From Iran to Bangladesh, the rise of the ballot box

Brian Stewart on the rise of the ballot box in the Middle East and beyond.

The turmoil in Iran this week — where democracy fights for both its existence and its revival — provoked me to take down the old atlas and do a serious search for some overall patterns.

One can now trace a remarkable crescent of full or partially democratic nations running from the Turkish shores of the Black Sea down through the ancient Middle East and across the South Asian sub-continent to the steamy Bay of Bengal where Bangladesh borders on Burma.

Turkey is now well known for its large and passionate elections, part of the basis on which it is lobbying to join the European Union.

All week, tens of thousands of pro-reform Iranians attended rallies like this one on Thursday, June 18, 2009, where opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, centre, addressed the crowd. (Ghalam News/Associated Press)

To its south, Lebanon has just held a remarkably successful national vote in which the militant and militia-backed Hezbollah suffered a severe electoral setback. 

Across the border, Israeli elections have never lacked passion and for years the country could brag it was the only democracy in the region. But no more.

Though flawed by internal violence, both the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza have held open elections.

Some of us may not have liked the outcomes. But there is no quesion they seemed to accurately represent popular support for the contending Fatah and Hamas power blocs.

Continuing on

Is Jordan part of the democratic crescent? It holds elections in which close to 1,000 independent candidates run. But its parliament rarely changes the course decided upon by its Hashemite monarchy.

It is difficult to leave it out altogether, but it has a way to go.

Next door in Iraq, however, democracy seems to have taken root, to the amazement of much of the watching world.

In the 2007 election, there was an international observer in every one of Iraq's 712 constituencies and the courage shown by millions of Iraqis, casting ballots in the face of ongoing sectarian violence, deserves respect.

More recently, the Iraqi local elections in January saw the two ruling parties trounced and the political scene fragmented in such as way as to make the outcome of future elections all the more unpredictable — and difficult to manipulate.

Democratic vigour is, I have to say, something I never expected to see in Iraq, certainly not when I visited there under the terrifying dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, nor in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion.

The surprise that's Iraq

But one must now face the facts as they are. It is starting to look as if President George W. Bush set in motion a chain of events that, frankly, few of us expected at the time. It is a point noted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, no fan of the former president.

"For real politics to happen you need space," Friedman wrote. "There are a million things to hate about President Bush's costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the UN to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades."

It is a view echoed by Michael Young, the op-ed editor of the Beirut Star, who points out that democracy is often advanced by simple notions: "Bush had a simple idea, that the Arabs could be democratic, and at that particular moment simple ideas were what was needed, even if he was disingenuous."

This simple idea, Young also notes, "was bolstered by the presence of a U.S. Army in the centre of the Middle East. It created a sense that change was possible, that things did not always have to be as they were."

Historian may yet conclude that Bush was the fuse that set off a new democratic explosion in this region. The debate, of course, will still rightly linger of whether these gains in voter freedom justified the horrible loss of life, which is now somewhere in the hundreds of thousands.

On to Iran

Moving to Iran, we are all now spectators in this fascinating drama. What the outcome will be is impossible to predict.

But what we cannot doubt is that millions of Iranians are now used to the idea that elections must count and that democracy must be defended.

It is a far from perfect democracy that the Iranians have, with its cleric overlords and complex set of religious authorities. But perfection in so culturally divided a nation, particularly during a period of great upheaval, may be too fastidious a standard.

Pushing eastward to Afghanistan we find another nation attempting democracy in the midst of war.

I've sat in the Afghan parliament in Kabul and found the debate there lively and often blunt (although never as puerile as in Ottawa).

Afghan's female parliamentarians were among the feistiest, to the obvious shock of the bearded ex-warlords in the upper seats.

The national elections in August will be a test of that country's fledgling institutions, not to mention President Hamid Karzai's respect for media freedoms and the campaign against corruption.

But if they succeed in giving millions of poor Afghans, from so many different ethnic groups, the chance to vote for the candidates of their choice, that show of democratic strength alone might be enough to blunt the legitimacy of the Taliban challenge. 


Carrying on east and south, Pakistan this past year saw the ouster of military strongman Pervez Musharraf and the return of civilian government after eight years of military rule.

Pakistan is clearly in the midst of severe unrest and an open insurgency by the Taliban along its northwestern frontier. But President Asif Ali Zardari has not only won a comfortable majority, he has also managed to restore an independent judiciary and push the almost independent Pakistan army to take on the country's Islamic militants, something Musharraf was unable to accomplish.

In India, of course, we see the region's democratic heavyweight. In the May election, over 417 million Indians, supporters of an astonishing 300 political parties, voted peacefully.

The Congress party emerged victorious with 30 per cent of the vote, enough to form a healthy coalition.

Finally, Bangladesh furthest east in the crescent, is another pleasant surprise. After years of violence and two years of military-backed emergency rule, Bangladeshis voted in record number in December to break with the recent past.

They elected a secular party headed by Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister and the eldest daughter of Bangladesh's founding president. International observers found the elections fair.

An atlas survey like this tends to leave one less depressed by one setback — should Iran  turn out badly — and much more encouraged by the general march of events.

At least, looking across this crescent of democracies, there is nothing to encourage tyrants, or to suggest they can sleep easily in power.