A new model of democracy? Tunisia votes

By Rachit Buch

The Arab Spring has ended and we have had an uncertain Autumn. Egypt’s interim military rulers have asserted authoritarian power. Gaddafi was toppled, then killed. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has promised an ‘earthquake’ if the West intervenes.

In all of this, Tunisia has proceeded to its first democratic election in 50 years, won by the Nahda Party, and is in the process of writing its Constitution with the help, amongst others of the Council of Europe. The question on people’s lips is: what sort of democracy will ensue?

There has been a large strand of opinion that says the democracy in the ‘Arab world’ will be a ‘new model’. Primarily this is because of the greater role of religion either in the organisation of the state itself or simply in the main political parties. However, we’ve had a strange history of opinion on Middle Eastern countries and democracy, with some insisting those countries somehow weren’t capable of democratic governance (as I wrote previously,) so it is worth seeing if these claims have any value.

A new model, but compared to what?
Implicit in the question of whether we will see a new model emerge in the Middle East is that there’s an old model somewhere. There clearly are a huge number of democracies but there is a question as to whether they either all run one ‘model’ of government, or whether there are a small number of loose models or whether there aren’t any such models at all.

Many a politics student would jump at the chance of such a (seemingly easy?) essay question: the main models of democracy, including the European liberal democracy, the American republican democracy, and arguably a more community centred deliberative democracy represent the established norms. If Arab democracies differed, a new model would be formed.

It can hardly be doubted that each of these concepts describes important aspects of some systems of government. But there are real questions as to whether these simple classifications hold much power when talking about a country starting from scratch. What does it mean to adopt a liberal democracy, rather than a republican approach, if the preceding 50 years involved more or less brutal authoritarianism? This is the question that makes the easy to ask question seem a little pointless.

What’s the new part?
The other side to the question, of course, is that there must be something new. This, it seems, is a little more straightforward. The role of religion in Middle Eastern countries represents a contrast to traditional concepts of democracies, which pioneered the secular state. It certainly can’t be said that religion is alive and kicking in the Middle East and there is a thriving and controversial political application of Islam that makes bridging the gap between the church and the stump easy.

But this doesn’t mean that the Middle East is the only place with a high dose of religion. And other of these areas can be democracies too. It would be tempting here to cite the more harebrained Republican Party ideologues of America. And maybe there is a point there – how can Mormonism coexist with a secular state? But more apt may be some South American countries with a strong Catholic presence that manage to maintain democracy.

The issue may be that this particular area hasn’t seen democracy in the form we now know it. But a country like India hadn’t either before 1947, and despite a similarly strong religious influence, it has managed well for most of the time since. And the perennial example of Turkey shows a largely Muslim country operating democracy.

The point here is not simply that other religious countries can be democratic. Nor is it that because of this uncontroversial fact, the Middle East will settle democracy like a favourite suit. There may be perfectly good reasons for the socioeconomic and cultural features of the Middle East to make democratic governance difficult, particularly in the early years. But when people say that there is a new model of government on the horizon, we need to be clear what it is that makes it new. And many of the features claimed to be new are present in parts all over the world.

Democracy by quorum
It is undoubtedly an earth moving movement taking place in the Middle East now. Anyone who professes to know, as opposed to make an educated guess, as to what will happen over the next few years is not to be trusted. However, there may be a better way of thinking about the countries emerging from the aftermath of authoritarian reigns.

More important than whether the emerging structure in Tunisia, or any of the other countries heading towards democracy, has the fine detail of a liberal or constitutional democracy, is whether the basic set of democratic principles are put into practice in society, through a combination of democratic practices, institutions and social attitudes.

This basic ‘quorum of things necessary for a functioning democracy is no secret: free elections, free and independent media and rule of law. And there are encouraging signs on this front, there are encouraging signs even in Libya. These are the key tests for the emerging polities.

The implication in many questions asking about a new model is that it will be a bad model, with extremist zealots (or ‘moderate fanatics’) taking over. But this is akin to proclaiming democracy as the fair and just way to govern, but then complaining when people choose a party you don’t like. And more importantly, there is no fresh-from-the-box existing model with which to compare: democracy is a mix of social structures, institutions and attitudes and countries have a different mix of each.

Whether the structures to emerge in Tunisia or elsewhere are similar to those in other countries or not, it is the existence of these key elements that matter. Once these are established, it may make more sense to ask what exactly the politics of the country is. But there is a good deal of work left to bring about the basics of democracy before concerns about the ‘model’ used become a priority.


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