Christian Caryl

In 2014, It’s Not Just About the Ballot Box

The year ahead will tell us a lot about the state of democracy around the world. But voting is just one part of the story.


I recently returned from a two-week trip to the West African country of Mali. It was my first visit to the place, and it was a remarkable experience. I was deeply impressed by the resilience and fortitude of a people who live in one of the poorest places on earth, and who are also justifiably proud of their success at maintaining an electoral democracy over the past two and a half decades. Among other things, I watched some of them vote in the last round of this year’s parliamentary election — quite an achievement after two years of turmoil, including a separatist rebellion in the north and a military coup that eliminated democratic government for a time.

One observation that’s still bouncing around in my head comes from my meeting with Moussa Mara, a member of the government who’s also the head of a nascent political party. When you chat with folks in Bamako, Mali’s capital, you hear lots of disgruntled talk about the problems of the "political class." Most of that complaining is clearly justified. The people who tend to get elected to high office in Mali generally come from a small circle of a few dozen well-established families. The ruling elite is deeply corrupt, and those who challenge its authority are often co-opted into its ranks with promises of a share in the loot. (The rather benign-sounding term for this is "consensus politics.")

When I spoke with Moussa in his tidy office in a spiffy, Libyan-built government complex in the center of the capital, he spoke at great length about how his country’s young people are disillusioned with the pace of change. We talked about the problem of corruption and how it can be fought. We discussed the problems of development in a country where many people still don’t have enough food, schooling, or protection from infectious disease.

But then he surprised me: "The biggest problem of democracy is the absence of the Malian citizen." The people of his country, he said, are still hobbled by lack of education, the everyday struggle for survival, and alienation from the political process. Many of them still vote, but many of those who do aren’t sure whom they’re voting for or why. "I want to see citizens become more active," Moussa told me. "I want to see them demand more of their leaders."

I don’t think Moussa was selling me a line. He’s right: You can have all the elections you want, but they won’t be worth the paper the ballots are printed on unless you have a citizenry that actually wants democracy. Yes, Malians are voting again. But back in March 2012, when disgruntled army officers chased the president out of office (and ultimately into exile), no one in the country took to the streets to support their elected government. Instead there was one big collective yawn. How strong is Malian democracy if its people don’t really care about its fate?

I suspect that Mali will be in the back of my mind this year as we watch for the next indications of democratic change around the world. 2014 is already being billed as the "biggest year for democracy ever" by the Economist, which notes that 40 percent of the world’s population will be voting in national elections. Bangladeshis have just voted; still to come are the people of Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, and the United States (along with several other less populous countries). That’s a lot of ballots. But how much will the results tell us about the actual state of democracy in these countries?

They’ll certainly reveal something. Elections are the bedrock of any genuine democracy; it’s hard to imagine a democracy that’s run by leaders who weren’t chosen by their own people. But elections aren’t enough on their own, either.

First of all, the quality of elections matters. There are plenty of tyrannies (see: Hitler, Stalin) that used votes to create the appearance of popular legitimacy. "Soft" authoritarian states often use elections as alibis for continued rule. (Last week’s election in the putative democracy of Bangladesh, for example, certainly doesn’t suggest that the leaders of the country’s ruling party, the Awami League, were keen on allowing genuine political competition: members of the opposition party have now gone into hiding, apparently to evade the fate of the 18 people killed during election-related violence.)

Second, elections aren’t an end unto themselves. They’re supposed to result in transparent, accountable, and effective government. If they don’t, it’s likely that trouble is on the way somewhere down the road.

If elections aren’t the only ingredient in the democratic recipe, what are the others? Democracy is scarcely viable in the absence of genuinely democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, relatively free media, and organized groups that reflect the varied needs and interests of community (that mysterious beast known as "civil society"). And you probably won’t have sufficiently strong institutions unless there’s a critical mass of engaged citizenry who are willing to fight for them.

There it is again, that word "citizen." In Egypt, three elections are set to take place in 2014 — all of them under the sheltering hand of a vicious new military government that has dismissed all members of the Muslim Brotherhood as "terrorists." For the military, members of the Islamist party almost don’t count as Egyptian citizens. When Mohamed Morsi and his fellow Muslim Brothers were on top, though, their actions suggested that they viewed Egyptians above all through the lens of faith: those who didn’t share the religious ideas of the Brotherhood were left virtually without a say in the construction of the new, post-revolutionary state. Being a citizen was less important than being a believer.

Egypt isn’t the only Muslim country facing potentially turbulent elections this year. Turkey, which is experiencing intense political instability thanks to last year’s surprising protest movement and the current corruption scandal engulfing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government, is preparing for what is likely to be a highly contentious national poll in August. Afghanistan’s continuing ethnic and religious divides can actually make matters worse when expressed at the ballot box. But we can also expect to see a lot of tension when Thais head off to pick their leaders early next month. Thailand, too, is a country deeply split by religious and class identities (majority Buddhists versus minority Muslims, northern supporters of populist ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra versus Bangkok-centered elites). Bridging those gulfs will be crucial to the fate of democracy there.

It’s in the places where citizens are prepared to mobilize, and to work actively to claim and realize their own rights, where the prospects for democracy are best. This week, Tunisian representatives are voting on a new constitution — a process that, with the right outcome, could finally lead to a happy ending for the country that started off the Arab Spring. And despite the chaos enveloping the country, Libyans are still showing a remarkable willingness to take to the streets in protest against their leaders, to form civic organizations, and to continue open debates about their nation’s course.

The big surprises for democracy will come in the places where citizens manage to mobilize effectively despite the odds. I doubt very much that 2014 will see a triumph of democratic culture in Russia or China. But I wouldn’t be completely astonished to see dramatic change in Sudan, where bouts of unrest over the past two years have shaken the rule of President Omar al-Bashir. That’s the funny thing about democracy: It has a knack for breaking out where you least expect it.

 Twitter: @ccaryl