afghanistan, for instance, were a travesty wrought with fraud and violence, with its government now near collapse and democracy despised; the Taliban's reach is spreading and internal conflict worsening.

The lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq, Cote d'Ivoire, Congo, Zimbabwe, Myanmar or elsewhere are similar. Building legitimate democratic foundations takes time, money, internal, regional and international support. 

Democratisation has been on the political agenda in the Middle East for 150 years. So what makes today different from yesterday? One difference is that amidst the revolutions taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Jordan and Algeria, the world is showing support to people who are for the first time risking beatings, detention and their lives to bring about change and give themselves a role in the decision-making process.

Nearly half or more of the population in countries experiencing uprisings are age 25 or younger. Young people in MENA are asking for fairness, freedom, jobs, food, electricity, justice and an end to old, out-of-touch dictatorships that have lasted for 30 years or more.

The people want to have their say, play a role in the governance process, see accountability, honesty, transparency, and effective and efficient governance that delivers a better life, more opportunities, a better standard of living and a better future. In short they want a change for the better. Positive change is possible within the emerging infant local democratic structures; but just having or holding elections soon is not the only thing these people are fighting for.

Democracy requires institutions to uphold it, a civil society to promote it, the rule of law to enforce it, a free press to articulate it and an independent judiciary system to oversee properly constituted political parties. It is only after all this has been achieved that a democracy needs to ensure fair and free elections, appropriately monitored by independent observers.

The time to influence the building and shaping of a new democratic order is now. The region's old closed political systems are beginning to collapse and have opened the window of opportunity for change. But the window will not remain open for long.

In the past, large amounts of spending and efforts of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) to support the institutions that uphold democracy, to promote civil society, to improve the rule of law and human rights have failed because the reforms and outputs were only cosmetic changes and not substantial or sustainable. 

In Egypt alone, the ENPI [has] spent about €1.15 billion euros on Egypt over the last ten years, and the United States [has] spent about $12.5 billion US dollars in economic support. What was achieved? What democratic structures were built? Which group of people were empowered?

If we do not get this right, this time, and build lasting structures, we will be flooded with mass migration and refugees unparalleled in recent history.

Much of the change must come from within MENA, but influencing that change is possible if done with circumspection and sensitivity. The European Union (EU) has experience building democracies and has the funds to be present and active in what is happening. It is not enough to merely offer expertise. This is a chance for the EU to get right what it has failed to do in the past. Here is how:

Firstly, the EU needs to focus on building the rule of law. The rule of law is the foundation on which democracy is built. In order to have the rule of law, one must have in place an independent judiciary, impartial courts, a law-abiding police force, a just prosecuting system and a incorruptible defence system. This takes time and a significant amount of money to build. It is only after the rule of law is well founded that the next steps can be taken.

Building the rule of law in the MENA region will provide a dramatic change and a huge challenge to the old, out-of-touch and traditionalist ways of the current corrupt and greedy political elite.

It is also necessary to encourage a thriving independent free press and media who act as the necessary adjunct to preserving the rule of law and have the ability to expose corruption and influence peddling. 

Currently many of the existing post-colonial constitutions in MENA countries pay lip service to democracy whilst empowering arbitrary rule by one or more individuals, backed by a winner-takes-all mentality which keeps the ruling parties in each country in perpetual power. To create more checks and balances and to prevent a return to arbitrary rule, new constitutions are needed to be drafted by Constituent Assemblies that include all minorities and where women play an important if not equal role.

It is also essential that emerging, fledgling democracies have properly constituted political parties, underpinned by civil society and a myriad of pressure groups and local interest groups. Political parties need capacity building assistance so they can identify what they stand for, write their manifestos, run a campaign, recruit candidates and members, and convert their manifestos into programmes for governing. These are the basic tools essential in realising the creation of fair and stable governance.

Finally, elections can only occur once independent election commissioners in each MENA country are ready with the compilation of properly constituted electoral laws, election and nominating process and transparently registered voters' roles and lists.

These critical foundations need to be firmly in place before elections can be expected to bring lasting democracy. Otherwise we will merely see the replacement of one failed dictator by another aspiring one. The gestation process to bring lasting democracy is long; funds and expertise need to be garnered and mobilised and the emerging intelligentsia now protesting in the streets made partners to the process.

Rome was not built in a day. Neither will democracies in the Middle East."

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