As the election campaigns of the major parties kick off, our own Electoral Commission should take inspiration from its counterpart in Tunisia, and in particular from this fantastic piece of street theatre aimed at getting people out to vote. It begins with the sudden appearance on a suburban building of a huge portrait of the hated former dictator, Ben Ali. Watch what happens next.
Here in New Zealand, the best piece of election ‘advertising’ so far is still this terrific effort a few weeks ago by Danyl at the Dim-Post.
It also provides an effective counter to John Key’s observation that Phil Goff isn’t being featured in Labour’s election advertising. Big deal. So Labour has decided not to run a presidential style campaign, nor to play to Key’s (only) strength. Not many voters would object to an election campaign based on policies, rather than on personality packaging.
Those policies will indicate how little has changed. In 2002, the National Party’s then leader was similarly being eclipsed in the polls by a popular Prime Minister. “Enough of the phoney war,” a defiant Bill English said in his 2002 campaign opening speech, “this week we are into the real campaign and the real issues. We’ve had the best export conditions in 30 years, [but] we peaked at 3% growth. Business confidence is falling as commodity prices fall and interest and exchange rates rise.” Sound a bit familiar?
A lot of people, English lamented in 2002, were trying to get ahead and needed better incomes. People with student loans wanting to buy a house, English complained, needed an income big enough to pay off the debt, buy a house and get set up, and so did people working for only $12 an hour. “I want world class education for every child and a world-class health system for our older people. And [the economy] won’t catch us up to Australia because even now we are still falling behind. And more committees won’t fix it.” etc etc. You get the picture.
Back in 2002, National were trying (and failing) to get the campaign to focus on the policy failures of the incumbent government. Quelle irony. “Our economic policy,” English ranted back then, “ isn’t for the few…” Perhaps the Bill English of 2002 should get hold of the current Finance Minister and ask him why voters are still facing exactly the same problems, three years into his tenure.
Hamid Karzai, the corrupt, election-thieving ruler of Afghanistan that our government is happy to send our troops to die in his defence, reportedly gave an interview last weekend where he said that if it came down to war between the US and Pakistan – over Pakistan’s provision of sanctuary for the Haqqani network leaders of the Taliban, and US violations of its territorial integrity – his government would fight for Pakistan, against the US.
To Pakistan, the real long term threat is India, not Afghanistan. It has correctly calculated that in the ongoing struggle with India, it needs Afghanistan as an ally. Pakistan has also correctly assumed that the Taliban will be the next leaders of Afghanistan, so why fight that inevitability? Why not get and stay onside with the likely winners ? That’s why Pakistan’s security service has been training and equipping some of the Taliban’s suicide bombers.
This piece of realpolitik means that the only people fighting the Taliban are the US and gormless allies such as John Key. That poses an interesting dilemma for our defence and foreign policy. Here we have the leader of the government that we are defending, warning the US that it regards the Americans as the enemy in any conflict with Pakistan.
Does Key feel the same way about the US being the regional enemy? And if he doesn’t, shouldn’t he be ordering our troops to stop training the Afghan fighters that could potentially be used against the US, and bring our soldiers home right now? Yet as things stand, Labour and the Greens are the only parties who are promising to bring the troops home straight after the election.
The victory of the moderate Muslim party Al Nahda in the Tunisian elections is a triumph for the democratic forces of the Arab Spring, and fittingly, it has occurred in the very country where it all started. There’s an indirect link to New Zealand here, too.
Bennabi also happens to have been the mentor of the Algerian refugee, Ahmed Zaoui. The same gospel of moderation that Zaoui learned from Bennabi is now at the forefront of the Arab Spring.
I’ve written about Bennabi before, in 2007.
Back then, Bennabi’s belief in a fusion of democracy and Islam seemed impossibly utopian and the by-product of a doomed and idealistic period in Algerian history in the 1960s, just after independence. Now, it is actually being put into effect next door to Algeria, in Tunisia. This is not merely a victory for the modern, moderate forces of the Arab Spring. It marks a further setback for the jihadist arguments of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual foundation, and the acknowledged inspiration for the jihadists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
The spotlight will now fall on Bennabi’s writings as the blueprint for a modern fusion between Islam and democracy. In 2007, I put it like this:
Democracy, Bennabi believed, could not be imposed or imported. It needed to include and recognize all dimensions of Algerian society, rural minorities and urban elites alike. Democracy was to be regarded as a culture, a virtue – not just a voting process – and it would evolve in a three-stage process. We realise God in ourselves, Bennabi wrote, we see Him in others, and then we act accordingly in social and political space.
The necessary conditions for democracy could only be fostered through education and experience – and Bennabi invoked all the Koranic verses that support free speech, women’s rights and minority rights to make that point. Unless people can realise democracy in their own hearts and local communities, he believed, Islamic democracy would never succeed in avoiding the forms of exploitation commonly found among democratic Western societies organised by the values of secular humanism. As he once pointed out: “An order that bestows a ballot and allows a man to starve is not a democratic order.”
Even before the election outcome, Ghannouchi had signalled his intent to ask secular opposition parties into his government. He has said he has no intention to ban bikinis or alcohol, and cited Turkey as a successful example of the moderate Islamist state he has in mind. As for the hijab, Ghannouchi said on the campaign trail that wearing this would be voluntary : “We are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam and we are against the banning of the headscarf in the name of secularism or modernity.” Each party contesting the election had a 50 % quota of female candidates on its party lists.
And the Electoral Commission in Tunisia even made a virtue out of the country’s problems:
The election commission deployed 50,000 people to work in 8,000 polling stations. About 20,000 of them were unemployed university graduates — joblessness is one of the biggest problems in Tunisia and was at the heart of the uprising — and observers said they were highly motivated.
Now for the hard part of governing the country and improving the lot of all. Just as it ignited the Arab Spring, Tunisia is now a laboratory or social reform in North Africa. Newly liberated Libya will be taking notes, while the repressive regime in Algeria has good reason to feel nervous.