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From the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue
By David A. Andelman
In April, at an international conference in Palm Beach, I struck up a conversation with a senior adviser to ousted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It was barely six months after he was forced to resign in November 2011. “So what’s he doing now?” I asked politely. “Oh, he’s planning for his comeback,” the gentleman shot back with a broad grin. “And there’s no doubt he’ll be back.”
I didn’t think very much about this until June, when I was in Italy. The scene was the annual conference of the Consiglio per le Relazioni fra Italia e Stati Uniti (Council for the United States and Italy) in the dazzling Palazzo di San Clemente on an island off the Venetian mainland. The talk was all about the advances of Italy’s new Prime Minister, Mario Monti—a rather uncharismatic technocrat on whom Italians have placed all their bets, the sharpest possible contrast to his flamboyant playboy predecessor. “Oh yes, there’s no doubt Berlusconi wants to come back,” said one leading Italian businessman. “But the only way that will happen is if things get so bad with the present government that voters begin looking back on the Berlusconi era as the ‘good old days.’”
Then, in July, in New York, at a meeting of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, leaders of the two major Australian political parties expressed every confidence that each would be back in power soon. Tony Abbott, leader of Australia’s Liberal Party, the conservative opposition to the barely ruling Labor Party, believes he’ll be back within a year—when the ruling Labor folks, the equivalent of America’s Democratic Party or France’s recently elected Socialists, will be forced to go to the people in a new national election. Kevin Rudd, ousted as leader of the Labor Party in June 2010, thinks he’ll be back in power even before the next elections when his party’s leadership throws out Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has seen her popularity drop to record lows after a series of miscues.
Yet without question, Australia is unique, at least in economic terms, among the world’s developed nations. Unemployment hovers around 5.2 percent, three percentage points below the United States and far below most of Europe. That’s largely because of an all but unprecedented resource boom. The Australian dollar is as strong as the American dollar, which makes foreign holidays, not to mention imported appliances and automobiles, dirt-cheap for Aussies. Then there’s the dark side—domestic industries find it difficult to keep up, and many fear a shrinking Chinese economy, which buys so many raw materials from Australia but which is itself being held hostage to collapsing markets for Chinese products in Europe and America.
In Australia and across the globe, the problem is that many voters don’t see their future as much better than the past or present. “People are anxious—about what they often find it difficult to really articulate,” says Andrew Robb, a Liberal Party member of Parliament from Goldstein, just outside Melbourne, and the shadow finance minister. This means that if Abbott leads his party into power, he will become the nation’s finance minister. “We got through the global financial crisis fairly well. But the government built up a large debt. So now many people feel their jobs may be in jeopardy. True, in mining areas, in remote areas, lots of jobs are being created, but they’re being lost in cities, in industries. So lots of people are waking up at 3 a.m. worrying about whether they’ll have a job. There’s a growing level of anxiety. The government is really a minority government, which has led to a real lack of direction. Voters aren’t confident anyone is in charge.” Then, he continues, there are taxes—especially a hated carbon tax, whose “impact is as much psychological,” Robb observes. “With all the cost of living pressures and uncertainty swirling around in areas we can’t control, people can’t understand why, if the government had any empathy, they wouldn’t put off the carbon tax.” There is a perfect storm here, too, for a change at the top.
But economics is not be the only reason for change. In Mexico, voters brought back the ruling party that had governed, all but unquestioned for 72 years—the same one they’d ousted 12 years ago. The nation’s citizens want a modicum of confidence that someone will be able to end the carnage and corruption that has turned parts of their country into a bloody narco state.
Ah, fickle voters. Fickle, is that the word? Well, not exactly. Uneasy, would be more appropriate to today’s world—in desperate search for security and comfort about their future, which most voters in most countries have lost. If there is one element—all but unspoken in these contentious times in the United States and in most of the 24 other nations that will elect new leaders or 82 countries that will go to the ballot box this year—it is this desperate search for security that seems to motivate them more than any other need.
