How lowering the voting age to 16 could save democracy



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Thousands of high school students across the US walked out of their schools to protest gun violence and to call for changes to gun laws.
EPA/Tannen Maury, CC BY-ND

Bronwyn E Wood, Victoria University of Wellington and Nick Munn, University of Waikato

Former US president Barack Obama visited New Zealand this week and met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Both leaders share an interest in youth development and their discussions focused on how to keep younger generations engaged and involved.

In the wake of the school shooting in Florida last month, there have been calls in the US to lower the voting age to 16 to give high school students power to challenge gun laws. In New Zealand, too, the idea of allowing 16-year-olds to vote has again been mooted by the children’s commissioner, Andrew Becroft.

So, what are the arguments against and for a lower voting age?




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Ongoing opposition to lower voting age

Becroft argues that a lower voting age could enhance turnout, ingrain the habit of voting, and give young people more rights.

However, his comments have been met by similar responses to those former New Zealand Green MP Sue Bradford received when she initially proposed lowering the voting age back in 2007.

Opponents argue that young people lack maturity, life experience and civic knowledge. At 16 and 17, critics say, young people are heavily influenced by adults such as teachers and parents (and therefore subject to coercion), and their ability to vote doesn’t match other responsibilities young people hold as they are still largely dependent economically on adults.

This time, however, New Zealand would not be alone in giving younger people the vote. Sixteen-year-olds in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Austria, Nicaragua and Brazil now have voting rights.

In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, 16- and 17-year-olds seized the opportunity to vote; 75% of their cohort turned out to vote. In the US, high school students are showing their considerable political strength in protesting against gun violence in their schools.

Inconsistent arguments

New Zealand has a very inclusive electoral system. It allows people on benefits to vote, despite their lack of economic independence. It also allows those with cognitive disabilities to vote, regardless of the severity of their disability and the degree to which they are influenced by their parents or caregivers. And it allows that members of religious groups are given guidance on how to vote by their religious leaders.

The system ought to be more consistent in applying its reasons for preventing people from voting. If lack of maturity is a reason to stop someone voting, it applies to all who lack maturity. If being heavily influenced by others is a reason to prevent someone from voting, it applies to all who are subject to this sort of influence.

There is an even deeper problem with the objections against a lower voting age. Consider how we treat those aged above 18 and those below 18 when it comes to proving their capacity to vote.

Those over 18 are accepted as voters, and remain so regardless of their actions (short of criminal offences that see them imprisoned and their voting rights removed). Those under 18 are presumed not to have the capacity to vote, and are denied any opportunity to show otherwise. But in neither case are we actually examining whether the individual concerned has the qualities we want in a voter.




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Giving voice to the young: survey shows people want under-18s involved in politics


Young people have perhaps more opportunity than older people to develop these qualities. The younger a person the more time they have to spend in formal education, where they can develop their civic knowledge and recognise the importance of political participation – including voting.

Lowering the voting age to 16 would bring the age of political responsibility more in line with the age of criminal responsibility and the age of informed consent for medical procedures.

New Zealand’s current system is willing to hold a 16-year-old responsible for murder, but deny that same 16-year-old the responsibility to cast a vote. This isn’t right. They are either capable of acting both well and badly, or of doing neither.

Civic education

In New Zealand, discussions on lower voting ages take place alongside conversations about civic education in schools. Becroft and others recognise that both should go hand in hand. However, this is not a simple premise.

Merely learning more about civics and political processes has not been shown to lead to greater citizenship participation. The type of civic learning matters.

A large-scale longitudinal study of more than 4,000 students in the US found that civic learning in which students actually experienced involvement in civic and political issues — and particularly on issues that matter to them – had the greatest long-term impact on future political participation.

This bodes well for New Zealand, as research published last year following a two-year study on social studies students taking social action for their internal assessment credits showed the curriculum is well set up for young people to experience civic engagement.

The ConversationEncouraging younger voter participation is complex but essential if we want to maintain the health of our democracy.

Bronwyn E Wood, Senior Lecturer in Education, Victoria University of Wellington and Nick Munn, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Is Democracy Dead or Alive? What democracy exactly are we supposed to nurture?


Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra; Clare Woodford, University of Brighton; Dawn Brancati, Columbia University; Eva Cherniavsky, University of Washington; Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University, and Youngho Cho, Sogang University

These comments on the global fate of democracy, the second part of the series Is Democracy Dead or Alive?, are gathered by Democratic Theory and co-published with the Sydney Democracy Network. Several of these comments will feature as full-length articles in a special issue of Democratic Theory.


Imagine a new form of popular sovereignty

Eva Cherniavsky, University of Washington

If we cannot imagine a future for democracy after the break-up of its historic marriage to capitalism, then I suppose we should declare it dead. But I prefer to think that capitalism’s spurning of democracy offers a context for instituting new forms of democratic governance.

The institutions of the modern democratic state have always stood for the interests of proprietors, upholding formal rights (equality of opportunity) over material equity (equality of condition).

The revolutions that threw off monarchical and colonial rule in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were, with very few exceptions, bourgeois revolutions. The state’s obligation to the collective interest of the people thus finds a limit in its competing and contradictory obligation to the protection of private property.

From this vantage point, the corporate takeover and decimation of existing democratic institutions may free us to conceive and cultivate more radically democratic organisations that centre on the welfare of peoples, rather than individuals.

Movements such as Occupy Wall Street clearly tend in this direction, experimenting with radical, participatory democracy in the belly of the beast.

On the model of Occupy, radical democracy entails the creation of myriad autonomous zones, whether temporary or semi-permanent.

As ethnonationalism and authoritarianism flourish in the ruins of capitalist democracy, it remains to be seen if the Left can reimagine itself, no longer as a dissident force, hostile or marginal to the institutions of capitalist democracy, but rather as a force for institutionalisation, elaborating new forms and practices of popular sovereignty at the local, regional and planetary scale.

Democracy expresses itself in many ways

Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra

When someone says “democracy is dead” they aren’t critiquing democracy itself. They’re critiquing a specific expression of it, usually the representative kind. To conflate democracy with but one of its expressions is dangerous because this dismisses more than 2,000 of its other expressions.

