We citizens of the United Kingdom are hardly in a position to lecture other countries on the fairness of their political systems. After all, in 1979, 56.1% of British voters voted against Margaret Thatcher and she still won an outright majority in parliament and the freedom to do whatever she pleased with the country for the next four years. In 1983, 57.6% of voters rejected her again, and again she got her big parliamentary majority and carte blanche in government for four years more. And in 1987 the anti-Thatcher vote was 57.8% and… You guessed it. She got her majority yet again and embarked on yet another term of having her evil way with poor old Britain. It seemed that despite most of us voting against her, we really couldn’t get enough of big bad Maggie.
Nonetheless, we still enjoy a chuckle at other countries’ voting systems and the unfeasibly large majorities they always seem to deliver to certain unsubtle and not-very-nice leaders. In Europe’s nastiest regime, Belarus, the super-unsavoury Alexander Lukashenko remained in power by winning 79.67% of the vote in the December 2010 presidential election – a cool 77.11% more than the percentage won by his closest rival, Andrej Sannikau, which was 2.56%. Nonetheless, Lukashenko was clearly upset about the fifth of the vote that he didn’t win, for he had Sannikau and six other presidential candidates arrested straight after the election. So they won’t try that again.
Over in central Asia, meanwhile, Uzbekistani president Islam Karimov stayed in power by winning 90.77% of the vote in his country’s December 2007 elections. Uzbekistan has the highest voting age in the world, incidentally – you have to be 25 before you can cross a ballot paper there. So while they have to live with a dodgy electoral system, Uzbekistanis are at least spared the gruesome sight of their president trying to chase the youth vote. (Unlike in Britain, where Gordon Brown cringingly claimed to be a fan of the Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron has enthused unconvincingly about the Killers.)
But even Karimov’s electoral success pales into insignificance compared with the figures recorded, allegedly, in North Korea. In August 2003, for instance, the late Kim Jong-Il and 686 fellow deputies were returned to the Supreme People’s Assembly with a turnout of 99.9% and with 100% of the votes in that turnout cast for them. Wow!
Still, when it comes to elections, even the world’s craziest dictators tend to stay within the bounds of mathematical possibility. They keep on the rational side of 100. As far as I know, for instance, not even Robert Mugabe has claimed a turnout of 106%, in which he won 137% of the vote.
That said, last week, I read on a news website about an astounding piece of voting magic that occurred at Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly. During a session on May 10th, 162 votes were cast regarding the complementary budget. This was in defiance of all known laws of physics, as there were only 146 members of the assembly present at the time.
So where did those extra 16 votes come from? Were they the result of an anomaly in Einstein’s theory of relativity? Were they an unforeseen consequence of string theory, or super-gravity, or M-theory? Or did someone just, you know, cheat? Alas, it transpired that the latter explanation was the case, for a number of members opposed to the majority Ennahdha Party were seen to vote twice. They pressed voting buttons belonging to absent colleagues as well as pressing their own. But according to Samir Betaib, a member of the PDM (Pole Democratique Moderniste) bloc that represents various centrist, socialist and republican parties, doing this was justified: “Some members leave their seats for some reason and ask their colleagues to vote for them.” In other words, voting twice when there’s really only one of you is fine and dandy.
I’ve criticised the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party before, especially for their apparent blindness towards the bullying antics of certain religious extremists. But Ennahdha’s opponents, who make much of their own, Western-style policies about gender equality, the separation of religion and state and the like, would be advised to remember that Ennahdha didn’t just win votes in the Tunisian election because they stood for an Islamic viewpoint. They were popular among many Tunisians because they seemed to be the party least tainted by association with the hated old regime of Ben Ali.
Whereas bending the rules in the manner demonstrated on May 10th suggests a contempt for fair-play – for democracy itself – that plenty of people would identify with Ben Ali and the bad old days of his autocratic and cynical rule. And all the secular and Western-style credentials in the world are not to going win Ennahdha’s opponents any friends if they ignore this fact.
If you want to vote on something, guys, make an effort to actually show up.