This is election season in many parts of the world, with the elections that are taking place testifying to the upheavals of our times and adding various doses of excitement, disappointment, or confusion, depending on one’s perspective.
Elections are a mechanism invented in order to settle differences. The winning majority proceeds on its chosen path, while the losing minority accepts its fate. In theory, periodic elections make it possible to change those in power, giving an opportunity to a previous minority and rectifying the failures of a previous majority.
However, as we all know, things do not always work out that way.
Sometimes, the winning majority in elections seeks to satisfy its immediate wants, leaving middle and long-range objectives to future generations. At the same time, a losing minority may feel that it has been wronged by deceit or injustice and go on to harbour resentment. The losers in a head-to-head race might succumb to suspicions of electoral tampering.
In elections in which no one party wins a majority, disparate political tribes may scramble to forge alliances or blocs large enough to get them beyond the 50 per cent threshold, even if only by a single vote.
The purpose of all this is to advance the general welfare, or, more precisely, to promote the outlook that is thought best able to advance that welfare. This requires powers of wisdom and rational persuasion. Unfortunately, the former can be lacking, and the latter can yield to anger or recrimination that on occasion can escalate into violence and strife.
In sharply divided societies, the process can be cyclical: the spirit of compromise vanishes, and the losers merely recoil and prepare for another round. In modern times, elections have become akin to football matches, while technological advances have facilitated deception and a blurring of the boundaries between image and truth. The trend has been epitomised by the populism and fake news that have been plaguing democratic systems worldwide.
The recent Brazilian presidential elections saw a narrow win. In the second round, a one per cent difference stood between the victor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and the loser, the country’s incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro. The former hails from the left while the latter, who hails from the ultranationalist right, came to power on the strength of the failures of the left.
Some years after his first term in office, Lula was convicted and imprisoned on charges of corruption, then released after Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled the cases against him. He emerged with sufficient hero status to run against Bolsonaro and win. It remains for history and historians to determine at what point the Brazilian people were wiser: in ousting the left to bring in Bolsonaro or in ousting Bolsonaro to bring back Lula.
Of more importance to our discussion here is the fact that already during his election campaign Bolsonaro planted the seeds of doubt, claiming that if he lost it could only be as a result of foul play. The claim strikes at the very foundations of the democratic system: trust in the integrity of the electoral system. Once the element of trust goes out the window, the door opens to any number of evils.
In the US, former president Donald Trump established the precedent of refusing to recognise the results of the 2020 presidential elections and questioning the integrity of the polls. He built up such a tide of suspicion and anger that it crashed against Congress itself, with the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington on 6 January 2021 leaving several dead. The investigations and trials surrounding this event are still in progress as the US prepares for midterm Congressional elections.
This brings us to another US electoral conundrum: the extent to which the midterm elections are mixed up with both the past presidential elections and the next ones. Trump, who intends to run for office again in 2024, has managed to ensure that the Republicans who are running in the present midterms belong to the camp that has cast aspersions on the integrity of the US electoral system.
As a result, it looks as if the 2024 presidential elections are doomed in advance, especially given the fact that the US democratic system is not governed by a clear set of federal laws and every state has its own right to feed or allay suspicions.
Turning to the UK, the country has had not one but two elections this year, both within the ruling Conservative Party. This first elected Liz Truss, a self-styled disciple of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, to replace Boris Johnson as the country’s prime minister. She then resigned after 45 days in office and was succeeded by present Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The British have now set their sights on the next general elections. According to the rotation of power theory, the Tories’ main adversary, the Labour Party, should now have its moment. But this does not predict what will happen in practice. Could the Indian ethnicity of the new UK prime minister swing the scales in favour of the Conservative Party in the absence of major domestic or foreign-policy issues? After all, there will be no going back on Brexit or Britain’s involvement in Ukraine.
No one can compete with the Israelis when it comes to parliamentary elections and the frenzy of conjectures on voting patterns and outcomes that precede them. In Israel, the more important phase comes after the elections when the new prime minister-designate has to form a government, something which has occurred five times in the space of just three years.
Whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Yair Lapid wins is only part of the problem. The rest has to do with the future of Israel and whether it wants to continue as it is, with its chokehold on the Palestinians, or whether it can come to terms with the other half of the population that lives between the Jordan River and Mediterranean in order to forge a common future.
Neither Netanyahu nor Lapid has anything to contribute to this vital question. Both men simply offer more of the status quo and the putting off until tomorrow of what should be done today, which, of course, means more conflicts.
If elections do not solve anything, might stopping them bring solutions? The Palestinian situation tells us that this is not the case. Palestinians have not gone to the polls since the election of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly and former president Yasser Arafat, who after his death was succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, the rift between the West Bank and Gaza, brought about by the Hamas coup, has broadened.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and more recently Algeria have tried to bring the two sides back together. But every time the two sides agree to reconcile and swear the solemnest oaths that they want to hold elections as the best means to seal their reconciliation, something always crops up to prevent an agreement.
History is not necessarily determined by elections. This applies as much to Brazil and the Middle East as it does to the US and UK. Perhaps solutions are out of reach because voters do not want them. Perhaps the state of humanity today is more about the lack of what it takes to search for solutions rather than about those solutions themselves.
Wisdom is to be found in the process and not the end result.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.