Some, like deliberative democracy, are normative projects in part destined to improve the representative institutions that most of us are familiar with.

Others, like Waldorf democracy, where “waiters and financiers, telephone girls and captains of industry, coatroom clerks and merchant princes [sit] side by side” at dinner, are historical expressions that can help us find new purchase on some of today’s more enduring problems such as class division.

There are also expressions of democracy in action: kabuki democracy and karaoke democracy are used to explain modern Japanese politics; garbage democracy captures Fidel Castro’s opinion of representation in the US; and somnolent democracy is used to describe countries with docile citizens.

These expressions help us make sense of the democracies we live in – think in particular of unwieldy democracy, green democracy and corrupt democracy.

So, it doesn’t make sense to say “democracy is dead”, because democracy doesn’t mean just one thing. As we come to know each of democracy’s expressions better, and make sense of them collectively, it’s my wager that this will lead to more inclusion, equality, self-rule, autonomy, fairness and non-violence within our states, between our states, and in our lives.

Enemies within exploit ideology of democracy

Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University

The ideology of democracy has disfigured democracy and is one of the reasons for its weakness today.

Contemporary democracy is at the centre of this paradox: as a political system, democracy enjoys an undisputed global hegemony so that even constitutional “reforms” that curtail civil liberties and contradict the spirit of political openness are made in the name of democracy as more genuine affirmations of democracy’s values. Venezuela and Hungary offer prime examples of this.

As well as fighting for the basics, Venezuelans are fighting to hang on to Venezuela’s 60-year-old democracy.

Particularly after the Cold War, the ideology of democracy has found itself in a situation of planetary solitude. The paradox is that no other names today are available to give legitimacy to political enterprises that are not easily rendered as democratic in the constitutional and representative mode in which democracy is valued.

So we witness the coinage of oxymoronic terms, like authoritarian democracy, technocratic democracy and meritocratic democracy, among others.

One of the effects of this paradox is that political orders named as democratic are not only in contrast with democracy but are moreover primed to cast doubt on the value of democracy. How can we value political equality when our democracies promote technocracy or national-populism?

Not to have names to name these transformations of democratic governments is a problem because it contributes to delegitimising democracy. The ideology of democracy obfuscates political reality and leaves us with no argument against adversaries of democracy from within.

This is the cultural and political context in which a new form of representative government is today primed to emerge within the democratic nest, thus changing democracy from within, silently and inadvertently.

A problem of shallow cultural foundations

Youngho Cho, Sogang University

Democracy is still a dominant force this century. No government or political leader literally opposes democracy and openly attempts to break it down. Indeed, they instrumentally use democracy to legitimise their own rule and governance.

Democracy has, in this sense, absolute power over its alternatives, as Francis Fukuyama declared more than two decades ago.

So why is democracy dysfunctional in spite of its global and universal appeal among leaders and ordinary people? One reason is that leaders manipulate the meanings of democracy and people misunderstand it. People do not understand democracy as its scholars do.

Moreover, a large proportion of Asians do not conceive democracy as most Westerners do. When thinking about democracy, many Chinese people imagine economic development, the domestic and regional dominance of Han China and social order.

Certainly, the rule of law, limited government, civil liberties, political rights and press freedom do not matter much in mass conceptions of democracy in certain corners of the world.

Even in advanced countries, when strong leaders such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen speak about democracy, they emphasise dominance and the rule of the majority and try to take minority rights away. We may be living in an era of democratic dominance for the first time in history, but its practices are not necessarily liberal or democratic.

Lamentably, democracy’s cultural foundation is shallow. We need more education about democracy and popular engagement with its diverse forms.

Where is the evidence for claims of doom?

Dawn Brancati, Columbia University

Dramatic claims that democracy is in peril around the world or, worse yet, that it is already dead, make great headlines. They may even be valuable in motivating governments and individuals to be vigilant against threats to democracy around the world.

However, there isn’t sufficient empirical evidence to support these claims.

Statements about democracy’s recession are often based on a few anecdotal, but salient, cases of where democracy has been genuinely curtailed, and do not take into account the number of cases where democracy has remained strong or has advanced in recent years.

These statements are also often about aspects of political systems that are important, but not about democracy per se. Claims that democracy is on the decline have been made based on bureaucratic incompetency, corruption, government criticism of the media, and so forth.

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Many democracy indices exist that can discern trends over time, but there are no indices that identify or measure all aspects of political systems, that define open and competitive elections, and that are needed, therefore, to make conclusions about which aspects of democracy are on the decline and which are on the rise around the world.

Such comprehensive data would make for a much less titillating view about the state of democracy in the world, but it would be a more accurate and responsible one.

Democracy as equality

Clare Woodford, University of Brighton

For too long political thought has muddled democracy – the enactment of the equality of all – with representative regimes we call democratic but which are in actual fact always oligarchic.

The equality of the people cannot be institutionalised. This does not mean that some forms of institutionalisation would not be more disposed towards democracy than others.

It seems pertinent to question the relationship between democracy and the regimes that go by its name. But the focus of such questioning must surely be the manner and extent to which any regime creates and supports (or represses and undermines) the ongoing conditions for democracy rather than simply institutionalising and entrenching one form of equality over others such that it becomes stale and oppressive.

A debate over whether democracy is dead or alive may only work to discipline the demos in an ill-fated attempt to defend it. But the very emergence of this debate highlights the urgency with which we must attend to the ways in which emancipation has become entangled with and subverted by domination through institutionalisation.

To misrecognise democracy is to place more barriers in its way. As long as things could be other than they are democracy is always possible. Regardless of how long it is suppressed or lies dormant, and to the perpetual chagrin of its opponents, democracy can never die.


The ConversationYou can read the rest of the series here.

