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Pure Onsense

The good governance advantage

Scott Zuke

(10/2014) Next month (on a Tuesday, for antiquated reasons) weíll have the chance to cast our ballots in the 2014 midterm elections. In 2010 fewer than half of eligible voters turned out to vote. Turnout statistics are frequently cited in order to shame the non-voting population for being too lazy and apathetic to participate in this most fundamental aspect of democracy. They are confronted with the warning that if they donít vote, they forfeit the right to complain if the winning candidate fails to act in their best interests once in office. However, that argument hasnít impacted election turnout rates.

There is a more optimistic way to interpret low voter participation, though. As long as people are truly and fully free to vote, then it could be the case that those who choose not to simply donít see the need; that is, they donít feel that the outcome will have a significant impact on their well-being. In the United States, this is actually a relatively safe assumption. For all of the vicious disagreements over public policy and all the cynicism that politics has engendered, our political leaders and public officials at every level are, in reality, pretty competent at the day-to-day practice of governance.

Our system of government is also quite stable, with changes in the direction of policy usually coming slowly and incrementally. Even the most ambitious lawmakers have to compromise in order to get their policies through the legislative process, and if they overreach, they can easily be replaced in the next election. Perhaps non-voters, rather than being apathetic or lazy, just have more faith in the system and realize how low the stakes are when a system has so many effective mechanisms for self-correction.

In any case, even when the majority of eligible voters choose to abstain, our elections are decisive, and surprisingly so. A candidate who wins by 55% is said to have won in a landslide. And even one who wins by 50.5% is considered legitimate since our electoral process is fair and credible.

This is not intended to diminish the problems with our system, but rather to highlight some of the advantages that we take for granted. It is especially startling when looking at other countries that are in the process of trying to transition to democracy, and the many obstacles they face.

Pakistan, for instance, saw a brief window of hope last year when it finally had an election resulting in a peaceful transfer of civilian power. But now it is on the verge of collapsing as not one, but two political movements have emerged to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. One side argues that Sharif has been veering toward authoritarian style rule, and the other alleges that he won through electoral fraud. This is a common one-two punch in weakly established democracies: first there are claims that the leader in power is illegitimate, and then that heís too dangerous to let remain in office until the next election. Often the military ends up intervening, and by that point, the democracy the protestors were trying to save is lost all the same.

Fraud was also alleged in Afghanistanís presidential elections, which took place in April but didnít yield a victor until a couple weeks ago. With the two leading candidates refusing to concede, the United Nations was brought in to oversee the recounting of ballots, and the United States eventually negotiated a power-sharing agreement. Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner, and will take over for Hamid Karzai, and the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, will have the powers of a prime minister. It remains to be seen how this will all work out in practice, but clearly the ordeal doesnít put a good face on democracy.

Despite these difficulties, experts who know the region say that the citizens in Afghanistan and Pakistan remain enthusiastic in their hopes for democratization. The biggest enemy to that aspiration in the region, said analyst Moeed Yusuf at a recent event in Washington, are poor performing civilian governments. They have been marred by corruption and disorganization, and have forced citizens into an oversimplified dichotomy between repressive military regimes or incompetent civilian rule.

Ideally, they would be able to leave the former option behind all together and begin to have choices between different flavors of civilian governanceóthat is, a choice between multiple, viable political parties. As in a free market, competition is more likely to produce innovation and a higher quality product over time, and weed out what doesnít work.

There is a counter-argument to this, though, which is that fully free markets are susceptible to shocks and monopolies that can cause instability and inefficiency, so some intervention is required to regulate the market. This is, in governmental terms, what is occurring in Egypt, where a hasty implementation of democratic mechanisms without a pre-existing framework for good governance resulted in the ascension of the non-democratic Muslim Brotherhood. Thus the Sisi regime now in power should focus on institutional reforms and developing competent public officials.

It may be doing so, but at an alarmingly slow pace. The laws currently in place seem designed to disempower political parties, and the long-awaited parliamentary elections, which were supposed to have happened by now, are instead being pushed further into the future.

Within those parties are many of the youth who took part in the Arab Spring protests, and are now training themselves to become the next generation of Egyptian leaders. Taking some precautions to preserve the stability of the state is sensible. However, itís imperative that they be allowed to participate and develop their skills so that there are effective leaders and parties ready to engage in the peaceful transfer of power when democracy is ready to advance.

Some day, with luck, citizens in these young democracies will be able to take their right to vote as much for granted as many of us do, and trust that their lives will continue without the disruption of a breakdown in governance.

Read other article by Scott Zuke