What Comes First – Elections or Institutions?

It is usual for opponents of democracy promotion to belittle elections and elevate institutions. This is a variation of the prerequisites argument – that before you push for democracy, you must first have various indices satisfied (i.e. strong middle class, liberal elites, economic growth). This argument often doubles as a high-minded way of saying that third-world peoples – and particularly Arabs – need to be like us before they can enjoy democracy. 

With that said, there is no doubting that it is better to have democratic institutions then not to have them. Democratization in, say, Egypt would be a less risky and contentious affair if well-rooted, legitimate institutions were in place.

In emerging polities, the question has always been whether institutional arrangements have the capacity to absorb the participatory demands of the electorate. Where institutions are weak, what Samuel Huntington calls “wild democracy” or “mass praetorianism” is more likely to take hold. Where institutions are autonomous and legitimate, even the most reckless demagogues will fail in their efforts to transform the political structure. This is why the Bush administration has failed and will continue to fail in its bid to do away with the Geneva conventions, legitimize torture, establish military tribunals, and impose Orwellian legislative projects (i.e. the now-defunct Patriot Act II). The lesson here is that institutions matter.

However, there are some problems with applying such a lesson to the Middle East. The US-supported autocrats now in power have gone out of their way to erode and stunt the development of indigenous institutions, for such institutions present a formidable threat to their unquenchable thirst for power and control. Which is why it is not surprising that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spent a good chunk of his reign harassing the country’s venerable and relatively independent judiciary (one of the few holdovers of Egypt’s pre-1952 “liberal era”) and making the establishment of new political parties a nearly impossible endeavor. The Mubarak regime, one might argue, has tried to build (or maintain) some kind of “middle class” – but a “middle class” which is dependent on government largesse and therefore rendered incapable of exerting democratic pressure on Egypt’s rulers. One would hope that something as basic as a “Vice President” would exist in the netherworld of Egyptian politics. It does not. There is no institutionalized mode of succession. Then again, I suppose you don’t need one if you’re planning on making your country into a monarchy.

So we’re back to square one. How do you build autonomous institutions in an autocratic context? The short of it is that you can’t. As long as autocratic regimes rule, they will not allow for the development of liberal-democratic institutions. So we are faced with two choices: 1) continue supporting the existing autocracies and hoping that they will experience a change of heart and begin the hard work of building sustainable institutions, or 2) support free and fair elections and an open political environment, where competing opposition forces can present their respective programs for political resuscitation to voters. The groups/parties that come to power will not necessarily be followers of “new institutionalist” approaches to political science, but they will have a greater incentive to establish regularized procedures than their authoritarian predecessors did. Neither choice is ideal, but, surely, one is better than the other.

Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy. He is a contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative’s foreign affairs blog.

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