Jean-Paul Gagnon, Assistant Professor in Politics, University of Canberra; Clare Woodford, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE), University of Brighton; Dawn Brancati, Visiting Scholar, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University; Eva Cherniavsky, Andrew Hilen Professor of American Literature and Culture, University of Washington; Nadia Urbinati, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory, Columbia University, and Youngho Cho, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sogang University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Democracy has a future, if we rethink and remake it


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While some are declaring that democracy has had its day, others see this as a time to develop more truly democratic ways of living.
Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910

Alice el-Wakil, University of Zürich; Anna Szolucha, Polish Academy of Sciences; David A. Teegarden, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; Graham Smith, University of Westminster; Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University; Peter Wilkin, Brunel University London, and Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University

These comments on the global fate of democracy, the first in a three-part series, Is Democracy Dead or Alive?, are gathered by Democratic Theory and co-published by The Conversation with the Sydney Democracy Network. Several of these comments will feature as full-length articles in a special issue of Democratic Theory.


Consider Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of state-sanctioned murder and Hungary’s drift towards a new authoritarianism.

“Democracy is dead,” say the disheartened. “It’s time to bury democracy,” pounds one Tunisian pro-Sharia party. “Democracy has fallen, we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populist and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies.

These mantras, circulated widely through social media, have ricocheted around the world and were felt perhaps most viscerally in 2017. It was a year full of political events that, in hindsight, look like a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.

Is democracy dying, or perhaps already dead? Is it really time to eulogise democracy, or are we rather on the cusp of a new phase in its long and varied life? – Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra

Anguish about democracy attests to its value

Alice el-Wakil, University of Zurich

It has become common that under half of the citizenry votes in most Western democracies, that anti-democratic politicians get elected, and that elected authorities are accused of failing to protect citizens’ interests.

Corruption and nepotism are making comebacks and inequalities of all sorts are on the rise. At this time it is legitimate to ask whether democracy is breaking apart.

However, this worrisome situation should not transform us into sceptics about democracy. The outcry against the problems mentioned above shows that the public notices and criticises political shortcomings to realise democratic ideals – that there is something about democracy worth mobilising for.

Hence, as certain existing democratic regimes risk being perverted, we should use this critical moment to reinvent and expand democracy.

In most parts of the world, democracy has so far only taken the form of a specific kind of institutional arrangement, namely electoral representative democracy. It relies on a valuable but limited set of institutions, which preserves an exclusionary bias and a fundamental suspicion of citizens’ capacity to make political decisions.

The current challenges to this specific set of institutions should encourage us to acknowledge alternative, emerging practices of democratic participation and to create and experiment with complementary institutions.

Referendum procedures, new forms of representation, or assemblies of citizens are examples of the innovations we should consider to revivify democratic systems. Be it only because democracy enables us to publicly, legitimately and continuously question its value and to peacefully propose new ways of realising it.

Don’t look to the powerful for answers

Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen

The democratic impulse rarely originates in the corridors of power. Certain political elites may have a knack for exploiting right-wing populist and nationalist narratives to rewrite history and give a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state”, but they are hardly effective when it comes to promoting popular concerns about freedom, justice, equality and social dialogue.

Normally, democracy is fought for and won by ceaseless struggles and popular resistances.

During the wave of pro-democratic protests that recently swept through the world, protesters in the West were critical of the liberal representative model of democracy, growing inequalities, and the influence of business on politics.

It’s clear there is a need to rethink democracy. The solution, however, is not to revamp the old model but to defend and simultaneously revisit the idea of democracy. We need to do so in such a way that it fosters equality, freedom and a sense that ordinary citizens have a greater influence on politics – virtues that the liberal representative version has failed to deliver.

The task of rethinking democracy is pressing because we are witnessing arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites to appropriate democratic language to expand their own powers.

Despite massive protests and opposition to their policies, they call on “The People” to offer more undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems. They curtail freedom, centralise control, divide society, destroy the climate and institutionalise their privilege in the process.

The more than 13.4 million files in the Paradise Papers revealed the workings of the tax haven industry.

The rethinking and remaking of democracy is going to take effort and perseverance, but the continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because it never belonged to those who seem to be killing it in the first place.

Three keys to democratic values

Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University

Authoritarian power grabs – those grim assaults on constitutional democracy – demand political and legal resistance. Illiberal populism – those episodic rejections of the terms of political representation – demand the rehabilitation of hollowed-out parties.

Authoritarianism is the business of predators: the cynical exploitation of the democratic weaknesses of the moment. Populism is expressive anger: a reaction against conditions of the moment felt to be threatening and out of control. Both are caused by democracy’s own political demons.

We don’t need to relitigate democracy, but we do need a full-throated affirmation of its value, which comes in three different keys.

The aspirational key: democracy is a system of political representation rooted in the moral ground of the equal value of all the governed. No constitutional arrangement is democratic without aspirational commitment to civil and political equality in the form of civil and political rights. No bad faith “illiberal democracy” makes that commitment.

The outcome key: over time and in the face of vicissitudes and ineptitude, democracy aims at general wellbeing more consistently and competently than other forms of government. Democracy is the only self-correcting system. Democracies have recessions, depressions and fumbling responses to crises. They do not have famines.

The defence against tyranny key: civil society is the bulwark against arbitrary and total power. Only democracy cultivates freedom of association and its product: the groups, associations, networks and political parties that fuel unendingly contested democratic politics and that make trouble.

Our best check on elite tyranny

David Teegarden, University at Buffalo – State University of New York

Democratic governance provides the best practical check on elite domination. The citizenry has numerical superiority in every state. Unfortunately, elites (wealth, military, religious) know how to atomise and render them effectively powerless: thus the persistence of narrow oligarchy and autocracy throughout recorded history.

However, democratic institutions such as elections, the law and the free press, along with their ideals of political equality and individual freedom, can facilitate citizens’ efforts to co-ordinate their actions, draw upon their collective strength and force their elite competitors to agree to some sort of co-operative relationship.

In a functioning democracy, everybody – even billionaires, generals and bishops – must obey laws made by and enforced by all citizens.

It is certainly true that democratic governance often breeds contentious public discourse. It can lead to terrible, even disastrous outcomes from time to time. But it is far better to endure those things than to endure the horror of being forced to bow down publicly to an oppressive tyrant with no realistic hope of betterment either for yourself or for your children.

Solutions start with a constructive critique

Peter Wilkin, Brunel University

Representative democracy has always been regarded as problematic by those who have sought to replace it with authoritarian rule. Today many of these authoritarian trends have gained new voice and increasingly anti-democratic forces can be found.

