For the students of electoral politics, the past week has been thoroughly illuminating. Two countries face elections in the next few weeks. One country hopes to see elections this year. Two nations are still busy managing the fallout of the previous elections. And among them the future of democracy is being defined. Fascinating times.
This week we witnessed the two-year long Mueller probe coming to an end. Anticlimactic as it was, the US media and the Democrats on the whole do not wish to let the story go, visibly at the cost of personal integrity. But after going through a prolonged scrutiny, President Trump finds his position vindicated.
In the United Kingdom, parliament voted to seize control of the Brexit process. Beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May is in a bind as her political mandate keeps chipping away. Following the Brexit referendum and after assuming office she had sought new mandate through general elections and her party was returned to power with lesser seats. But she considers this mandate as the affirmation of the Brexit verdict. Only parliament that came into existence as a result of the election is not that cooperative.
Now let us look at the two countries that are soon to go to elections. Voting starts in India and Israel in the month of April. India’s election cycle will take two months to complete. Israel’s results will be announced sooner. These elections are interesting because the shenanigans of the incumbents are only too discernable. It is as if they have thrown caution to the wind.
Take India for example. As if the war hysteria was not enough. As if the military tiff with Pakistan which seriously risked a nuclear escalation did not do the job, on Wednesday the outgoing Indian premier appeared on television screens across the nation and announced of an ASAT test.
India had successfully destroyed a satellite in the low earth orbit with a missile. Even by the ‘Wag the Dog’ standards this is bizarre. India so far had a different position on the weaponisation of space and its foreign office tried to come up with the usual spin. But the failed attempts were atrocious to see. India reportedly had this capacity for a few years. There must be some wisdom in holding back these tests. But Mr Modi’s desire to get re-elected with a muscular image might have jeopardised any such wisdom.
The timing and his desire to announce it himself on the national television did not fool anybody. The Indian election commission however was slow to respond. They were studying the episode. And then what? Nothing. And here I was thinking Indians made excellent students and quick learners.
Now a look at Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted in corruption charges. Like Modi he is fighting for his political survival. What is more, he is facing two very influential opponents. General Gantz, the former army chief, and Yair Lapid, the TV host turned finance minister, have joined hands.
However, this has only radicalised Netanyahu’s stance on minorities, Palestine and Iran. He has joined hands with the most radicalised fringe elements in Israeli politics. When things were still not looking up Hamas came to his rescue. When that was not enough Trump invited him over with the promise to recognise Israel’s control of Golan Heights.
Netanyahu accepted the invitation, went to the US, met Trump, got the announcement formalised and rushed back home because of missiles coming from Gaza. Wag the dog and some. Wag the dog raised to power one thousand. There are three concerns here and we will come back to them momentarily.
A third country, Afghanistan, also hopes to hold elections this year. While it neither has the firepower of the other two countries nor the financial clout, its leadership is also showing signs of desperation. It has opened new fronts within the country, thrown tantrums, sometimes chastising Pakistan, at times taking it out on the United States. Its leader, though not a corrupt man and never accused of corruption unlike Messrs. Modi and Netanyahu, has made a point of interfering in Pakistan’s internal matters while throwing a tantrum when Pakistan comments on the future of the Afghan process.
Let us come back to Israel and India. The developments in the two countries are worrying for three reasons. One, that the incumbents are quite visibly using state machinery to sway the elections in their favour. Second, that the global ecosystem seems to support the attempts. Three, that if it becomes the new normal it may prove a death knell for the electoral democracies around the world. In other words why bother with the elections if the incumbents are at liberty to steal them with the help of the state apparatus and international powers.
The resentment towards institutions when they contribute to red tape is understandable but there is a reason why they exist. Without institutions, democracy and democratic nations cannot survive for too long. What should worry you is the fact that this crisis of democracy is afflicting polities which are considered centers of the western democratic universe. If the incumbents manage to steal the elections the entire democratic enterprise may vanish leaving any trace.
You can imagine how this also affects the believers and students of the democratic process sitting in Islamabad, Ankara or Beijing who struggle every day to make more room for democratic principles and manage to do so by inches.
And sadly, the western media and institutions are not paying as much attention. Their fixation with Donald Trump and Theresa May trumps their interest in saving democracy elsewhere. Unlike Netanyahu and Modi, Trump allowed himself to be investigated. He protested and often threatened but still the Mueller probe was allowed to investigate whether his campaign colluded with Russia and whether there was any obstruction of justice in firing of FBI Director James Comey. He might be rewarded by the voters in the 2020 election.
Theresa May continues to do what she thinks people expect of her. A good leader caught in very bad times. But unlike her two predecessors she has exhibited grit. That should amount to something. But while the western media mercilessly dissects their reputations, it lets Messrs. Modi and Netanyahu get away with theft and murder. Theft of the elections. Murder of institutional democracy.
We can hope that the law of diminishing returns hampers their way. But if it doesn’t the largest democracy in the world and the only one in Middle East might have done what Soviet Union, al Qaeda or any other enemy of the West could never hope to achieve: Slain the beast called democracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2019.
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