The goal is implementing the values that are
the substance of
a democratic society
By Abdul Aziz Said
February 23, 2004
Elections are approaching in a number of Arab countries as well
as in Iran. In virtually every country, the powers that be are
likely to use the ritual of "democratic elections" to
legitimate narrowly based regimes. Advocates of social change
are frustrated. How can they win if elections are not competitive?
What reformers often fail to recognize is that they
can win by losing.
From a shortsighted, egocentric perspective, losing
is losing. Participating in a tainted election is not worthwhile
because it appears to compromise personal principles or because
it produces no immediate result. Why compromise one's dignity
by participating in an election that cannot be won? Does
not participating in a rigged election presuppose slavish acquiescence
to the status quo?
By framing the problem of electoral manipulation
in such terms, too many Middle Eastern political activists have
their own capacity to capitalize on the legitimacy crises
authoritarian regimes and effect democratic change. When
social activists boycott elections, they give a free pass
whose legitimacy hangs by a thread. When they participate
with integrity-even in the face of repression-they make
genuine contributions to the work of democratic transformation,
voice as well
as impetus to popular aspirations for just and accountable
A crucial point to remember is that democratic behavior
is a form of active nonviolence. It is never passive.
Rather than waiting for rulers to share power and defer to the
the people, democratic leaders take the initiative. Through
adherence to clearly articulated principles, they advance
democracy by exploiting every opportunity to represent
the will of the people.
To make contributions to democratic transformation
in the coming elections, candidates need a plan. The following
can help them to make the most of the present political
1) Act as if the elections are real. Behave as if
the rhetoric of democracy is already a reality. Run nonviolent
campaigns or mock campaigns. Write in the names of
candidates who have
been kept off the ballot. Use the "elections game"
as an opportunity to mobilize social forces and change
rules of political engagement.
2) Network with other democracy activists to ensure
active participation at all levels-municipal, local, regional,
and national-and in
all professional and political forums. Make sure that there
is an independent candidate participating in every race.
3) Work to revitalize associational life while making
full use of existing networks. Meet with professional associations,
union, school teachers and students. Visit coffee shops, specialty
stores, markets, funerals, and festivals.
4) Build solidarity among independent candidates and develop
a coherent political strategy. Create a common vision, and unite
behind candidates who stand for change and who will resist cooptation.
It does not matter who is carrying the flag of reform, as long
as the flag itself is raised high. Reformists should not compete
with one another in the same races.
5) Craft a clear, believable, and affirmative message, and boldly
bring it to the people. Win their confidence by courageously
talking about issues they care about, including problems related
to unemployment, election integrity, and corruption. Talk bout
the widely felt desire for real choices and real participation.
6) Actively advertise your position on the issues and work to
catalyze more grassroots public discourse about political affairs.
Make posters with veracious information and appealing mottos,
and distribute brochures and leaflets describing your political
positions. Encourage the people to talk about what decent people
can expect from their government.
7) Use the campaign to unify the people. Appeal across the lines
that divide politics, allowing some to rule on the basis of class,
tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions. Help people find a common
purpose that transcends fear and passive submission to "machine
8) Tap the energy and hope of younger generations. Involving
the youth in the campaign means working for change in the future,
even if the present campaign does not lead to an electoral victory.
Youth involvement can also help to renew the hopes and heighten
the political engagement of elders.
9) Court attention from the regional and international
media. Efforts to broadcast the aims of independent candidates
not come at the expense of grassroots political activism, but
they can play a valuable role in reducing the ability of the
regime to engage in repression or electoral manipulation.
10) Always remember that it is the issues you are
running on, not your personality. It does not matter whether you
win or lose,
as long as the race itself helps to educate the people about
their shared situation and strengthen demands for political
reform. The more you focus on the issues, the more your candidacy
come to symbolize popular demands for performance, integrity,
By adhering to these ten principles, independent
candidates can run compelling campaigns whether the elections are
real or not.
Boycotting elections results in dissipation of energy, fostering
apathy and disillusionment. People sit on the sidelines and
become convinced that they are merely spectators in a game that
cannot change. In contrast, participating in elections by running
real campaigns about real issues empowers the people. It also
puts ruling regimes on the defensive, forcing them to try to
justify exclusionary practices that, in the final analysis,
are self-serving and unjustifiable.
It is imperative that competitive candidates with
visions of democratic change connect with the people, with their
Protagonists of change must convince the people that there
are credible alternatives,
and help them to appreciate a fundamental principle of nonviolence:
the power of a government ultimately depends upon the consent
of the ruled. Withdrawing consent does not immediately make
a regime less oppressive, but it defeats the purpose of oppression.
And when people refuse to cooperate with abusive power, they
dissolve that power's social basis. In the final analysis,
governments reflect their people and it is the people who
must find the courage to change.
Recent events in Yugoslavia and Georgia demonstrate
that the social power generated by serious electoral campaigns
victory to democratic forces even if the immediate result
at the polling station is "defeat." The symbolic power
of not bowing to intimidation cannot be underestimated.
Those who run broad-based campaigns are likely to win the people
even when they lose elections. By refusing to let regimes
without a fight, they demonstrate that it is possible to
participate in public life without compromising basic principles.
What matters most for those who run is the cause
and the message, not personal ego. Too often people honestly working
change and the improvement of human life become so involved
with the struggles that their work entails that they
frustrated and burn out or become so angry and power
oriented that they fail to present a humane alternative to the
they wish to replace. They become ideological purists
or people who
want to win at any cost.
But in democracy the true goal is not winning an
election. Rather, the goal is implementing the values that are
the substance of
a democratic society. It is participating in the political
process, promoting honest dialogue, establishing safeguards
and serving others. By running campaigns that embody
these principles, Arabs and Iranians can help their
societies to imagine democracy
first, and eventually realize it.
Foreign intervention cannot bring democracy to the
Middle East. Only authentic democrats can bring democracy,
inspiring the people to demand it and practice it.
Like a fragile flower
grows in its own native soil, democracy cannot be
implanted by an external power. Rather, it must be cultivated
by those who
know best how to make it grow and blossom. As Gandhi
would remind us, means and ends are inseparable.
Create the means-the
of democracy-through determined actions that embody
democratic principles, and the ends of democratic
Dr. Abdul Aziz Said is
Professor and Director, Center for Global Peace,
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