But we can’t conflate all challenges to representative democracy as being the same. We can distinguish between those social forces that draw inspiration from the radical right – such as ethnonationalism, neo-fascism, militarism – and those that can be seen as a novel continuation of the libertarian socialist tradition – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Rojava.

The radical right is intolerant, aggressive and wants to capture the state for authoritarian ends and to nationalise capitalism.

By contrast, the libertarian socialist tradition is an attempt to extend democracy into areas like the economy (for example the citizen’s wage, universal income, worker control of industry). Libertarian socialists also attempt to reconfigure centralised state power and restore decision-making to communities.

Both movements are responding to the same conditions: the polarising impact of capitalism on social life (inequality, insecurity, poverty) and the failure of representative democracy to offer solutions to these problems.

Such solutions are simpler for the radical right, which has no commitment to democracy or civil liberties. The radical right wants to impose order upon society by any means, including violence and intimidation.

For movements inspired by the libertarian socialist aspiration to deepen, enrich and extend democracy, finding solutions is much harder. The means to be used are seen as fundamental to the society that will emerge.

As a result, violence, fear, propaganda and other powerful anti-democratic tools are eschewed in favour of education and organising communities through dialogue and negotiation.

Overcome short-termism for democratic renewal

Graham Smith, University of Westminster

In privileging the present over long-term sustainability, contemporary democracies have failed to deal effectively with climate change. But this does not mean, as some suggest, that we require a more authoritarian solution. Rather, we need to understand the sources of short-termism and think more creatively about our democratic institutions and practices.

The sources of short-termism are multiple and mutually reinforcing. These include: short electoral cycles that incentivise limited party-political horizons; vested interests that benefit from current political and economic arrangements; our psychological preference for immediate gratification; an economic system that privileges carbon-based consumption; and unborn generations who are unable to defend their interests.

These examples could be seen as a litany of despair. Or they could be recognised as a new set of challenges on which to base democratic renewal.

The potential contours for a reinvigorated long-term democracy are beginning to emerge. Imaginative and practical democratic innovation already includes: institutional experimentation such as independent offices for future generations that scrutinise the decision-making of other public bodies; new rights and forms of public participation designed to orientate citizens towards consideration of future generations; and co-operatives and other forms of collective corporate governance that prioritise sustainability over immediate economic return.

Leading policymakers, business leaders and civil society activists gathered in 2017 for the first UN Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development.
Global Festival of Action/flickr

Time to get serious about citizenship education

Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University

Civil society, voluntary associations, active citizenship, social capital – these were the rosy keywords often used in discussions of radical democracy at the end of the 20th century.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we are seeing that people’s active participation can be negative, driven by emotional populist movements. Social capital is not always strong enough to empower people who are alienated and excluded from decision-making. Civil society is often uncivil.

History tells us that the so-called democratic political system does not guarantee the improvement of democratic society. Karl Mannheim, for example, who analysed mass society in the age of fascism, worried about an irrational democracy of emotions.

Mannheim was an advocate of social education (a concept similar to citizenship education today), which is meant to make the attitudes and behaviours of both common people and elites more democratic.

Although some might doubt the efficacy of such an education for the democratisation of society, it hasn’t in any serious way been tried before. As the old saying goes: we won’t know if it’ll work until we try.

For Mannheim and some of his contemporaries like John Dewey, T.S. Eliot and A.D. Lindsay, democracy is not only a political system but also a way of life. Citizenship education is not only a matter of school education but also of people’s social practice in their everyday lives.

The ConversationFar from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.

Alice el-Wakil, PhD Researcher, University of Zürich; Anna Szolucha, Research Fellow, Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences; David A. Teegarden, Associate Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Classics, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; Graham Smith, Professor of Politics, University of Westminster; Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor on Ethics in Politics and Government, Harvard University; Peter Wilkin, Reader In Communications Media & Cultural Studies, Brunel University London, and Ryusaku Yamada, Professor of Political Theory, Soka University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Will Mnangagwa usher in a new democracy? The view from Zimbabwe



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Emmerson Mnangagwa, President-elect of Zimbabwe.
Filckr/UN

Nic Cheeseman, University of Birmingham

Zimbabwe has a new leader. Robert Mugabe is out. His former ally turned rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is in. What now?

After ecstatic celebrations to mark Mugabe’s resignation thoughts have began to turn to what comes next. Mugabe may have exited the political scene, but it remains dominated by the same political party – Zanu-PF – that sustained his rule.

Moreover, the country’s president-elect, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is hardly a breath of fresh air. Having held a series of cabinet positions under Mugabe, and served as first vice president between December 2014 and his sacking in November 2017, he looks more like a force for continuity than change.

As a result, talk in Harare quickly turned to what kind of leader Mnangagwa will be, and the system of government that would best serve ordinary Zimbabweans.

The fork in the road

My conversations with people on the streets of the capital, Harare, about the political system the country needs suggests that two distinct camps are emerging: those who want elections to be held as soon as possible, and those who say the polls should be postponed and a transitional government established.

Both of these options have genuine “pros” but also strong “cons”. As is so often the case, there is no perfect answer that solves all problems.

It is understandable that many Zimbabweans want a period of calm and orderly government after the twists and turns of recent weeks, and believe that it would be better to form an inclusive government that would feature representatives of all of the main political parties – a kind of power sharing in all but name.

Even though I have consistently argued in favour of the value of democracy and elections in Africa, I have to admit that the “transitioners” have some viable arguments.

The most obvious is that a period of stability and more consensual government might facilitate much needed reform of the economy and also the wider political and legal system. After all, rival parties are unlikely to come to agreement on these issues if they are immediately thrust into an election campaign.

The “transitioners” also have a point when it comes to democracy. Few people in Zimbabwe believe that it’s possible for elections to be free and fair if they are held between July and August next year, as currently scheduled. Given this, and the current divisions within the opposition, a rush to elections is likely to result in a convincing victory for Zanu-PF under problematic circumstances.

A transitional arrangement would allow for much needed electoral reforms to be put in place, creating the potential for a better quality process and a more consensual outcome later on.

