Saturday, February 12, 2005

Elections, Elections

This past week voters in Saudi Arabia cast their first ballots since 1963, in a story overshadowed by the afterglow of the Iraqi elections. A victory for the Bush doctrine? Not quite...

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 10 -- Saudi Arabia began its tentative experiment in democracy Thursday as thousands of men filed into schools, government offices and streetside tents to cast what for many were the first votes of their lives.

At stake were half the seats on 38 municipal councils throughout greater Riyadh, politically powerless positions responsible for the nuts and bolts of city government. But the mix of exuberance and solemnity inside many polling places suggested that the unusual act of voting was more important than the results.

Predictably, in Saudi Arabia the concept of the "voter" is a bit more restrictive than in most other countries, as the franchise is limited to male, native-born Saudis (thus excluding the migrant workers who make up 20% of the Saudi population). And, as the Post article says, the offices actually being determined by the election are all positions in local government.

But I can't help feeling that this could be the start of something important. I think the history of Iran in the 90s demonstrates how small concessions to democratic reform can wind up snowballing, even in the most stultifyingly authoritarian societies (although recent Iranian politics has seen a plateauing if not a slight reversal of this trend). I think that the United States is going to have an opportunity to influence the odds of something similar happening in Saudi Arabia in the coming decade, by our ability to pressure the Saudi royal family for further steps along the road of democratization. This will have to be done incrementally - democratizing all functions of local government before demanding popular representation on the national level, for instance.

Of course, Washington may well decide, as it has in the past, that it would rather live with the corrupt Saudi oligarchy than risk giving political Islamists - the likely winners of any elections in the near future, as well as last Thursday's - a say in the government. It's in the context of this worry - fear of fundamentalist political parties - that the Saudi government's decision to democratize solely local government seems particularly apt. The key factor here is that political Islamist movements have shown a real tendency to burn out once they're given an opportunity to enact their domestic agenda. Look at Iran again, and Afghanistan. Once the Islamic Republic and the Taliban were unable to use war as an appeal to nationalism (after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and once the ethnic minority warlords of the Northern Alliance were marginalized in the late 90s), the Islamist governments of these two states plummeted in popularity. Simply put, political parties that want to govern a 21st century country like it's the era of Heraclius and the Sassanids aren't going to endear themselves to people who want economic prosperity. Giving Saudi Islamists the opportunity - but only on a local level - to demonstrate that they can be every bit as corrupt and ineffective as the royal family could very well mute the appeal of political Islam, without the risk of tearing the whole country apart.


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