UK General Election: The Case for Transforming Political Institutions

by Elbay Alibayov | Politics & Policy

General election in any country, let alone in the United Kingdom, is closely followed by observers from all walks of life. Among many other interests, it is one central subject of political risk analysis. This year’s election appears to pose yet another risk from within—as the analysts claim, the Risk of a UK Hung Parliament: “This Thursday, British voters will finally cast their ballots in what has been a short and chaotic campaign. While the snap election had earlier been forecast as the likely collapse of the Labour Party, the position of Labour has significantly improved as the Conservatives have made several missteps. Labour has recovered from its 20+ point deficit and, depending on the pollster, is now behind somewhere in the low single digits. A leftwing alliance between the Greens, SNP, and Labour has been discussed earlier, though none of the parties have made major moves in that direction. Markets are beginning to become concerned about the possibility of a hung parliament.” Markets should worry not. To the contrary, as I argue in this piece, the hung parliament is the best possible outcome – for the British political system, in the medium and long term.

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There is a claim in social sciences that luck opens space for agency—which means that key critical junctures (such as leadership change, whether through gaining independence and coups or by means of referendums and elections in democratic systems) where accidents determine which leaders prevail have long-term implications for a country’s future though a certain governance systems set and policies and reforms implemented. They cite newly independent South Asian (think of India vs. Pakistan) and African countries to prove the point: some were fortunate, like Botswana, to have pro-democracy reformists while others got authoritarian rulers (as in Zimbabwe) and dictators (take Congo)—and the rest followed from this point on.

Sounds interesting, but I do not think that it explains the interplay between all the factors involved. Against the African post-colonial example, I will offer the case of post-Soviet states. The republics which tended towards authoritarian rule and had corruption embedded in public administration even at the Soviet times remained authoritarian and with systemic corruption when they became sovereign states (take Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan). At the same time, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania got leaders who immediately put their countries on the path of democratic reforms and European integration.

The difference is easy to explain. The former group of countries have not had a meaningful period of market economy or democratic governance in the past, and the tendency towards tribalism or authoritarian rule has been characteristic there before becoming the part of Russian Empire centuries back. The Baltic states, to the contrary, have had a certain period of democratic governance in the twentieth century, and long established practices of checks and balances. Therefore a lot depends on the political culture and tradition—in other words, on political institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour” (in Samuel Huntington’s definition).” Leaders matter, but whatever change-oriented they are not aliens but rather products of political culture and the prevailing public mood.

Consider the last presidential elections in the United States. Was it sheer luck that Donald Trump won the contest in 2016, or the electorate was ready to embrace someone who would not shy away from criticizing the political system (being “anti-establishment”), who would spell their anger at inequality, address their concerns and grievances?

The fact that Hillary Clinton, a strong establishment representative, was selected as a Democratic Party nominee was rather disruptive decision, considering the prevalent mood across the country (which itself is a manifestation of processes that are running deep in the American society but have not been appreciated, for long time). Bernie Sanders better reflected the general public’s (especially the young generation’s) aspirations and attitudes, and it is my opinion that the entire election campaign (ugly, negative and divisive as it was) and its outcome (shocking to many so much that even today they refuse to recognize the results and to accept the winner as a legitimate president) and the US policies today could have been different (for better or worse) if Mr Sanders was given an equal support from the Democrats so that he could be Mr Trump’s rival in 2016.

Therefore I think that Donald Trump became president not because of some abstract luck at the ballot boxes or some technical mistakes made by Hillary Clinton’s team, but because he was lucky that the Democratic Party was so narrow-minded to nominate a candidate destined to lose due to gross mismatch with the prevailing public mood. Luck is still in game, but its role is clarified, along with other critical factors.

And this brings us to the general election in the United Kingdom.

Among many changes experienced by humanity due to globalization and technological revolution, there is one thing that I find profoundly troubling—we are becoming lazy. At my primary school times the only instrument to help with the math was abacus; that is why people of my generation generally are good in calculating, especially when compared to next generations which were allowed to use calculators at class. The same goes for elections—instead of talking to people and analyzing the contexts we simply rely on what pollsters would say. With all due respect, they frequently get it wrong (at least this was the case in the last election and the Brexit referendum). And what is shocking is that it appears that instead of keeping their finger on the constituency’s pulse through continuous engagement and reflections, the modern politicians also follow the polls to guess what is going on out there (at least the reaction of politicians to results not predicted by polls indicates of that).

