Monday, March 12, 2012

The Iron First Holds Flowers

Across the world, authoritarian leaders worry that Arab Spring fever will infect their citizenry. In an effort to inoculate themselves against the ire of democracy-seeking public, many leaders are finding utility in tightly-controlled elections—allowing them to legitimize their governments with referendums and contests whose outcomes are pre-ordained.

In Syria, elections were used a tool to quell uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly brutal and repressive regime. In the midst of a civil war that (by some reports) has left over 7600 civilians dead, Assad’s government proposed a new draft of the Constitution.  Facially, the proposal provided for the establishment of opposition parties, while still leaving the chief executive with broad-ranging and largely unchecked powers. On February 26, 2012, the same day in which at least 59 civilians were killed, state-sponsored media reported 57% of voting-eligible Syrians went the polls to vote on the proposed constitution—which passed with almost 90% affirmative vote.  Western Diplomats in Damascus estimated actual turnout at around 5%, however, with many voters intimidated by the presence of the Assad regime. Dismissing the elections as “cynical,” U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that “the referendum that they put forward is ridiculous in that it requires that the state approve any of these patriotic opposition groups." Time will tell whether Assad’s constitutional referendum, along with recent calls to label opposition forces “terrorists,” will succeed in capturing the narrative of legitimacy—and ultimately deter foreign intervention.

The great power to the north, Russia, undertook elections of its own on March 4th .The contest decided who would hold the country’s Presidency for the next six years,  and was closely followed after protests in the wake of December’s Duma (parliamentary) elections. In the Presidential election, and as expected, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin coasted to victory with 63% of the vote, tearing up as he addressed his supporters during his election night victory speech. International media and human rights groups have been quick to point out election violations, however, with the head Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer Tonino Picula concluding that "[t]here was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt." Illustrating this point was an Associated Press video appearing to show a ballot box being stuffed at a polling station in Dagestan.  In the day following the election, some 20,000 protesters flocked to Moscow’s Pushkin Square to call for Putin’s resignation. They were met by 12,000 police dispatched to restore order, with hundreds of violent detainments reported by the Guardian. Although it is unclear the trajectory these protests will take, Putin’s Kremlin has been notoriously strict in cracking down on civil unrest.

It’s whether such stagecraft will help pacify, or only intensify, public outcry for democratic representation. It is clear, however, that the faux election is becoming a go-to tool of iron-fisted leaders seeking the appearance of reformers. Drawing back the curtain and exposing this election engineering, while publicly pushing for meaningful reform to election administration, are among the increasing-needed roles for media outlets and human rights groups alike. 

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