December 20, 2014
For the Herald
Elections as handy means to sate hunger for disruption
THE HAGUE — In Spain, they call it a day of reflection. Across France, the eve of an election is silent. And in Crimea, whose residents were given a few days’ notice of yesterday’s momentous referendum, strenuous efforts were being made to ensure there was enough silence going round to give citizens pause for thought. Ukrainian television has been blocked; Ukrainian newspapers have not arrived in the region’s capital for several days. Silence and reflection were further assured by a raid by over 20 members of the Russian special forces on Saturday night on the Hotel Moskva, where an “armed criminal” was said to be lurking among the foreign correspondents covering the poll.
It cannot have escaped any reasonable person’s attention that the vote on Crimea’s future offered no more than a modicum of choice in a simulacrum of a referendum. None of this is to say that Crimea should not be part of Russia: 59 percent of the inhabitants are native Russians, and their incorporation into the Ukraine dates from only 60 years ago. Yet these are facts to weigh the strength of a historical grievance. They are not sudden revelations dating from a few weeks ago, requiring immediate acclaim in a plebiscite with just two options: join Russia; or stay in Ukraine as a virtually autonomous state. Nor does it seems wholly right to test the waters of Crimean public will while the streets and borders are filling up with various unidentified appendages of the Greater Russian security establishment.
The referendum, if you wish, is the political equivalent of the Sochi winter games, in which viewers are handed an interactive console featuring two options: like, or like very much. Arguments can of course be made in favour of this exercise of renascent Russian might, justifying it as a redemption from the neo-liberal electroshock visited upon Russia in the post-Soviet 1990s, or on the basis of the somewhat less credible claim that neo-fascist cells have taken control of Kiev — a claim all the more incredible when Pravda yesterday also praised Vladimir Putin for his fight against “criminal Jewish oligarchs.” Yet even if Crimea is coming home, or Russia is resurging, one matter remains in no doubt: the referendum itself was a travesty of an election, and its voters were shadows of citizens.
Yet perhaps the most curious aspect of the charade is not how exceptional it was, but how representative it may become. The sporadic exercise of public approval so as to elect a legitimate government is still the sole tested means of handing out power in a democracy. Any vague desire to better this system with something more organic, communal, popular or pure is an invitation to authoritarian experimentation. “The voice of the people is the voice of God, and its orders are sacred,” were the words of former Argentine President Carlos Menem following one humbling at the polls in his second term in office. Much as he failed to act upon this sentiment, not least in his headlong flight from the voice of the people in 2003, Menem’s assessment suggests one important reflection on electoral democracy. If this is how God speaks, then you’d hate to meet the devil.
The mass poison administered by certain election results is undeniable. Though in a more technical sense they were fair and free, a number of votes that have taken place in profoundly disgruntled and agitated electorates, from Weimar Germany in 1933 through to Egypt in 2012, have set in motion notorious chains of events. But the modern class of electoral mishap takes new, sophisticated bends. Post-war Europe’s political ideal has been strictly democratic and public-minded. But bridging the chasm between the state’s avowed understanding of the general interest, and the impulsive brainwaves of little people, has heightened perceptions of electoral risk. On one side, elections have become the defining snapshots of shifts in public belief: take Britain in 1979 or 1997, France in 1981. On the other, they have proved a fly in the ointment of a well-greased plan. Twice Ireland has voted against treaty changes to the European Union, twice it was told to vote again.
As control and competition between business, political and other elites is exercised at the heart of power — no more so than under the fiscal pressure of the euro crisis — elections are ceasing to be expressions of public conviction, more fragmented, fractious and irresolute than ever. Instead, they promise to be handy means to sate a hunger for disruption. European Parliament elections in May promise just that: a kick to the status quo, probably from the far-right. It is a turn of opinion that is likely to grow amid ever widening spaces of political impotence. If voting doesn’t matter, then take that.
More eye-catching still is Latin America. Inspired in the electoral art by the Bush-Gore franchise of 2000, when it almost seemed at one stage like atomic physicists would be needed to calibrate the dimples on voting cards in Florida, the region has cultivated the cliffhanger, and entirely deepened our appreciation of its possibilities. The latest case came only last week in El Salvador: Salvador Sánchez Cerén, of the Farabundo Martí Front, has been declared victor with 50.11 percent of the vote, prompting his opponent to contest the result. Identical processes were on view in Venezuela last year, and Mexico in 2006, each of them under the influence of starkly bipolar presidential contests. As if caught in the headlights, Latin American populations appear transfixed by the flash of dead heats.
Referenda that decide the answer, elections where voters lurch to extremes, or polls that widen rather than narrow the fault-line between two halves of a nation are the collateral damage of electoral democracy. It is always vital to know that elections have limited validity without a cohesive political community behind it, or without recognition by the loser that the winner’s government is entitled to rule. But as storms of indignation go viral and flashpoints multiply, elections become a relic of the old order, and run the corresponding risks.