One weekend, four elections

There are four elections being held this weekend. None of them could be said to be of world-historical importance, but each has some features of interest. Taken together, they convey some lessons about the possibilities and the limitations of democracy.


Kuwait votes today for a new parliament. Like the three countries voting tomorrow, Kuwait is something less than a model democracy, but by the standards of its region it’s not bad. Elections are more free and competitive than in neighboring Arab states, and its parliament is a good deal more representative.

Ultimate power is still held by the emir, Sheikh Sabah IV, whose family have ruled the country since independence – with the exception of a few months in 1990-91 when it was invaded and annexed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The western led coalition that liberated it was able to insist on some democratic reforms: parliament was strengthened, citizenship was extended a little more widely, and women were eventually given the vote in 2005.

The last few years have been a confusing tangle of constitutional problems as the regime has dealt with the pressures for liberalisation arising from the Arab Spring. This will be the sixth election in seven years; the previous one, last December, was boycotted by the opposition and subsequently invalidated by the Constitutional Court, although it upheld the new electoral system that had created the controversy.

Despite the problems, Kuwait seems better placed than most countries in the region to gradually transition towards a relatively liberal democracy. Its oil wealth provides the government with a lot of room to manoeuvre if it needs it. But the pressures involved should not be underestimated.

There are a few very good reports around on the election and its background. The most interesting is probably by Larbi Sadiki at Al-Jazeera, but also don’t miss the piece by Ian Bickerton in yesterday’s Conversation. The BBC has quite a good “Q&A”, and there was a comprehensive AP report a couple of days earlier.


Cambodia, which goes to the polls on Sunday, is another country where a traumatic recent past led to a constitutional settlement at the behest of foreign intervention, in this case the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia of 1992-93. The attempt to impose democracy has been only partially successful; prime minister Hun Sen is an old-fashioned authoritarian who is not expected to allow any serious challenge to his power.

Nonetheless, compared to neighboring Vietnam and Laos, which have remained under communist dictatorship, Cambodian democracy looks almost robust. Opposition parties exist and function, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had been in exile since 2005, was earlier this month granted a royal pardon to enable him to return and campaign in the election.

In the last election, in 2008, the three main opposition parties won about 34% of the vote between them and 31 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. (There is also an indirectly-elected Senate, with a similarly large government majority.) Voting is by D’Hondt proportional representation, with the 24 provinces as multi-member constituencies.

This year there seems more pressure for change than Cambodia has seen for a long time. There’s an excellent report from Michael Sainsbury in yesterday’s Crikey, and regular stories from Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch. A BBC report the other day also provides some interesting background on the Cambodian economy.

In the short term, the overthrow of Hun Sen seems most unlikely, but it is possible that a strong opposition showing will force him to make further compromises in order to retain power.

Northern Cyprus

To say that four countries are holding elections is speaking loosely, since Northern Cyprus on most accounts is not a real country. The so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared its independence in 1982, eight years after the Turkish invasion that partitioned the island of Cyprus, but Turkey is the only country to recognise it; the United Nations and most of the international community still regard it as occupied territory.

But Northern Cyprus does have elections, and they matter. The 2003 election brought the pro-reunification Republican Turkish Party (CTP) of Mehmet Ali Talat to power (he was subsequently elected president), and for several years the state adopted a conciliatory policy towards the Greek-majority south. Talat supported the Annan plan for reunification, which was put to referendum in 2004: the Turkish Cypriots voted in favor, but the Greek side turned it down.

The CTP was re-elected in 2005, but in 2009 it was ousted by its rival, the pro-independence National Unity Party (UBP), and the following year Talat was defeated for re-election as president by the UBP’s Derviş Eroğlu. That put reunification talk firmly on the back burner, and Cyprus proper is now preoccupied in any case with its economic problems.

Reports from Northern Cyprus are scanty (at least for non-Turkish speakers), so who has the edge this time is hard to say. The UBP government fell last month on a vote of no confidence after sustaining defections from a number of MPs, and the CTP’s Sibel Siber goes into the election as caretaker prime minister (one report now puts her party in the lead).

But since Eroğlu’s term as president runs until 2015, and president and prime minister are independently powerful, a CTP victory tomorrow would mean another bout of divided government.


And finally we have Mali, the African state torn by a three-cornered conflict over the last year between its southern-based government, Tuareg separatists in the north, and al-Qaeda-linked forces who were initially aligned with the separatists but soon alienated them.

French intervention earlier this year quickly routed the fundamentalists, and a preliminary peace deal signed last month with the separatists paved the way for tomorrow’s presidential election. It’s not obvious that moving so quickly is a good thing; Malian institutions are in pretty poor shape, and Jeremy Keenan at Al-Jazeera argues that “Holding elections in the current state of tension and unpreparedness risks continued instability and further internal conflict.”

The underlying issue is that the majority of people in the south are probably not ready to make the sort of concessions that will meet the north’s desire for autonomy. Still, if that’s a problem, sweeping it under the carpet isn’t going to help. While some extra time for logistical preparation might have been a good idea, at least the election will give someone a mandate to try to do something to bring the country together.

There are 27 candidates for president, so there’s no real prospect of anyone winning a majority tomorrow: the top two will contest a runoff on 11 August. The BBC has a rundown on the top contenders. For more information, check out the reports at Reuters, the Guardian and Le Figaro.

According to the latter, turnout is “traditionally weak” and “it will doubtless be called a victory if 25% to 30% of voters go to the polls.” In 2007 it was 36.2%, but 9.1% of those who did show up voted informal.


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