Testing the Crocodile

But there is also another camp that wants to see Mnangagwa, popularly known as The Crocodile, to face an election as soon as possible.

Just like their counterparts in the “transitioner” camp, “electioneers”, have some strong arguments. Whatever one wants to call Mnangagwa’s rise to power – from a coup to an internal party squabble – it is clear that it has not been a high quality democratic transition. And while it is clear that the overthrow of Mugabe was hugely popular, we don’t know if the same applies to a Mnangagwa presidency. An election would settle that question.

It would also give the new government a popular mandate to undertake economic reforms, whoever wins power. This could be important to the success of the reform project, because things are likely to get worse before they get better, and the country’s economic medicine may prove to be a bitter pill to swallow.

Holding elections would also do one thing that postponing them will not; it will test the commitment of the new government to democratic norms and values from the get-go. One of the main reasons that Zimbabwean elections have been poor quality is that Zanu-PF and the military have intervened to make sure this was the case. As another friend put it, “If they are really committed to doing the right thing, they can do it right away and the elections will not be too bad”.

Learning from the past

“Electioneers” are also motivated by scepticism that an inclusive transitional government would get much done. Both Zimbabwe and Kenya have had power-sharing governments in the recent past, and while they both introduced new constitutions they also saw high levels of corruption and limited security sector reform. They also both led to elections that were denounced by opposition parties as being unfree and unfair.

It’s fair to ask: why would it be different this time?

The question is particularly pertinent given the current composition of parliament. Because Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change boycotted a series of by-elections on the basis that they would not be free and fair, it has lost many of the seats it won in 2013. As a result, any transitional arrangement that deferred elections and “froze” the current parliament for the next three years would have a big legislative advantage to Zanu-PF.

It is also important to keep in mind that economics cannot be divorced from politics: Zimbabwe’s current economic difficulties stem precisely from an unaccountable political framework that ignored the interests of the people. Given that recent events have emboldened the military and given them an even stronger voice within government, this is a pressing concern.

Deferring electoral reforms in order to focus on economic recovery may therefore prove to be a self defeating strategy.

Next steps

Ultimately, the form of government that evolves in Zimbabwe will not be a product of popular dialogue. One of the distinctive features of this process is that for the most part it has been conducted behind closed doors by a small elite.

Don’t be fooled by the pictures of tens of thousands of people marching on Saturday – all sides have invoked popular support, but none have actually encouraged ordinary people to say what they want, or given them a seat at the table. This is a worrying sign if strengthening democracy is the long-term goal.

Recent public statements by the main parties at the time of going to press suggests that they are not converging on an interim administration, and so the “electioneers” may get their wish. That could still change because talks are ongoing and both sides would gain something from a delay. But if it doesn’t the people will be able to have their say on how they want their country to be run.

The ConversationOf course, voting will not actually equate to “having a say” unless the country’s new leader follows through on his promise to build a “new democracy”, and the ruling party can kick the habit of a lifetime. Watch this space.

Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After coup, will Zimbabwe see democracy or dictatorship?


Steven Feldstein, Boise State University

For decades, Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe in a ruthless, even reckless manner. Over nearly 40 years, he turned the “jewel of Africa” into an economic basket case that’s seen inflation of up to 800 percent.

Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.

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Much remains unclear at this early stage. Will violence erupt? Is this really the end of the Mugabe era?

I don’t know the answers to those questions yet. I’m not sure even Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who appears to have orchestrated Mugabe’s overthrow, knows how his gambit will turn out.

But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.

Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup

For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.

But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.

Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.

Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.

The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”

But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.

In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.

As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.

On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.

Democracy or dictatorship?

At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.

If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.

Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”

Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?

In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.

More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.

It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.

‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?

Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.

A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.

That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.

The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.

The ConversationReal transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.

Steven Feldstein, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs & Associate Professor, School of Public Service, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

War and democracy – who decides?


John Keane, University of Sydney

In March 2003, the Howard government involved Australia in an illegal military invasion of Iraq. The consequences of that war continue to be devastating for the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. The prime minister was able to opt for invasion because in Australia the sovereign power to take the gravest decision, the commitment of the Australian Defence Force to international armed conflict, rests with the executive – in practice, often the PM alone – rather than with parliament.

Since 2014, further military deployments have taken place in Iraq. The bombing of Syria continues. Several months ago, the prime minister announced unqualified support in principle for the United States in possible military action against North Korea.

All these developments reinforce the dangers typically associated with secretive small-group decision-making. Closed decision-making breeds hubris; and hubris, the friend of folly and recklessness, often results in disasters. All are a curse for democracy. That is why the Sydney Democracy Network, in partnership with Australians for War Powers Reform, convened a public forum on the subject of the urgent need for war powers reform.

Held on the International Day of Peace, September 21, War and Democracy – Who Decides? featured contributions from Paul Barratt AO, president of Australians for War Powers Reform and former secretary of the Department of Defence; Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (see her video below); and lawyer and activist Kellie Tranter, whose edited contribution follows.


When governments kill in large numbers they always do so for a good reason. We must be on guard against that. – Howard Zinn

Lawyer and human rights activist Kellie Tranter.
Lindy Baker/Sydney Democracy Network

Australian politicians talk about ending terrorism but they make decisions that carelessly or inadvertently stir the pot and radicalise people. This then reinforces the dominant public narrative and makes military incursions superficially acceptable. Unfortunately, vigorous debate in Australia is encouraged only within the limits imposed by “unstated doctrinal orthodoxy”, particularly in relation to foreign policy.

Not only are the people who control what we know determining our future, the government secrecy surrounding Australia’s historical record deliberately obfuscates our understanding of what is going on right now. Symptomatic is the way the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has recently been found to be one of the least transparent military coalition members in Syria. The ADF won’t reveal “where they bomb, when they bomb or what they bomb”.

Syria’s recent history reads like a contemporary illustration of Chris Clark’s conclusion in Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. The period analysed in that book shows that great powers had more than one enemy, and that executive decision-making was chaotic.

War was a consequence of decisions made in many places, with their effect being cumulative and interactive. These decisions were made by a gallery of actors who otherwise shared a fundamentally similar political culture.

