Elections and complications

Published May 17, 2023
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

AFTER a nail-biting race, the Turkish election appears to be headed towards a run-off poll, with neither candidate able to secure 50 per cent of the vote. The electoral rules in the presidential system were put in place by the then Turkish prime minister (subsequently president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is one of the candidates. The run-off election will be held on May 28. Until then, the fate of Turkey hangs in the balance. The country, which has borne the brunt of a major catastrophe this year, will have to wait at least two more weeks before its future is known. At the end of the recent round, Erdogan had won 49.5pc of the vote while the opposition parties had won 44.89pc.

The Turkish election is just one among many tests for electoral institutions around the world. With the global economy in a state of flux, the seemingly unstoppable conflict between Russia and Ukraine, growing hazards of climate change and post Covid economic woes, a large part of the global population is confronting difficult choices at the ballot box. Even beyond the actual choices between parties and candidates, the very nature of democratic institutions appears to be in question.

For instance, in the US, where democracy once seemed unassailable, doubts regarding voting machines, the allegiances of electoral officials and corruption exposés involving supreme court judges are all suggesting major problems ahead.

This is because the legitimacy of elections relies on procedures and rules of the voting exercise. When the voting public believes that the polls are fair, the people selected are seen as the legitimate and rightful rulers and lawmakers of a country.

If things are so dire in advanced democracies, the disarray in our neck of the woods is even messier.

One example of how elections can lose their legitimacy among significant swathes of the population was evident in the last US presidential elections. The fact that former president Donald Trump did not accept the election results and that he and his followers continue to believe that the election was ‘stolen’ from them translates to a crisis of legitimacy that will be difficult to resolve even when the next electoral cycle begins.

One small victory against the power of the losers who are attacking the legitimacy of the polls was witnessed recently when Dominion — the maker of voting machines — sued the pro-Trump Fox News for saying that its poll equipment had rigged the 2020 elections by stealing Trump’s votes. Fox News agreed to pay nearly $8 million in reportedly the largest settlement in a public defamation case in the US. The ruling in the civil trial agreed with Dominion that the news outlet’s claims were false. In making them, they were found to have defamed Dominion.

This does not mean that the legitimacy crisis in one of the most advanced democracies in the world has been resolved. Millions of Trump supporters in the US continue to believe that Trump was the real winner of the election. This belief is very likely to cause considerable upheaval when the next electoral cycle begins. Not only is there a risk that Trump supporters will disrupt the process, there is also a possibility that the near-coup attempt that took place on Jan 6, 2021, will be renewed if Trump (who is likely to be the Republican nominee once again) loses a second time. Add to this the recent revelations of how a US supreme court justice allegedly manipulated his political connections, and you have a near-certain crisis ahead.

If things are so dire in advanced democracies, the disarray in our neck of the woods is even messier and more complicated. Whenever an orderly transfer of power is replaced by something else, even when it is a no-confidence motion undertaken by parliament, the legitimacy of the system itself is brought into question. Add to this the successive appeals to and decisions taken by the Supreme Court and another dose of uncertainty is poured into the mix. In recent days, this uncertainty has been reflected in the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan by the government and then his release on the orders of the Supreme Court. Monday’s sit-in (now called off) by the PDM outside the Supreme Court further reflects the ongoing tension and the fact that various electoral actors are once again calling into question the legitimacy of whichever branch of government issues decisions or directives against their interests.

This does not bode well for elections because it suggests that one or another party will be fighting against one or more institutions if the result at the ballot box does not produce the outcomes they would like.

Democracy and its main components — elections and the separation of powers — is a delicate dance that depends on the steps being followed with as much exactitude as possible. If not, the steps begin to lose their sequence. If the Turkish context is instructive then Pakistanis must also consider how various competing parties are likely to transform the electoral system itself. Recep Erdogan after all has remained in power for as long as he has by subverting the rules, silencing and eliminating critics, cracking down on an independent media and eroding the separation of powers. Given all of this, one wonders if the Turkish opposition would have won if the health of Turkish democracy had not been engineered by Erdogan.

As elections draw closer in Pakistan, the pitch of allegations and counter allegations will become louder and louder. Amid the cacophony, Pakistan’s voting public must assess which party or leader is most likely to respect the rules so that the legitimacy of the selection remains intact. A leader must thus possess not only a commitment to the welfare of the country and its people but also to maintain the sanctity of the system via which he or she is selected.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2023

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