Disruption in today’s world seems to spring from several sources—economic and financial disruptions such as those that have spread across Europe; pitched battles between forces demanding change and those desperate to hold onto a status quo of repression and autocracy; and above all, fear that their nation or their community is insufficiently isolated from or inoculated against the forces of chaos and uncertainty. Only accelerating or intensifying these forces is a media landscape that allows instant confirmation of fears.
After more than four decades traveling the world in search of matters new or revolutionary, I have come to a simple, but ineluctable, conclusion. There is just one fundamental trend and one reinforcing dynamic driving society and politics, finance and development in today’s world. Whether we are speaking of democracies or dictatorships, change and its multiplier effect of contagion are motivating people and societies more profoundly than in any previous era.
For so long, many parts of the world were simply content to go along, to accept a status quo that allowed them a reasonably comfortable, tranquil existence while at the same time holding out hope for a future better than the past for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. That is no longer a reasonable expectation. Today, polling data in so many places suggest that voters—or if voting is not yet part of the political landscape, then citizens—no longer believe their lives will be any better in the future.
A remarkable poll conducted for the Russian website Slon.ru suggests that nearly two-thirds of all Russians are anxious for their children to make a life for themselves outside of Russia. This is across the political spectrum, from confirmed lifelong communists to the most liberal intelligentsia. Some 17 percent of all Russians are actively making plans to emigrate. To understand the remarkable nature of these figures, it’s essential to understand how deeply Russians are tied to the rodina—the Motherland. After Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author, was forced to emigrate, many critics say he never again published a truly important literary work. Outside of Russia without his rodina, he was sapped of his inspiration. Even today, many Russian Jews, who settled in what their religion suggests should be their real homeland—Israel—spend much of their time yearning for the nation they left behind and campaigning for freedom there, whatever form that might take.
In the late 1970s, I spent three years traveling through and reporting on the eight Central and Eastern European countries that comprised the communist bloc. In the first half of the 1980s, I spent considerable time reporting on the Soviet Union in its final throes, though we certainly had no idea of its imminent demise at the time. Though many believed fear stayed the tongues of most Soviet and East European citizens from expressing a desire to change their system or emigrate, I am persuaded that there was something else, more profound at play—a feeling very deep in everyone’s soul that directly mirrors the motivations of so much political change today. Back in the late 1970s and on into the 1980s, most citizens of the communist world believed, quite rightly, that their lives—at least in a material sense—were better than those of their parents or even their own lives when they were growing up. Increasingly, with the improvement of global communications, it was becoming quite clear that the grim, dour existence of the Soviet bloc was a far cry from the glories of the West. Yet even then, most believed such luxuries were either artificial or far beyond their capacities to attain. One KGB agent living and working in Paris told me shortly after the arrival of Yuri Andropov as Soviet leader that Andropov was the last great hope for the survival of the communist system since, having come up through the ranks of Soviet intelligence, he was one of the rare officials at the top who could really see the flaws of the communist system and find ways of fixing them without dismantling the entire house of cards. And this, without any form of free election, and without millions taking to the streets in protest.
Today, the reverse has taken hold in Russia. There is a transparency unequaled in world history—an immediacy of information about the performance of their government and the world that would have been unthinkable three decades ago when communism was in firm control. Moreover, it is clear to some Russians that while their lives are better than those of their parents or even of their youth, it is by no means clear that their children will be better off—politically, socially, or economically. So, while change may be difficult, if not impossible, at home, they can certainly vote—with their feet.
What is most startling, however, is that Russians are only the tip of the iceberg of global discontent and unease. A worldwide Gallup poll suggests that in a dozen countries, a half to two-thirds of the population would like to leave. According to the Gallup pollsters, the world’s least tethered population is in Sri Lanka where two-thirds of the population wants out. While it’s hardly surprising that 51 percent of Ugandans or Salvadorans would want to leave, if the 58 percent of Nigerians voted with their feet and fled, as they told the Gallup folks, that alone would set 94 million people loose from Africa’s most populous, and the world’s seventh largest, nation.
