During Labour’s last period in government we failed to make responding to illiberal powers one of the organising concepts of British foreign policy and paid the price in Copenhagen, Geneva, and New York. If we want to avoid repeating that mistake, we need to face up to the scale and nature of China’s power. Labour’s future China policy must combine the humility to recognise the UK’s diminished leverage and the confidence to believe the west’s collective capacity to shape the environment in which Beijing makes its choices has not been lost.
“There’s more to democracy than free and fair elections”.
This is a refrain we’ve heard more than once since the anti-government protests broke out in major Turkish cities two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, a Turkish lawyer and university lecturer, Zaynep Ayeata, made this point again on The World Tonight. Former Foreign Minister, and one of the founding fathers of the governing Justice and Development (or AK) Party, Yasar Yakis, responded by telling us Turkey is still developing its democracy and it is not perfect. Remember that until the past decade, the Turkish military played a dominant role in the country’s politics.
Then, look at today’s presidential poll in Iran – does the fact the Islamic Republic hold elections make it democratic? Many would say no, not really. They could point to the fact that the candidates are vetted ahead of the elections, and that this year the two considered to be reformists were barred from standing at all, limiting the choice voters have. There are also the limited powers of the President in Iran. He – and it has always been a he – does not hold the most important political office in a complex system which is truly presided over by the Supreme- in both a political and religious sense- leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But even in the “mature democracies”, we’ve had reminders in the past week that there is more to democracy than voting. An ex CIA whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, has revealed through the press that the United States Government has been carrying out widespread secret surveillance both of American citizens’ telephone communications, and of internet communications of people all around the world, probably including British citizens.
The US authorities insist this surveillance is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and few Americans are disputing this kind of activity may be necessary, but there is concern in Congress and civil society about the secrecy and what they see as lack of democratic oversight of government security agencies.
Do these three stories really have much in common?
It seems to me they do and that all of them illustrate there are two other fundamentals needed for effective democratic governance: the separation of powers and accountability.
In Turkey, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three elections in a row and his AK Party got half of all votes cast in the last one two years ago. He promised then to be a Prime Minister for all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. But, the protesters who’ve been defying the tear gas and water cannon of the police for two weeks think he’s broken his promise and is not listening to them.
Turkish lawyers, who have joined the protests, argue there is still not a clear separation of powers in the country and the judiciary is not sufficiently independent from the government, so it can run roughshod over opposition to its policies.
There has also been criticism of the media in Turkey – much of it controlled by big businesses which benefit from government contracts – for being reluctant to cover the protests when they first started. The government has also fined two smaller TV stations for carrying live coverage of clashes between police and protesters.
There’s another weakness to Turkish democracy and that is the lack of a strong opposition party in parliament to hold the AK government to account, which is another reason opponents of Mr Erdogan may have felt the need to take to the streets to voice their unhappiness at his policies – be it the redevelopment of one of the last remaining parks in Istanbul or restrictions on the sale of alcohol after 10pm, or one of the other grievances raised by protesters.
Neighbouring Iran’s political system – at least on paper – appears to have checks and balances built into it. But, in practice, the political and religious authority of the Supreme Leader means Ayatollah Khamenei, who cannot be removed by the voters, wields huge and largely unaccountable political power.
In the US, the issue thrown up by Mr Snowden’s revelations also revolves around accountability. In Hong Kong, where he’s taken refuge, the former CIA operative told interviewers he took action to defend the basic liberties of people all around the world. But, back in Washington, the debate has been less about the rights and wrongs of such surveillance, and more about the ability of Congress – the people’s elected representatives – to hold the government to account for what it is doing. If the surveillance is taking place in secret, the argument goes, how can legislators do their jobs properly?
Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. So has the past week once again shown that Churchill had a point?
Democracy is far from straightforward and requires much more than elections to deliver legitimate government. Other essential ingredients seem to be a separation of powers between different branches of government, including an independent judiciary that enables the rule of law; and an independent media, an effective elected opposition, and open government to ensure accountability.
The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Yasar Yakis, suggests Turkish democracy is a work in progress, but perhaps that’s the case everywhere – even in countries where it has been established for much longer.
The term “fragile states” is much abused.