I also follow the polls, and what I see this time is confirming my analysis—that Britain is firmly heading towards a “balanced” parliament (meaning no total dominance of any one party, the hung parliament being an ideal). Paradoxically, and perhaps for the first time in modern history, the hung parliament is the best outcome to expect from the general election this year. Because it is the only situation which demands the coalition building (if not “national unity”, at least demands more search for a common ground) and independently of who runs the government they cannot impose their will because of the sizeable opposition (especially important to reinforce checks and balances) in place.

That’s exactly what Britain needs to safely navigate a dual task of Brexit negotiations, on the one hand, and (re)establishing own bilateral and multilateral relations with the rest of the world (new tactical and strategic partnerships), on the other. Such a complicated endeavour demands a high degree of inclusiveness and consolidation, whereas it is apparent that the country (whether its political system or elites) is not ready for that, for a variety of reasons.

On the one hand, the British political system, its institutions are hopelessly outdated—so much that merely cosmetic or even not deep-enough reforms won’t do. For a long time Britain stood as an example of uninterrupted democratic governance with unique combination of localised features (such as monarch being the head of state, absence of a codified constitution, and a common law) which were interpreted as its ability to flexibly evolve, adjust to the changing environment while preserving its authenticity. Today, this system shows signs of decay; its public administration is plagued by inefficiency and incompetence (from policy to service delivery, and top down).

There is a need for fundamental, constitutional reform, and it has been evolving for quite some time. Britain’s membership in the European Union did not slow-down this process of decaying but somehow enabled it to go unnoticed—British politicians made it their golden rule (or an universal excuse) to blame Brussels for any failure at home, thus turning the spearhead of public criticism away from themselves. This game could not go forever, as the problems were mounting irrespective. Now, when the UK has opted to play solo, there is nobody to blame for the failures except for the national government.

Second and related is that the identity of the British political elites is outdated; it is out of touch with reality for quite a long period of time. They still appear to feel and behave like their predecessors did a hundred years ago, when Britain was the most powerful empire on the face of the earth. The world has changed since then; and there have been milestones, like each of world wars, end of colonial rule, new globalization, economic and social processes especially evident in the last, post-crisis decade etc. And here is the problem that they have not been appreciated as the incentives for adjustment. The shock of EU leaders at the behaviour of Prime Minister Theresa May as “delusional” is not accidental—it shows the big gap between the self-identity of British political class and the reality.

Everyone talks about economic effects of Brexit while in fact the reform of economic institutions is reliant on the reform of political institutions. They define the economic institutions, not the other way around. And the political reform is not going to happen (even if undertaken) overnight—it is an inherently cultural process, it will take generations to change the identity from one of self-centered “exclusiveness” to realistic and more inclusive one. It will also allow bringing political parties from the entire spectrum into the fore (environmentalists, leftists, social-democrats, conservatives, nationalists) so that to reflect the aspirations of all social groups, big and small.

In other words, inclusiveness is not luxury; it is demand of the day. The two-party rule does not meet this reality—the world today is much more diverse to be decided on a binary code of Left/Right (problems of the US point to and partly originate from the stiffness of this set-up). It acts more and more as a barrier, not enabler of change and evolutionary adjustment—the capabilities which define a system’s resilience.

Britain is indeed at its key critical juncture today. And it does not matter anymore, whether the citizens decided to leave or to remain in the EU, at the ballots a year ago. What matters is what you do with what you have got. And in order to get the best outcome for the British people, the political system has to start reforming. Inclusive government (whether through hung parliament and coalition government or/and a broad opposition alliance) can be the first step in this direction.

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Iran: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future

by Elbay Alibayov

In his recent article, Iran at a Crossroad in 2017, my former colleague Jose Luis Masegosa (who I had a privilege working with at the OSCE in Bosnia) analyses the internal political dynamics in Iran, viewed through the lenses of the forthcoming presidential elections scheduled for May, 2017. This is a timely attempt to look closely at one of the critical events to follow this year. The outcome of the election has a potential to influence not only the internal policies of Iran but to shape political and security processes much beyond its geographic boundaries–including geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East region and the global security arrangements, for many years to come.