Most striking, however, is Europe where 27 percent of all Brits and Germans say they’d like to emigrate, though not surprisingly that figure falls to 18 percent of all French, most of whom consider it a life-changing trauma to move from the 16th to the 10th arrondissement of Paris—leaving behind their local dry cleaner, boulangerie, and café that they’ve known all their lives. Still, these folks who talked with the
Gallup pollsters would not simply be changing neighborhoods, but changing countries, languages, cultures, entire social constructs. They seemed willing, even eager to leave. Shocking? Hardly. Just look at the electoral results this year or the terrible economic plight where so many countries find themselves. People are seeing draconian new taxes, sharp cuts in traditional government services, and life savings or retirements in mortal jeopardy. It doesn’t seem much different from the days of the Irish potato famine that sent millions from the old sod to the New World between 1845 and 1852. During that cataclysm, some one million starved to death and another million left, most of them for the United States—a quarter of Ireland’s population gone. The pre-famine population of 8.2 million has never returned to that level, languishing, according to the April 2011 census, at 4.6 million (plus another 1.8 million in Northern Ireland).
Also little surprising today is the nation whose people are least likely to emigrate—Saudi Arabia where just 1 percent of the population wants to leave for a better, or at least different, life abroad. I spent nearly two weeks in Saudi Arabia in May under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University’s International Reporting Project, and I suspect that Gallup’s figure was little changed from my last visit six years ago. Life for most Saudis is quite congenial. While the official unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent for years, it does not reflect the on-the-ground reality in the Kingdom. Since unemployment is calculated as the percentage of the working population actively seeking employment, it ignores several realities of Saudi life. Many young Saudis are indeed under- or marginally employed—but largely because most think they can snag better jobs if they just hang out for a while. Meanwhile, they live at home and look casually for work or start up enterprises that enable them to collect unemployment benefits while they hack around on computers. One evening, we visited a family who lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood of Jeddah. The husband, the principal breadwinner, worked for Saudia airlines as a senior flight dispatcher. His son recently quit a job with Saudia and, together with a friend, was “developing websites and apps.” He thought he could get rich pretty quick doing that, but until then, he was living at home. A son of a quite prosperous owner of a luxury retail shop selling nuts and dates was working the cash register until he could decide whether he wanted to return to graduate study at a university in California. The list could go on and on.
That said, there are folks in Saudi Arabia for whom life is truly appalling. One evening, as four of us were driving to dinner, I sat up front with our driver. He was a young man from Lahore, capital of the Punjab province in Pakistan. Many of his fellow drivers, not to mention the bulk of other housekeepers, drivers, manual laborers, and other menial workers, are indeed lured here from such impoverished Muslim nations as Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, or Indonesia, at least contiguous in their faith with the society that employs them. Our driver was returning home in a few months for the first time in the two and a half years he’d been living and working in Saudi Arabia. “And then, after your visit, you’ll be returning here?” I asked. “Under no circumstances,” he replied, shaking his head firmly from side to side. “I would go any place in the world other than Saudi Arabia.” I was stunned at the vehemence of his statement. “Why?” I asked. “Because here, I am treated like a slave.”
Moreover, he has no way of changing these circumstances, except to leave. Yet most Saudis who responded to the Gallup pollsters have no interest in taking such a path at all. For them, life is not so bad. If we consider the ultimate test of the viability of a society or a government as whether life is better today than in the past and if it will likely be better in the future, Saudi Arabia is without question a test case for the positive. There is no real poverty, hunger, or want among Saudi citizens. The most menial tasks are performed by foreigners, effectively slaves, as our driver so eloquently attested. No Saudi would be caught dead collecting garbage or laboring in 110-degree heat building shopping malls or office towers, or even standing on their feet for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch serving coffee to Saudis garbed in thobes or abayas, sprawled languidly in hotel lobbies.