Policymakers, development researchers, politicians, and the media seem to think that every country experiencing a period of instability or bothered by certain governance problems is “fragile.” As a result, they group a wide range of countries experiencing vastly different types of problems together—creating a mass of confusion in the process.
Such thinking means that the term as currently used has very little value as an analytical tool. Instead it has become a catchall phrase to explain any situation that seems “fragile” even if the fragility is likely to be ephemeral. It also means that states that are structurally fragile but that have none of the most obvious symptoms of fragility (such as Syria before 2011) do not get considered as one. Continue reading
Here’s a piece I’ve done for Yale Global magazine on democracy under strain in Europe.
Politicians in power since the 2008 financial collapse, regardless of their political stripes, find themselves in peril. Analysis of the recent French and Greek elections followed three lines of thought: voters soundly rejecting strict austerity measures, blaming incumbents, and abandoning mainstream political parties for more extremist leadership, both right and left. The three interpretations are linked. Read more
Religion has played an important part in the Arab Spring, either as a ideological influence behind calls for change or, more recently, as a major force in elections. Islamic parties already dominate the political scene in Tunisia and Egypt, and will likely do so anywhere else democracy allows a free vote.
Most Westerners assume that that these trends can only end up hurting the region. For them, religion is a major cause of the problems that plague the Middle East, and greater secularism is essential for democracy and progress. But such notions show just how little outsiders understand the region, its dominant faith, and the political dynamics driving change from Morocco to Iran. Continue reading
Given the chaos in voting during the General Election, here’s how to do it better, while making elections a more televisual, social media-friendly experience.
As I argued in October:
Some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.
Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.
Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.
To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).
That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.
- A Democracy Day, either every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November, or every two years, moving British politics onto a fixed four-year cycle.
- All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
- Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
- Democracy Day – a Monday – would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
- Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
- The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.
– Fixed terms: a predictable, harmonised electoral cycle, with a clear rhythm for politician, bureaucrat and public.
– The creation of a consistent democratic system, even as devolution leads to confusing fragmentation.
– Economies of scale for electoral commission, political parties, media, etc, from running fewer, bigger elections.
– Opportunities to expand the role played by direct democracy in British political life, by running more referenda, elections to quangos and other public bodies, etc.
– More time to vote – which seems pretty important today.
– An unmissable media event.
– The June election might need to float slightly, depending on the date set for European parliamentary elections (though hopefully Europe will settle). But – before Eurosceptics start frothing at the mouth – there are great advantages to having national and European elections in the same cycle. The party in power in Westminster would also lead in Brussels, providing a much more consistent voice for the British electorate in Europe, while turnout would be much much higher, ensuring a better reflection of UK opinion.
– The general election would cover the House of Commons, Europe, and the devolved administrations, plus some councillors and seats in the (new) House of Lords. The minor election would be just local government, the Lords, and any odds and sods (referenda, quangos, etc).
– In a remodelled Lords, I’d like to see elected members able to serve only a single 10 or 8-year term – staggered, so a small number of members would be elected each Democracy Day (a small enough list for people to vote for individuals, not parties).
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]
– The FT has news that London’s position as the dominant global financial hub is slipping, with the UK capital now tied with New York for top spot in the latest rankings. Elsewhere Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke examine the latest economic data comparing the present crisis with the Great Depression across a range of indicators (including global output, world trade, and equity markets). Robert Shiller, meanwhile, explains the difficulties of using past experience to predict the course of the current crisis.
– European Geostrategy suggests that EU security and defence policy is like a jazz band and explains why a White Paper providing a “grand strategy” is needed. EUobserver, meanwhile, has news on the emerging shape of the European diplomatic service – its structure and staffing – as member states gear up to secure the important EEAS secretary general post.
– Elsewhere, Constanze Stelzenmüller takes an in-depth look at the travails of German security policy, offering insights into how it might evolve. Highlighting the lack of strategy, she argues that “fundamental decisions regarding German security policy have been repeatedly forced into the Procrustean bed of moral necessity, domestic imperatives, or the demands of external alliances.”
– Finally, over at openDemocracy, Andy Yee explores the “hedgehog’s dilemma” between China and the West, highlighting a gradual acceptance of different core values. TIME magazine, meanwhile, assesses the slow progress toward democracy in Hong Kong and the possible wider implications from Beijing’s perspective.