Democracy has no amnesia in Brazil, Ukraine and Tunisia
by Gwynne Dyer
Last Sunday was a busy day: three elections, in three different continents, all of them offering at least the hope of better times.
First, Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff eked out a second-round victory with 51.6 per cent of the votes versus 48.4 per cent for the challenger, Aecio Neves. But Neves was quick to acknowledge her victory, and she was equally prompt in admitting that things had to change. “Sometimes in history, close outcomes trigger results more quickly than ample victories,” she said.
Most people took that as an admission that she will have to give more attention to growing the economy and a little less to redistributing the proceeds. This will not come easily to her, for the great project of the Workers’ Party (PT) under both Rousseff and her iconic predecessor Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has been to raise the living standards of poor Brazilians. They have done very well at it, but there was a cost.
In only 12 years the PT governments have moved around 40 million Brazilians, one-fifth of the population, out of poverty. Brazil’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) has improved from 0.56 at the start of PT rule to 0.49 now. Such rapid change in Gini is practically unheard of — Brazil is now closer to the United States (0.47) than to China (0.61) — and it has transformed a great many people’s lives.
The overall economy grew fast when “Lula” was in office, but it has slowed almost to a stall under Rousseff. That is not surprising, for it is hard to persuade business to invest when you are busy redistributing income. Now Dilma will have to change her priorities and encourage business — without surrendering the improvements in the lives of the poor.
She seems to understand that, and if she can succeed in entrenching those changes while reviving the economy then she really will have changed Brazil for good. The voters have given her another four years to work on it, and that may be enough.
Secondly, Ukraine. The killing in the south-east has tailed off — only 300 dead in sporadic clashes around Donetsk in almost two months since the ceasefire, compared to 3,400 in the previous four and a half months — and the new frontier with the pro-Russian breakaway areas has solidified. That, plus the Russian annexation of Crimea, excluded some three million people from the vote, but for 36 million other registered voters the election went off quite peacefully.
The result was a landslide. “More than three-quarters of voters who took part in the polls gave strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine’s path to Europe,” President Petro Poroshenko told a news conference in Kiev. With half the ballots counted, his own Solidarity Party and the People’s Front led by his ally, former prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk, each had 21.5 per cent of the vote, with another pro-European party, Self Help, winning 11 per cent.
With the support of several smaller pro-European, pro-reform parties, a coalition government may even enjoy a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament and allow Poroshenko to pass his long-promised reform programme with little opposition. Pro-Russian parties that were allied with deposed president Viktor Yanukovich (who fled into exile with Russian help), running as the Opposition Bloc, got only 10 per cent of the vote.
Ukraine is not out of the woods. Russia can turn up the fighting again, or just keep its gas exports turned off and condemn the country to a grim winter. The economy is still shrinking and jobs are disappearing fast. But at least Ukraine will now have a government that is both legitimate and more or less united.
Last but not least, Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began — and just about the only one where it did not fail. The surprise there was that the secular Nidaa Tounes Party (Tunisia’s Call), formed only last year, out-polled the Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist party that led the first post-revolutionary coalition government.
Some kind of coalition will still be necessary, as neither party won half the seats in parliament, and it may be a broad coalition that includes them both. But there is a lesson here for Egypt, although it comes a bit late. As a member of Ennahda’s political bureau told the BBC, “This result is fine. I am not really surprised. Governments that are leading during a political transition are often punished at the polls.”
Egypt threw away its democracy last year, only one year after the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, won the first free election after the Egyptian revolution. President Mohamed Morsi was less tactful and more eager to impose his Islamic project on the country than Ennahda’s leaders, but he was not doing anything that would be irreversible after another election.
In Egypt, as in Tunisia, a second election would probably have seen the Islamist party evicted from power; all the disappointed secular leaders of the revolution had to do was wait. Instead, they made an alliance with the army to overthrow Morsi — and now the army rules the country again.
Elections are messy, divisive affairs, but they are far better than any of the alternatives.