And there is very clear evidence of change—at least around the edges—while the most fundamental bases of society and stability, the nation’s bedrock, remains unshaken. So while Saudi women still can’t drive, they can and do receive first-class college education, albeit at an all -women’s college that is equal to the institutions of their male counterparts. Indeed, at least as many, if not more, women doctors are being turned out than men. Women just won the right to serve their female customers in some shops where they were long barred from employment —like upscale lingerie boutiques in the luxury malls of Riyadh and Jeddah. Bloggers are increasingly free to express their views online, though as it happens most of the leading bloggers I met expressed full support for the foundations of Saudi nationhood—king and religion. Indeed, for the first time, in the not too distant future, women will form part of the Shura Council, a representational body—of course only in an advisory capacity and most likely sitting separately from the men. The King still has the final say in every matter important to the state, society, even religion.
In Saudi Arabia, much of the population can say with full sincerity that their lives are at least as good as their parents’ and are likely to improve, if only slowly, for their children. At the same time, many governments are frantic, even desperate to insulate their nations, and their rule, from the contagion of rising, or falling, expectations that are the underlying revolutionary emotions where ruling elites are being ousted on the turn of a ballot box.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In other parts of the Middle East, as in much of Europe and vast stretches of Asia, the fear is not of the present but rather the future—the shape of new systems, new regimes, and the new emerging populations. Suddenly, vast numbers of voiceless, faceless individuals have found, or believe they have found, new and more powerful voices and an identity few ever thought possible a matter of months ago. In many cases, this takes the form of institutional change that seemed unlikely before the wave of revolutions began sweeping through the Middle East last year. For generations, the Middle East was a kaleidoscope of individual fiefdoms, some of whom had allied themselves with one or another of the super powers during the Cold War, others who’d played both ends against the middle, and still others who maintained a rigid isolation from each other and from the broader world and the currents that swept past or around them.
More than 30 years ago, on May 25, 1981, six of these states, all with some borders on the Arabian (not the Persian) Gulf and which had maintained a non-aligned or vaguely western-leaning focus during the Cold War—United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait—formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since then, it has not added a single member nor expanded its operations. Yet from the get-go, and with increasing intensity, it has been a vehicle for the hereditary rulers of these determined oligarchies to circle the wagons against any contagion of change from near or far. This mission has taken on ever-increasing urgency and has come into more immediate focus as the events of the Arab Spring began to unfold. Above all, there is the perpetual debate over just how the GCC should define its mission and how it should mobilize its unquestionably vast resources. Is it, for instance, a mutual defense pact against internal unrest or challenges to the supremacy of the families who rule them (all are still hereditary sheikhdoms or kingdoms, with cracks in these monolithic structures apparent only in one of their number—Bahrain)? At the same time, should it be marshaling its collective economic might, as many have individually and separately, to buy off their own people and nip in the bud any potentially unruly forces that could threaten their rule? Might these resources even be multiplied by welcoming new members who are contiguous in terms of geography, culture, ethnicity, and especially religion? Turkey and Iraq spring immediately to mind, though both pose serious geopolitical problems.
Iraq, for instance, is seen increasingly as a stooge of Iran—raising fears that are especially intense in Saudi Arabia, which by its economic, geographic, and petroleum muscle still dominates the GCC. Yet Iraq’s southern oil fields certainly give out on the Arabian Gulf and tap into the same subterranean pools shared by Eastern Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Saudi security officials I encountered on my last visit to Riyadh smirk quietly, if smugly, over their success in pushing homegrown terrorists across their common border into Iraq, then building a security wall along the entire frontier to keep them at bay.
As for Turkey, while certainly the most powerful and dynamic economy in the region, there is still a long residue of bitterness left from its dominance of the entire region for the six centuries when the Sultans of the Sublime Porte ruled from Constantinople over the Ottoman Empire. Still, Turkey is increasingly turning its face eastward, away from the Europe and the EU that has given it a cold shoulder during the quarter century it has officially sought membership. While watching a host of arriviste nations win full membership in the EU and then the euro zone, Turkey has remained outside, its nose pressed against the glass. Lately, of course, it’s having the last laugh as archrival Greece finds its economy melting down, threatening to take the entire Euro system with it, while Turkey’s economy booms.