On September 9 2015, Australia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, wrote to the UN Security Council president claiming that Article 51 of the UN Charter recognises the inherent right of states to act in individual or collective self-defence when an armed attack occurs against a UN member state. States must be able to act in self-defence when the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks originating from its territory. Bird alleged that the Syrian government had, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIS bases within Syria, demonstrated that it was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.

Unauthorised and uninvited

The Australian government was not questioned about how Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks. It was not asked how airstrikes would affect the Syrian population and infrastructure.

There was no link between ISIS, a non-state actor, and Syria. ISIS was not acting under instructions from, or the direction or control of, the Syrian government. Western governments made no attempt to work with the morally disgraceful Assad regime to actually enable it to prevent attacks emanating from its territory (and indeed Australia didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the regime).

Moreover, the Syrian government didn’t invite us to carry out airstrikes in Syria, and there was no UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. Neither the Australian government nor the opposition provided a clear explanation about why in August 2015 there was no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria, but by September 2015 there was.

There was no rational discussion about our strategic ends. There was certainly no mention of the fact that in 2014 we already had embedded ADF personnel in Florida contributing to operations against ISIS in Syria.

There was, however, a letter, dated September 17 2015, from the Syrian government to the Security Council. The mainstream media did not report it, but the letter was referred to in documents I received following FOI requests. The letter disputed Australia’s unwilling and unable claims and pointed out that the Syrian Arab Army had, over four years, been fighting ISIS, the al-Nusrah Front and other groups being supported by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western states.

The letter called on others to co-ordinate with Syria. It said the international coalition led by the US had yet to achieve anything tangible in its war on terrorist organisations.

UN Security Council powers failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict in Syria intensified.
Russian Ministry of Defence

The Syrian government had a point, particularly since US President Barack Obama had already told VICE News (on camera) that:

ISIS is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion in 2003, which is an example of unintended consequences.

Failing Syria

What was omitted from the political and public discourse in the lead-up to Australia’s decision to become involved in Syria was the fact that Syria had experienced a severe drought between 2007 and 2010. The drought spurred as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into the cities, creating significant social and economic tensions.

In 2012 the UK’s MI6 co-operated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to Syrian rebels after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. That same year, Russia proposed that Assad could step down as part of a peace deal. The US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator would fall that they ignored the proposal.

By this stage, the UN human rights commissioner had already confirmed 60,000 Syrian fatalities between March 2011 and November 2012. The current estimate is almost half a million deaths.

In September 2014 the US Congress determined that the US$500 million CIA program to arm Syrian rebels had failed. Arms had been ending up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, and Jordanian intelligence officers were selling arms on the black market.

The following month, The New York Times reported that a CIA report had concluded that “many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict”. The report came a month after Australia had delivered weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a month before our successful delivery of 18,000kg of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq.

On March 21 2015, international aid agencies and human rights groups released the Failing Syria report. This found that UN Security Council powers had failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict intensified.

Two months later, the International Crisis Group released its own report warning that military aid had been given without an underlying strategy, which would prolong the battle with ISIS and inflame other local conflicts between intra-Kurdish rivals. The report noted that the US-led coalition had remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories.

In May this year, Amnesty International urged the US and other countries to stop arms transfers that could fuel atrocities. This followed confirmation by a US Defence Department audit that the army had failed to monitor over US$1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment transfers to Kuwait and Iraq, which have ended up in the hands of ISIS.

A show for the domestic audience

In August 2015 rumours began to circulate that the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, had pushed for the US request to join airstrikes in Syria. Only five days before the bipartisan decision was made, Amnesty International reported that 220,000 people had been killed in Syria. Another 12.8 million needed humanitarian assistance and 50% of the population was displaced.

Still, at a reported cost of A$500 million a year for our air war against ISIS, and regardless of international law, we were first in with the US, beating our British counterparts who delayed plans for a parliamentary vote. A number of military strategists were of the view that Australia’s involvement was a show for the domestic audience.

The irony, of course, is that six days after the decision to conduct airstrikes in Syria, we had a new prime minister. Shortly after that a document titled “ADF Operations in the Middle East” was produced in response to my FOI request. It confirmed that “the prospects for a political or military solution are poor”.

The word “poor” seems highly inadequate. In order to supply arms to Syrian rebels, the Pentagon relies on an army of contractors from military giants to firms linked to organised crime. Saudi Arabia (a Western ally) and Qatar are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS, while Iran and Russia support Assad. Turkey is fighting the Kurds and the US-supported opposition groups, but is fighting with Russia against ISIS.

There are drone strikes and bombs being dropped by the US, Belgium, Jordan, Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, Denmark and Australia. There is disturbing evidence of the al-Nusra Front’s access to sarin gas. And to top it off, a Bulgarian journalist recently uncovered Azerbaijan Silk Way Airlines offering diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans and Israel and the militaries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and US Special Operations Command to ship weapons around the world, including to Syria, without regulation.

Hidden agendas lead to humanitarian disaster

Our politicians continue to support the US, an ally that has historically forsaken the exploration of peaceful means and diplomatic solutions in favour of force and aggression. Under the pretext of responding “with decency and with force” to humanitarian concerns and the responsibility to protect civilians, Australia extended airstrikes into Syria.

Confirming he is considering airstrikes in Syria, Tony Abbott tells parliament Australia will respond ‘with decency and with force’.

Decency? Every war is a war on children when armed conflicts kill and maim more children than soldiers. Perversely, more soldiers die from suicide and peacetime incidents than war.

And then there’s the matter of secrecy. On January 6 2017, I issued an FOI request to the Defence Department for copies of documents confirming or specifying the dates, locations and outcomes (numbers of military and civilian casualties) of airstrikes by Australian forces in Syria. On January 20 2017, I received an email simply confirming that “the Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics”.

For all the political protestations about concern for civilian lives, we are not even trying to count our victims. To date, we have only claimed responsibility for the deaths of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes in September 2016.

This year, as if Australia wasn’t already an aircraft carrier for the US, the government decided to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Overnight, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne became a dedicated arms salesman, announcing that he wanted Australia to become a major arms exporter on a par with Britain, France and Germany, and to use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.

