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Democratic politics: a glorious messiness

The combination of post-election protest in Egypt and parliamentary stalemate in Nepal teaches Vidar Helgesen a wider lesson about democracy.

Vidar Helgesen
1 June 2012

In the aftermath of the first round of Egypt's presidential election on 23 May 2012, thousands of people reassembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the outcome. It’s quite a paradox, in two ways. Firstly, Egyptian revolutionaries have been longing for free elections, but now many of them lament the result of the first free presidential vote in the country’s history. Secondly, Egyptian liberals and secularists started the revolution at Tahrir in January 2011, then failed to get sufficiently organised to be successful in both the parliamentary and the presidential elections - and now many of them are back in Tahrir.  

I am not arguing they don’t have good reasons to gather in Tahrir again. But popular movements, uprisings, revolutions, will ultimately be unable to deliver on their promise of democracy and dignity unless they are able to move from "street democracy" to "institutional democracy", and from Facebook to the rulebooks of democracy. In the end, only institutions that are effective and accountable can deliver where unaccountable authoritarian regimes didn’t and can't. So when popular movements are successful in toppling dictators, they have not even done "half the job". The even more challenging part remains: to get organised enough to compete for political office. For only when these movements reach office do they face the ultimate test: whether their new democracy can deliver.

The process of getting there is not a straightforward one. More often than not there will be setbacks and confusion, which in turn give cause for popular dissatisfaction. Democracy holds such great promise, but that’s exactly why the process of getting to it is bound to disappoint many. By its very nature, democracy is messy and unpredictable. Democratic political systems offer citizens the opportunity to control their decision-makers. But since it is the people, and not the systems, who are in charge and who own democracy, democratic elections can produce unexpected results.

Those who don’t like the results can well take to the streets and protest. But they would do even better by organising in order to do better next time round. If a democratic revolution is to be sustained in the long run, its supporters need to prepare for just that: engaging in political parties, building new ones if need be, conducting opposition politics in parliament and not only on the streets.

In the same week as these Egyptian events were unfolding, the messiness and the long-term nature of democracy-building was demonstrated elsewhere: in Nepal, where the political parties represented in the constituent assembly failed to reach agreement on a new constitution within the final deadline, even after four years of deliberation. In the wake of the stalemate, and as the parties trade accusations of why negotiations broke down, the situation is likely to erode popular trust in political life. At the same time, there is little sign of any popular willingness to return to the armed conflict or autocratic rule of Nepal's recent past; rather, the talk is about new elections for yet another constituent assembly. Democratic politics may be messy, but the alternative is worse and it has been tried.

Autocracy is certainly more predictable than democracy. Autocracy has none of the last-minute high-wire thrill of democratic politics. But the unpredictable nature of democracy is not least due to the fact that the citizen is its ultimate source of power. That’s why, after all, democracy is a glorious messiness.

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