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Mr Rouhani attends a congress on 2017 Presidential elections, 25 February 2017

The Complexity of Iranian Politics

To understand the intricacy of developments in Iran, one has to employ the notion of complex systems. The complexity here derives from “multiple actors pursuing a multiplicity of actions and initiatives at numerous levels of social relationships in an interdependent setting at the same time. Complexity emerges from multiplicity, interdependency and simultaneity.” Sounds as something overwhelming, does it not? But that is not all. What makes the analysis and political forecasts even more difficult is that, being a complex system in and by itself (it is enough to note that Iran is a theocratic state with quite a significant modern democratic element in its constitution), Iran is a key component of another, highly complex system that is Middle East and North Africa region. And all of this at the most volatile and uncertain time in decades when the old, post-Second World War global governance is no more effective, while a new world order has yet to take its final shape.

In such a setting, it is important to understand the drivers (ideas and motivations) and decisions taken in each component by its multiple agents; but, even more importantly, the interaction between those connected yet still independently varying components—such as internal political processes in Iran and its neighbouring countries (particularly its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also increasingly Turkey); proxies and proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen; and foreign policies and regional ambitions of such global players as the United States and Russia; along with non-state actors that seem to become regular players, such as Islamist militants and terrorist organisations (in first hand, al-Qaeda and ISIL).

Internal Rivalry and the Influence of Externalities

The article of Jose Luis Masegosa focuses on the internal politics of Iran, particularly on the rivalry between pro-reform forces led by the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and principlist conservative groups (frequently referred to in Western literature as “hardliners”) close to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamanei. The outcome, whatever seemingly favourable for the former forces, is vastly unclear at this point in time, and I dare to guess, will remain so up until the Election Day (which seems to be new normal, if to consider the recent Brexit and US Election 2016 surprises). As the author points out, it will largely depend on the Middle East policy of new US administration and its commitment to respecting the nuclear agreement (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed between Iran and six world powers back in 2015.

So far, the indication of the future policy of Trump administration point to rather hard line against Iran (but not necessarily dismantling the JCPOA; at least not so overtly) and more reliance on its rivals–Saudi Arabia led coalition of Arab Gulf States and Israel. This has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, where both reformists and conservatives are closely following each and every statement of the new US President and his defence and security aides. And in the meantime, both camps are getting prepared for an epic battle at the ballot box, in a couple of month period.

While President Rouhani puts maximum effort in getting as much as possible benefits from the opportunities opened up thanks to the nuclear deal and in demonstrating some tangible economic improvements, his opponents are consolidating their ranks: Last week,  the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces, a coalition of conservative groups,  has nominated ten “semi-finalists” for a single candidate (among them such prominent figures as Astan Quds Razavi Foundation Head and Assembly of Experts member Ebrahim Raisi; Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaee; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; senior former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; and former parliamentarian Ali Reza Zakani).

Generational Shift

One of interesting points made in the article of Jose Luis Masegosa is that this year’s election occurs in the broader environment of generational change in Iran. In terms of demographics, the fact that 60 percent of the country’s population are the young people under 30 years of age means that majority of polity, and thus significant part of the voter base, are people who were born in the Islamic Republic and do not have a point of reference to the Shah regime. Another observation of the author related to generational shift is that the leadership of Iran that has been comprised of politicians who ran the 1979 Revolution and established the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is shrinking—the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the latest loss among the old guard.

Whether present political elite (including theocratic leadership and the Supreme Leader himself) will be replaced in the coming years by more moderate politicians or by more aggressive actors (such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the younger cohort remains largely uncertain, and will depend on a host of internal and external factors and their combination and interplay at any given point in time. That is what complexity is about… so do not believe anyone who claims that they know what is going to happen in the next year—they are either manipulators or totally ignorant (or both).

How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

At a Junction Point

What is possible to say with certainty though, is that this year’s election in Iran come at the moment when both internal political processes underway and changes in regional and global political order have gained a magnitude which may turn it into make-or-break event for the Iranians. This reminds me of an interview given by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in 1961. Reflecting on the power of national unity at moments when the nation’s destiny is shaped, he has observed: “Twice in my reign I have seen Iranians rise up when all seemed lost… once during the Azerbaijan crisis [1946] and again in 1953 with the Mossadegh affair. … it was like telepathy—a kind of human antenna. The whole nation acted as one to save its past and its future.”

Ironically, in less than two decades the same very national unity challenged his power, effectively ending the longest lasting monarchic rule on the face of Earth. It seems that Iran is approaching yet another such junction point in its millennia long history of statehood. How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

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