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The value of elections

March 09, 2012

TALK about democracy, and the conversation invariably turns to elections. Free and fair elections are the bedrock of democracy, a prerequisite for good governance, the rule of law and accountability.

No elections, no democracy — right? Or wrong?

More and more, I am beginning to wonder. Elections are important but they do not always lead to good governance. And certainly they do not always move the world in the right direction.

Take the recent elections in Russia. Vladimir Putin may have secured another six years in power, but the polls have done little to make Russia or the world a better place.

In the US, the no-holds-barred infighting among Republican candidates keeps us enthralled even as we wonder at the lack of content and substance of their conversation.

And in the months to come, the increasingly heated presidential election campaign in France appears set to become both frustrating and fascinating.

The fact is that our societies are more and more polarised. There is a deep disconnect between citizens and politicians. And in their determination to win votes, politicians are resorting to tactics that often leave us gasping for fresh air.

Russia is a case in point. Even as a teary-eyed Putin was elected president of Russia last week, returning to the Kremlin for a third term after winning more than 60 per cent of the vote, there was little doubt that the legitimacy of his presidency would continue to be contested.

No one expects another Arab Spring in Russia but the scale of recent protests against Putin’s return have been unprecedented and most analysts predict that the political awakening of Russia’s urban middle class, demonstrated in recent rallies that drew tens of thousands, will continue.

A recent Citibank report says urban Russians, who account for 74 per cent of the population and are increasingly wealthy, demand better governance.

The protests that erupted in the wake of December’s flawed parliamentary elections, which had drawn together politically disparate forces including corruption fighters, ultranationalists and members of established opposition parties, have underlined growing public disaffection with Putin and his policies. And yet, he has just been re-elected to power and can legitimately claim that he is the peoples’ choice.

The presidential election campaign in the US meanwhile provides some much-needed respite from the tough realities of the 21st century.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the clear front-runner in the race to win the Republican nomination, may still be struggling to unite the party around his candidacy but he has launched a frontal attack on President Barack Obama as a dangerous pro-Iranian, anti-Israeli peacenik.

Obama, according to Romney, is “America’s most feckless president since [Jimmy] Carter”. Mr Romney, being a realist, wants the US to prepare a strike designed to take out the Iranian nuclear programme, including dispatching aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf and increasing military aid to Israel.

No wonder that Senator John Kerry, a former Democratic presidential candidate, has criticised Romney’s assertions as “inaccurate” and “aggressive”.

“Every candidate for the Oval Office has the right to criticise the president,” said Kerry, adding: “We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can’t become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump.”

While the US campaign trail provides amusement, for many of us in Europe the election campaign in France is providing much more food for thought – and irritation.

Even as France and the rest of Europe grapple with the future of the euro, high levels of joblessness and a prolonged economic downturn, the president of the republic has latched on to the presence of “too many foreigners” in France as his (hoped-for) vote-winning slogan.

Struggling in the opinion polls as he seeks to repeat his victory of 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to tighten rules governing immigrants’ access to French nationality and social security benefits.

In a bad-tempered television debate with rivals, the president said he would cut the number of immigrants from 180,000 a year to 100,000.

“Our system of integration is working more and more badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school,” he said.

Mr Sarkozy, hoping to snatch votes from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National (FN), has also lashed out against what he says is the expanding distribution of halal meat in France.

After Ms Le Pen said that all Parisians were eating halal meat without their knowledge, Mr Sarkozy insisted that all meat should be sold with labels making clear how the animals were slaughtered.

Leaders of both Muslims and Jewish communities in France have expressed dismay at the tone of the debate.

Mohammed Moussaoui, who heads the main Muslim representative body in France, said exploiting halal meat as a campaign issue was a matter for concern because “it creates tensions in the society”.

The grand rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, said: “France’s problems are so major, as we are in a period of crisis, so how can the issue of kosher meat and halal meat be a major problem?”

Although he is of mixed national and ethnic ancestry himself Sarkozy, who is in fact still trailing far behind his Socialist rival Francois Hollande, with a strong Le Pen in third place, is unlikely to pay much heed to such voices of reason.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.