Then US Defence Secretary Ash Carter greets Marise Payne and Christopher Pyne at the Pentagon in 2016.
Amber I. Smith/US Defence Department

Perpetual war has devastated the Middle East. Others rightly argue that a government that devotes the bulk of its budget to arms manufacturing implicitly makes a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well-being for the population.

The difficulty is that Australians still aren’t told the truth about why we became involved in Syria. Those decisions seem to have been made in furtherance of unstated international coalition agendas rather than on open and objective assessments of their merit. This state of affairs is made profoundly worse by the fact that the decision to go to war was an executive decision, not a decision made democratically after full and open parliamentary debate based on the best objective information available.

We are fighting a difficult battle for transparency in these disturbingly Orwellian times, but the battle can and should be waged for as long as we have the will and the means to do so. Our best weapons are an accurate historical and geopolitical perspective and truth.

The ConversationWhen it comes to war, our government needs to be more transparent and to open up decision-making on whether to become involved. Politicians and military personnel must be accountable for the human consequences of what they perpetrate in our name. It is our collective responsibility to do what we can to hold them to account.

Professor Gillian Triggs at the Sydney Democracy Network and the Australians for War Powers Reforms public forum.

John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Making voting both simple and secure is a challenge for democracies



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The US compares relatively poorly with equivalent countries when it comes to voter registration.
Reuters/Bria Hall

Pippa Norris, Harvard University; Sarah Cameron, University of Sydney, and Thomas Wynter, University of Sydney

Recent elections around the world have raised concerns about the procedures used for voter registration and their potential consequences. The effects include disenfranchisement (voters being prevented from casting a ballot) and voter rights, fraud and security, and mismanagement and accuracy.

It’s critical to strike the right trade-off between making registration accessible and making it secure. But how many countries are affected by these sorts of issues? And which is more problematic – lack of security or lack of inclusion?

Our study

Our Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey asked experts for their assessments of electoral integrity in 161 countries that held 260 national elections from January 1 to June 30, 2017.

The study used three criteria to monitor the quality of the voter registration process: inclusion, accuracy, and security.

These aspects can be considered equally important to ensure all and only eligible citizens are able to vote. The items can be analysed separately and also combined into an index.

As illustrated below, the results show the quality of the voter registration process in Northern Europe and Scandinavia performed well, as did several Latin American countries like Brazil.

At the same time, voter registration proved problematic in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in India and parts of Asia.

The US compared relatively poorly with equivalent liberal democracies on voter registration. This is in no small measure due to the partisan polarisation over the issue, and past reliance on self-registration. By contrast, governments in many other countries register voters on their behalf.

The quality of voter registration worldwide.
Authors

Inclusiveness versus security

The global comparison below shows mean ratings on the measure of inclusion on the vertical axis. The measure of security is shown on the horizontal.

Some countries performed well on both indicators – notably Sweden, Denmark and Finland, as well as Slovakia, Costa Rica and the Czech Republic.

By contrast, many other places (located in the bottom left quadrant) performed poorly on both measures, such as Syria (which failed to allow citizens to vote if they had fled to neighbouring states as refugees), Haiti (which lacked the capacity to administer elections), Bahrain (with internal conflict), and Afghanistan (with high levels of electoral corruption).

Finally, several countries scored worse on inclusiveness than on security. In these elections, experts thought the more serious problem was the exclusion of eligible citizens.

These problems can arise for many reasons – such as disputed citizenship rights, attempts at voter suppression, lack of capacity to include young people, women, linguistic or ethnic minorities and hard-to-reach rural populations, or failing to maintain up-to-date electoral rolls.

Monitoring inclusion and security worldwide. Scale ranges from strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (5). Regimes classified according to Freedom House.
Authors

Responding to the challenges

So, the challenge is to strike the optimal balance between security and accessibility, to make ensure eligible citizens – and only eligible citizens – cast a ballot. Doing so strengthens public confidence in the electoral process and democracy.

Easier registration processes, such as the availability of online applications and same-day registration, usually strengthens voter turnout. But the introduction of more accessible registration without sufficient verification raises security risks of abuse and fraud.

In the US, parties are deeply polarised over whether the use of strict photo ID at polling places helps maintain accurate and reliable lists, or whether this suppresses voting rights for eligible citizens who lack such ID.

A 2012 report found many American states faced major challenges of accuracy, cost, and efficiency in their voter registration systems. Since then, they have made many efforts to upgrade electronic procedures by allowing citizens to register and check their records online.

An initiative sweeping the US – led by Oregon in 2015 – is states requiring citizens to opt-out rather than opt-in to being registered to vote.

But new risks have also became evident, not least Russian meddling and cyber-security threats to official voting records. To tackle this, the US Electoral Assistance Commission has recently issued new guidelines, working with the states and the Department of Homeland Security to implement them. Yet the overhaul of America’s ageing voting equipment will carry a hefty price tag.

Foreign attempts at interference in voting have been reported in other countries, including Germany and France.

Following the 2017 UK general election, the Electoral Commission expressed concern about the risks of double voting and duplicate registration applications.

In populous developing countries like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, without reliable census information or identification documents, the challenges are even greater. Poor quality records can create opportunities for vote manipulation.

The ConversationStrict registration processes, such as those relying on biometric technologies for ID, may remove ineligible applicants but simultaneously throw out legitimate voters and make the list less accurate, not more. And biometric voter registration, which many African countries have adopted, presents challenges for the protection of personal information.

Pippa Norris, ARC Laureate Fellow, Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard University; Sarah Cameron, Electoral Integrity Project Manager and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Sydney, and Thomas Wynter, Research Associate, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is populism democracy’s deadly cure?



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Is populism a poison or a cure for democracy, or both, depending on the circumstances?
Louis Boilly/Wikipedia Commons

Simon Tormey, University of Sydney

This article is part of the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This piece is part of a series, After Populism, about the challenges populism poses for democracy. It comes from a talk at the Populism: What’s Next for Democracy? symposium hosted by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in collaboration with Sydney Democracy Network.


