Tuesday 4 June 2013

Egypt, Turkey, The World And A New Political Spring

[Note: after writing dozens of mostly dry political analysis pieces, here's something out of the box. I wrote this yesterday, but left it unpublished, edited it after Gül's speech.]

It is never too soon to draw perhaps premature conclusions, and I am not one to shy away from such act. Having been deeply engrossed in Egypt’s political conflict and now as we observe and attempt to analyse the protests in Turkey, one can find one important parallel between both: there is a mounting feeling by a significant portion of the population that one political side is becoming too domineering, even if often through the polarising usage of technically legitimate political and legislative means.

In Egypt, a rising sentiment is that the Brotherhood is increasingly power hungry and monopolistic, cares less and less about dissenting opinion (even from other Islamists, as evident by the rift with once-ally Salafist party Al-Nour). The sentiment continues that the Brotherhood is perhaps rightly too confident that deep Islamic-Liberal polarisation, its dedicated base and incomparable eight decades-old electoral and organisational machines are likely capable of substantially winning it any elections being held despite the mounting public disapproval and anger against it. In Turkey, Erdogan and the AKP’s hold on parliament has been growing with every successive elections, their popularity theoretically stronger than ever, and now feel perhaps more comfortable in being more unilateral and swift in their political agenda (in addition to the increasing crackdown on dissenting journalism.)

So what do anti-government protesters in Egypt and Turkey want and express? Well, many things, some are  perhaps legitimate, some perhaps more towards the hyperbolic. But, like I mention, one of the themes I feel has been pervasive in both countries was the demand for a more inclusive and widely-consultative democracy, and that a simple majority cannot just have its way, whether in terms of policies or overall national vision. This appears to be what Turkish President Abdullah Gül understood when he said on Monday that he “the messages [...] have been received”, and that “democracy does not only mean elections.” According to Turkish journalists on social media though, Prime Minister Erdogan said he wasn’t sure what message the president thinks he has received, likely raising the ire of protesters. On the other hand though, Egypt’s president Morsi and the Brotherhood seem to be getting the opposite message altogether from repeated protests, so perhaps Erdogan’s angry confusionwas relatively a blessing.

But as you also try to observe the political climate in much of the Arab world, Europe and the US, you can feel that something larger is perhaps happening. There appears to be greater disillusionment with the existing political elite, for example, as we saw in countries like Italy and Beppe Grillo’s meteoric success with his Five Star Movement. But more importantly, there also appears to be a demand for an evolution to the current pervading political paradigm.

The current political system, in all of its frameworks and practical variations around the world, centres around a presidency and parliament that varyingly share power for several years before new elections come forth, and in which a simple majority in parliament has strong powers. Political systems remain remarkably similar despite their differences, trying to balance - among others - efficiency and expediency with consensus, the need for stability and long term focus against the need for regular change, votes of confidence and short term benefits, in addition to balancing the demands of majorities against the desires and rights of minorities. Furthermore, there is also the need to balance a politician’s theoretical need for enough time to regularly juggle what his district wants him to do and what he is willing to dissent with his district on for what he perceives as their own benefit and national interest, trying to eventually come out as having pleased his district in totality towards the end of his term.

But today’s citizens and voters are a radically different specimen from those even 20 years ago. People are now more informed and educated than ever (yet also more impatient as well), they have incomparable and continuous access to virtually any information no matter where they go, so much more now happens in a single day than what used to happen in a week only a few years ago (for example, Egypt famously passed a - later suspended - tax law post midnight on the presidency’s facebook page). Politicians are more revealed and in direct contact with people more than ever, through communicating (or being scandalised) on social media, through the 24-hour news cycle, or an almost continuous campaigning mode. Most importantly, voters and citizens are becoming less prone to being swayed by traditional slogans, propaganda or allegiances. They are, in addition, less and less influenced by traditional leaders, parties and movements, more individual in the good sense, and more willing and capable of making their own voices and opinions heard. And ideologically, citizens and voters are becoming more and more pragmatic, willing to look across the spectrum for trans-ideological solutions and ideas.

There seems to be a need for a new political paradigm to reflect how the world appears is changing.

What would such a new or evolved political paradigm entail? I don’t know, but I have a few partial guesses. For example, and even in the most developed democracies, there would be greater political transparency, more fluid access to information, and a stronger respect for the voter and the citizen as being informed and capable of seeing through the usual usage of inflated  and useless words and political maneuvering. The fact that tools for at least some direct democracy are becoming increasingly available would be turned into a more practical reality, with one debatable example being the White House’s commitment to answer public petitions once they surpass a certain online voting threshold (that example could be also expanded to parliament in some form, as one example) The role of a president and the length of his term should both be revisited and generally reduced.

As for parliament, the idea of requiring more than just a simple or absolute voting majority in parliament (and referenda) should be investigated for at least for some of the more important areas of voting. The voting mechanism should instead be designed in a manner that would generally encourage, if not even necessitate at times, a supermajority of some sort in parliament, perhaps even requiring in some cases that such a supermajority be composed of more than one party. Parliaments should also be further obliged to more impactingly consult on every legislation with relevant major stakeholders, such as unions, NGOs, businesses and more. In cases wherein such stakeholders intentionally issue official demands or critiques of draft laws, the relevant entity or group in parliament should have to issue some formal and publicly accessible responses, thus ensuring that parliamentary majorities cannot just “brush off” stakeholders and their concerns as we have often seen. Perhaps even the composition of parliament itself would be more fluid. For example, each district would be represented by an even number of representatives, each alternate half of whom would have their seats up for re-election every two years, thus allowing for parliament to substantially refresh and revitalise itself more regularly, while also allowing each member and parliament as whole enough chance to focus on the bigger picture. Another alternative, for the sake of the mere exploration of ideas, is the idea of shorter-termed parliaments of - for example - two and a half years or so. Further, each MP would have to be further connected to his district during his time in office. He would still have his independence to vote his conscience and experience, which might often be more correct than voter’s immediate impulses, but he would have to be in greater communication and provide further transparency to his voters and district.

As for the judicial branch, the issue of course becomes a bit more complex and in need of even greater debate. But one area of potential refinement is the often extreme longevity of supreme constitutional court judges. While the position of a constitutional court judge is traditionally designed to logically try and shield the judges from political pressures and potential seduction by interest groups through attractive post-bench offers, today’s often too-long longevity can often lead nations to find themselves quite captive to the un-objective ideological leanings of judges, among other concerns.

More than anything else, universal human rights must increasingly be at the heart of any such paradigm. Furthermore, the state’s ability to infringe upon them under excuse of security and emergency laws must be revisited.

One interesting country to look at is Mexico. The largest three parties comprising more than 90% of parliament, under the leadership of the president, have engaged in a Pacto Por Mexico. This “Pact For Mexico” involves aligning the policies and political goals of those three parties for the coming years until 2018 towards deeply ambitious national targets. It is an experiment worth observing.

In any case, feel free to disregard every example or possibility I raised above. But do consider the main idea itself: that the time has come to a new political paradigm for the 21st century. Perhaps we need a political spring.

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