In Riyadh, I had a chance to chat with a senior official of the GCC. He is aware of the deep, at times sharply divergent passions raised in the capitals of the member states by each of these issues. At the same time, it is quite clear the decisions will be made by a small group of rulers with barely a glance at any of the broader populations who might have their own distinct perspectives. Closer ties raise specters of spreading contagions. Saudi troops quickly moved into Bahrain at the first sign of rebellion by Bahrain’s population against its princely rulers—a troop movement that required little more effort than rolling some tanks and personnel carriers across the causeway that connects the two nations. But the Saudis have their own, mildly restive, Shiite minority population, many of whom have relatives across that same causeway and who the rulers in Riyadh want to keep happy, or at least passive.
Economically, there have been suggestions that a common currency, or at least a common banking system as a first step, might be an appropriate next move for the GCC. Yet how to achieve this without at the same time unleashing the types of centrifugal forces that are threatening to spin Europe apart? At the same time, there are the most basic questions of where to locate the central bank that would need to operate such a system and who would head it.
PACE OF CHANGE
Above all, what’s left of the autocratic, dynastic Middle East wants to do its best to keep things that way. Most of this region’s leaders, who vacation on the Riviera or the luxe ski resorts of France or Switzerland, have been looking with horror at the European voters frequent changing of horses in mid-gallop at the least hint of a threat to their tax structure or way of life.
“People want instant gratification from their leaders,” sighs Robb, the Australian parliamentarian. “Also there’s a real movement against spin.” He pauses to reflect. “Politics in the end is reconciling hundreds, if not thousands, of competing interests. The more you can put yourself in the shoes of prevailing interests, the better decisions you make over time. But above all, you’ve got to make sure there’s substance behind spin.”
Voters—or in the case of collapsing autocracies, would-be voters—around the world are losing patience with efforts by rulers, disconnected from their people, to retain power with empty promises or military force. Moreover, change for the sake of change is becoming a powerful aphrodisiac—witness voters in France turning out the right-wing regime of Nicolas Sarkozy to install the left-wing leadership of François Hollande, or the voters of Queensland in Australia shoveling out the 12-year-old Labor government, in the biggest rout in the history of Australia, relegating Labor to a tiny rump of seven members in the 89-member provincial parliament.
Ideologies these days seem to count for far less than simply a throw-the-bums-out mentality. The hoary phrase “all politics is local” has been supplanted lately, as Abbott put it to an audience of Americans and Australians recently, by the concept “all politics is personal.” No longer are voters prepared to simply go along and assume the future will be rosier. It won’t be. That model has been broken, possibly forever. “People live their lives and assume their representative will do their jobs,” Barry Jackson, chief of staff to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, told a delegation of Australians. “If they don’t, they go.”
But Robb had the final word in a private conversation the next day. For nine months every year, he crisscrosses his nation. His travels, he says, take him to remote cattle stations, “eight hours drive from anywhere.” And each night, he sits down with these people, and “they are hugely informed, they listen to news, read newspapers and magazines, days late, but cover to cover. And they have the immediacy of 24/7 bulletins, all on the Internet. Things are just moving so much faster than ever before.” People are not getting that instant gratification they desire, Robb believes. And that’s his party’s opportunity—as it has been for politicians around the world in these days of such rapid change. “If we don’t do anything silly, we’re a walk-in,” he concludes confidently. Until the next turn of the screw.
How can politicians inoculate themselves against the throw-the-bums out mentality? Robb believes it’s honesty, an all but revolutionary attitude for most politicos these days—“no spin.” Full disclosure, level with your constituents. Indeed this is the path to the kinds of freedoms that should be the litmus test of real value for every system of government, no matter what the vintage—venerable republics or the most newly nascent products of revolutions. Yet in the end, a tour of the world in this unprecedented electoral year suggests that it may be impossible for politicians at any level to protect themselves effectively against this revolving door mentality. Rather than cling to power at any cost, they should simply prepare themselves for the inevitable. After all, the moment one ruler or party is ousted, they go immediately to the on-deck circle to be returned to power once the ever-accelerating demand for change again wreaks its vengeance. Patience in the 21st century is very likely to be its own reward.
David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.
[Illustration by Damien Glez]