It is impossible to follow the news without catching reference to the rise of populism. A once little-used term that denoted a handful of parties in otherwise unconnected political contexts, populism now seems almost definitive of a political moment in time.

It also elicits a wide range of responses from specialists. The most common reaction is a negative recoil against the emergence of forces that seem to threaten democracy. The emergence of far left and far right political forces seems redolent of the 1930s, and look where that left us.

On the other hand, there are influential figures who argue that there is nothing to be afraid of in populism. Far from it: populism represents an appeal to The People, and on this basis is not just consonant with democracy, but with any kind of politics that seeks universal appeal.

Since political parties seek power, broad, if not universal, appeal is what they crave. Populism on this account is nothing more than “the logic of politics”, assuming politics to be what is of public or collective concern. A non-populist politics is doomed to fail, or to be the preserve of groups or identities who set their face against the demos.

So populism can be defined as something menacing and threatening to democracy, but also as something redemptive, celebratory and expressive of democracy. The question is, which of these two senses is the right one? Which gets closer to the “truth” about populism?

Populism as democracy’s pharmakon

In a famous essay on Plato’s Phaedus, Jacques Derrida explores the concept of “pharmakon” as an example of a term with apparently self-contradictory meanings.

Pharmakon, from which we derive the terms pharmacology and pharmacy, denotes a toxic substance used to make someone better, but which might also kill them.

Pharmakon is in this sense both poison and cure. It cannot be one or the other; it is both. Whether it is one or the other depends on dosage, context, receptivity of the body to the toxin, and so forth. In short, pharmakon expresses contingency and possibility, both life and death.

Now think back to what we have just been discussing in relation to populism. Do we really want to say that populism is always and everywhere a threat to democracy, something to be opposed or fearful of? Are there not moments or contexts where an appeal to the people versus corrupt or decadent elites might make sense in terms of saving democracy – from itself?

By contrast, are we really convinced that the appeal to the people is a necessary and constructive feature of politics, indeed something that we cannot avoid? Don’t we want to say, rather, that whether this appeal to the people versus the elites is to be celebrated or not depends on the position of the individual observer or participant in a vortex of political choices?

Though Podemos’s populist message resonated with many on the streets, it has led the party into trouble.
Paolo Di Tommaso/flickr

The emergence of a populist discourse in Spain accompanied a near-complete collapse in faith in the political elites. Millions of people flooded the streets in 2011 to protest against those who were inflicting austerity from the luxury of the presidential palace.

It was a manoeuvre pitched in the midst of well-documented examples of corruption, clientelism and cronyism – not to mention the extraordinary waste of public money on useless megaprojects that seemed to rub the noses of ordinary people in the dirt of their own powerlessness.

So the emergence of the populist Podemos and its potent message of “yes we [the people] can” chimed. However, it sounded a false note for others: fear of “charisma”, of leader-centred politics, and thus of the snuffing out and rendering irrelevant of the street protesters and micro-initiatives that had fostered the conditions for its creation in the first place.

The celebration of populism “from below” is mixed with an anticipation of problems to come – not least the cutting off of “the below” itself in a fanfare of triumphant, mediatised politics.

Consider too the emergence of France’s Emmanuel Macron, centrist saviour of the European project. Through clever semantics he countered the populist charge of Marine Le Pen with a neat populist manoeuvre.

Le Pen was the “parasite” living off the system she criticised, not he. He was the political outsider who had given up on the elites; she was the product of the elites – or least one part of it.

Emmanuel Macron as ‘Le Kid’.
Lorde Shaull/flickr

Macron was the figure untainted by association with the failed political order, while Le Pen reeked of stale battles and a lost France. He embodied France’s future, she its dark and gloomy past. Not a battle royale but a bataille Republican of Pharmaka.

But isn’t all this talk of outsiders and elites a little iffy stemming from someone who made millions as a banker with Rothschild? How long before this outsider rhetoric collides with the reality of budget cuts and labour market reforms?

Will it work?

Accepting the ambivalence of populism and pharmakon, so what? Why does it matter what kind of spin we put on the term?

Contemporary politics has by and large become a politics of reconstituting democracy after the collapse of the narrative of representation under which we have been living for at least two centuries. We have become less inclined to believe in the benign intentions of our representatives, of politicians.

We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people, and thus ourselves.

We seem inclined to believe those who set themselves up as defenders of the people against the elites, no matter how preposterous a gesture that is, and there are few gestures more preposterous than that of a billionaire property developer setting himself up as defender of the people against the elites.

We’re not quite sure what the “cure” entails: the election of the outsider (Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Geert Wilders) or the assumption of some non- or post-representative strategy that will reduce, if not eliminate, the distance between the people and political power (deliberative assemblies, wikidemocracy, liquid democracy).

We’re not sure if the cure, the exuberant outsider, will “work” and make life better, make America “great”, or whether it will kill politics stone dead.

We’re not sure if there is life after representative democracy, or whether some alternative model will work better or fail, leaving our world in tatters. But we are inclined to experimentation as the certainties that have sustained our politics for the past two centuries wither.

The ConversationWe watch the toxin descend with an admixture of hope and fear – populism: democracy’s pharmakon.

Simon Tormey, Professor of Political Theory and Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Votes for corporations and extra votes for property owners: why local council elections are undemocratic



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Undemocratic voting systems in local council elections are not limited to the City of Sydney.
AAP/Daniel McCullough

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.

This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.

It’s time for this to change.

Not just a Sydney problem

In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.

But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).

In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.

These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.

Time to catch up with Queensland

Queensland reformed its law on all of this in the 1920s. Alfred Jones, a Labor member of Queensland’s upper house, put it this way when advocating the change in December 1920:

We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.

Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.

And so, as my paper explains, in Queensland today you get to vote at local council elections if you can vote at state and federal elections. It’s that simple.

Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.

Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.

A kaleidoscope of different laws

The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.

In some states, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.

Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.

Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.

The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.

All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.

Local councils can’t fix this themselves

These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?

Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.

The ConversationThe good news is that there’s an easy way to make the change: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania can simply follow Queensland’s lead. It’s time for state parliaments to act.

Ryan Goss, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.