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October 02, 2006

What Comes First - Elections or Institutions?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It is usual for opponents of democracy promotion to belittle elections and elevate institutions. This is a variation of the prerequisites argument – that before you push for democracy, you must first have various indices satisfied (i.e. strong middle class, liberal elites, economic growth). This argument often doubles as a high-minded way of saying that third-world peoples – and particularly Arabs – need to be like us before they can enjoy democracy. 

With that said, there is no doubting that it is better to have democratic institutions then not to have them. Democratization in, say, Egypt would be a less risky and contentious affair if well-rooted, legitimate institutions were in place.

In emerging polities, the question has always been whether institutional arrangements have the capacity to absorb the participatory demands of the electorate. Where institutions are weak, what Samuel Huntington calls “wild democracy” or “mass praetorianism” is more likely to take hold. Where institutions are autonomous and legitimate, even the most reckless demagogues will fail in their efforts to transform the political structure. This is why the Bush administration has failed and will continue to fail in its bid to do away with the Geneva conventions, legitimize torture, establish military tribunals, and impose Orwellian legislative projects (i.e. the now-defunct Patriot Act II). The lesson here is that institutions matter.

However, there are some problems with applying such a lesson to the Middle East. The US-supported autocrats now in power have gone out of their way to erode and stunt the development of indigenous institutions, for such institutions present a formidable threat to their unquenchable thirst for power and control. Which is why it is not surprising that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spent a good chunk of his reign harassing the country’s venerable and relatively independent judiciary (one of the few holdovers of Egypt’s pre-1952 “liberal era”) and making the establishment of new political parties a nearly impossible endeavor. The Mubarak regime, one might argue, has tried to build (or maintain) some kind of "middle class" – but a “middle class” which is dependent on government largesse and therefore rendered incapable of exerting democratic pressure on Egypt’s rulers. One would hope that something as basic as a “Vice President” would exist in the netherworld of Egyptian politics. It does not. There is no institutionalized mode of succession. Then again, I suppose you don’t need one if you’re planning on making your country into a monarchy.

So we’re back to square one. How do you build autonomous institutions in an autocratic context? The short of it is that you can’t. As long as autocratic regimes rule, they will not allow for the development of liberal-democratic institutions. So we are faced with two choices: 1) continue supporting the existing autocracies and hoping that they will experience a change of heart and begin the hard work of building sustainable institutions, or 2) support free and fair elections and an open political environment, where competing opposition forces can present their respective programs for political resuscitation to voters. The groups/parties that come to power will not necessarily be followers of “new institutionalist” approaches to political science, but they will have a greater incentive to establish regularized procedures than their authoritarian predecessors did. Neither choice is ideal, but, surely, one is better than the other.


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I think that by focusing on the UN Millennium Development Goals when developing the state and its instituions in building new democracies in the Middle East, we will be able to see more progress. By addressing a worldwide goal of eradicating extreme poverty, countries in which we occupy, or have heavy influence, will be more inclined to progress their economies rather than feel outside pressure of Western influence. However, we need more political attention on the MDG's if we want to fulfill them in order to see a more stable world. The Borgen Project is working to make our leaders more accountable.

Traditionally, hasn't it been power blocs that precede democracy? One big power and a bunch of little ones, the little ones want to check the big one but they can't depend on a single leader. They vote for lack of a better way to get a consensus.

By that standard iraq should be ripe for democracy. Lots of militias that don't necessarily agree. One person one vote is less disruptive than one gun one vote and apart from differences in training and supply and such it's likely to give a similar result but with less death and destruction. All they have to do is give up the idea it's possible and worth doing to win militarily, and start negotiating.

So why are we trying to suppress militias and setting up a central army that (we hope) will have superior training and supplies?

Well, duh. We don't want a government that's responsive to a bunch of armed iraqis. We want an iraqi government that's responsive to us.

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