Babtounes, “democrazy” and the Tunisian elections

I’m reading Paul Collier’s controversial new “Wars, Guns and Votes” (NYTimes review), where the brilliant development economist addresses the uncomfortable question, “What if democracy doesn’t bring prosperity to very poor nations?” Collier’s research suggests that autocracies are more likely to protect citizens from political violence up to an income level of $2700 per capita, at which point democracies function better. I’m not deep enough into Collier’s book to address concerns about his thesis or suggested interventions – though I’m looking forward to reading these responses from Mutuma Ruteere in Kenya and from a team of development economists writing in the Boston Review – but I’m already struck by the power of Collier’s core argument.

Collier posits that what we see in many underdeveloped nations isn’t democracy but “democrazy”, an adoption of some of the most visible trappings of democracy (most notably elections) without the underlying structures (free press, independent electoral commissions, educated electorate, post-ethnic political structures) that make it possible to have functional elections. By overemphasizing the importance of elections (remember the Bush administration’s drive towards elections in Iraq, or the Obama administration’s push towards the deeply flawed Afghan election?), we may nurture political structures that aren’t democratic and which reward certain types of electoral fraud and abuse.

I was thinking of this as I looked at a project launched by my friend and colleague, Sami ben Gharbia. Sami is the head of Global Voices Advocacy, the free speech arm of Global Voices, and he’s a passionate advocate for political and human rights reform in his homeland, which he’s been exiled from. In anticipation of Tunisia’s presidential and parliamentary elections on October 25th, he’s launched Babtounes.com, a lovely tool to aggregate and visualize online conversations – most notably Twitter conversations – about the Tunisian elections. The tool uses a WordPress blog and Juitter to aggregate several searches against the Twitter database and give a one-stop shop for watching that online conversation.

Sami knows full well who’s going to win the election. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has held power since 1987, when as prime minister, he impeached Habib Bourguiba, the first president of an independent Tunisia. (Wikipedia uses the wonderful term “a medico-legal coup,” as Ben Ali had Bourguiba declared medically unfit to serve.) Ben Ali has “won” “elections” in 1999 and 2004, with margins of 99.66% and 94.48% of the vote, and his victory in 2009 will likely be by a similar majority.

An essay in the Arab Reform Bulletin by Hamadi Redissi helps explain why the election outcome isn’t much in doubt. The country’s electoral system gives 75% of parliamentary seats to a party that wins a simple majority in elections. Since Presidential and parliamentary elections are held simultaneously, you need only rig one election every five years and you’ve got unrivalled control of the country. You can use that control to limit candidate lists (Socialist challenger Dr. Mustapha Benjaafar was excluded from the 2009 election through interpretation of a requirement that a candidate be the elected leader of his party for two years before elections) – there are only three candidates running against Ben Ali, and two have made it clear that they’re not interested in being president, simply in demonstrating support for the electoral system. Being in power also gives you control of the state media, and allows you to oversee the election through the Interior Ministry – there is no independent electoral commission.

So, if the election is fait acompli, why watch? My guess is that Sami is watching so that we understand precisely how the election was stolen, so that activists can challenge the legitimacy of Ben Ali for another five years, and so that they can demand a reform before Ben Ali’s successor runs in 2014, or the old man changes the constitution to allow a sixth term. But the other reason might be to try to maintain interest in politics in the face of an electorate that has become – understandably – cynical and disinterested. Magharebia writes about the use of Facebook in Tunisian elections – that Ben Ali’s Facebook group has received only 6,000 members seems remarkably low to me. Perhaps it reflects the sort of disinterest expressed in this (deeply sarcastic) poem by Nakhlet Oued el-Bey (Translation by Mona Yahia for Magharebia):

The nation cast their votes transparently and with freedom of speech
Having discussed programs and issues of destiny.
Results were soon announced with no cheating or forgery.
Having gone through ballots,
It turns out that people’s main concern is bills
And their only wish is to save some dinars.
They are after a life with no thought or debate,
Except about the championship and who the Cup will go to.

Fair enough. There’s a lot more drama in the World Cup than there will be in the upcoming Tunisian elections. But that doesn’t excuse people who care about the future of human rights and democracy in North Africa from watching.

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