When democracy needs a united response

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Series Details 10.01.08
Publication Date 10/01/2008
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Both of the crises which caught international attention at the start of the new year, in Kenya and Pakistan, revolved around contentious elections in states that are seen as crucial in the global war on terrorism. But there the similarities end.

The first crisis is a variation on a depressingly familiar theme and an African classic. An incumbent president has his re-election (on 27 December) rigged - one polling station reported a turnout of 115% - and then refuses to listen to complaints by the opposition and international monitors. He sends in his troops to suppress opposition protests and the country descends into chaos. Some 300 people died in the first days of rioting alone, with another 70,000 displaced.

This takes place in Kenya, in recent years one of the continent’s most stable and free countries, and under President Mwai Kibaki, who is no venal dictator. (It was Kibaki who in 2002 broke four decades of one-party rule when he defeated the then president Daniel arap Moi, in office for 24 years.) If a country like Kenya can go up in flames over a disputed poll, what are the prospects for less stable and less democratic places - that is, most of the rest of Africa? Cote d’Ivoire, a bedrock of stability on the other end of the continent, also surprised observers by descending into civil war a few years ago. Is the same fate awaiting Kenya? This is unlikely and in any case too early to call. But the eruption of violence on such a scale and apparently out of the blue is deeply unsettling.

Whatever the likely scenarios, the implications for the ‘international community’ are fairly straightforward. This is not a complex issue requiring sophisticated analysis and policy calibration. President Kibaki must allow proper investigation of accusations of vote-rigging, even if that includes a wholesale re-count. If the opposition’s Raila Odinga is found to have come out on top, Kibaki must step aside and hand over his office peacefully, as his corrupt and dictatorial predecessor did. These steps should be demanded by foreign governments, if necessary, without fear of being seen as neo-colonialist or hypocritical.

How is the "international community" stepping up to its responsibility? The African Union, historically reluctant to get involved in the domestic affairs of its member states, is engaged in intense diplomacy while the EU has chosen the name and shame approach: an EU monitoring mission has severely criticised the government for the irregularities it observed during the poll. The US response, by contrast, was dismal. The administration, which sees Kenya as a frontline state in the war on terrorism, congratulated Kibaki for his re-election, a gesture that was as unnecessary when it was made as it is embarrassing today, making the subsequent reversal by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice much less credible.

Accusations that Western countries are hypocritical in demanding democratic change from hostile or unimportant governments while supporting non-democratic governments with which they are allied are often true - just think of Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or present-day Libya (which currently chairs the United Nations Security Council). Kenya would be a good place for the US to start getting serious about democracy by following the EU’s lead. There are indications that the administration, or at least the State Department, understands this. Recent statements by Rice suggest that the US is looking to co-ordinate its response with the EU, a welcome first step.

But other steps are needed to restore the credibility of Western sermons about democracy and no country today requires such a recalibration more urgently than Pakistan.

Here, the US shifted its support from retired General Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terrorism who was re-elected president last October and promptly imposed emergency rule, to the equally pro-American opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf’s to-and-fro over his re-election, the composition of the supreme court, his role of army chief and the forthcoming parliamentary poll had torn off his democratic disguise and made him untenable as a Western ally. But Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December blew a gaping hole in the US strategy and highlighted the dangers of basing policy on personalities in a place as volatile as Pakistan.

Bhutto’s murder has reduced significantly the choice before Pakistan’s voters no matter when the parliamentary poll will take place. (It has now been postponed to 18 February.) Despite her flawed leadership and past performance, Bhutto was the most credible choice for those who want a more open and free Pakistan. That this choice is now gone is a reminder that elections are not a cure-all if their political, institutional and social settings are not right.

This poses an acute problem for policymakers, who broadly tend to respond in one of two ways. The first, generally more typical for the American approach, is to focus on individuals and to directly support politicians seen as helpful to US goals, that is, to look at the problem through a political lens. The second, typically associated with the EU, is to support a process and to accept whatever outcome it yields. Neither of these approaches is absolute: to name but one recent example, the EU rejects the Hamas government in Palestine (today reduced to the Gaza strip) although few people doubt that it has a genuine popular mandate. And the EU is happy to do business with despots (think of central Asia or the Middle East) if they have something to offer that the EU needs - typically natural gas or oil.

Washington’s apparent willingness to co-ordinate its response to the Kenyan debacle with Brussels could be an indication that the two approaches might be merged into a single, coherent strategy combining elements of both. But the real test for any such strategy will be the hard cases like Pakistan.

Both of the crises which caught international attention at the start of the new year, in Kenya and Pakistan, revolved around contentious elections in states that are seen as crucial in the global war on terrorism. But there the similarities end.

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