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 either 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 underestimated their own capacity to capitalize on the legitimacy crises of authoritarian regimes and effect democratic change. When social activists boycott elections, they give a free pass to regimes 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, giving voice as well as impetus to popular aspirations for just and accountable governance.
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 demands of the people, democratic leaders take the initiative. Through adherence to clearly articulated principles, they advance the cause of 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 ten principles can help them to make the most of the present political situation:
1) Act as if the elections are real. Behave as if the rhetoric of democracy is already a reality. Run nonviolent “guerilla” 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 the 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, writers 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 politics.”
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 should 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 will come to symbolize popular demands for performance, integrity, and accountability.
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 they 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 base. 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 can bring 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 steal elections 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 for social change and the improvement of human life become so involved with the struggles that their work entails that they either become frustrated and burn out or become so angry and power oriented that they fail to present a humane alternative to the order 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 for dissenters, 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, by inspiring the people to demand it and practice it. Like a fragile flower that 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 substance of democracy-through determined actions that embody democratic principles, and the ends of democratic transformation will follow.
Dr. Abdul Aziz Said is Professor and Director, Center for Global Peace, American University, Washington, DC. >>> Homepage