Democracy Lab

In 2014, It's Not Just About the Ballot Box

The year ahead will tell us a lot about the state of democracy around the world. But voting is just one part of the story.

I recently returned from a two-week trip to the West African country of Mali. It was my first visit to the place, and it was a remarkable experience. I was deeply impressed by the resilience and fortitude of a people who live in one of the poorest places on earth, and who are also justifiably proud of their success at maintaining an electoral democracy over the past two and a half decades. Among other things, I watched some of them vote in the last round of this year's parliamentary election -- quite an achievement after two years of turmoil, including a separatist rebellion in the north and a military coup that eliminated democratic government for a time.

One observation that's still bouncing around in my head comes from my meeting with Moussa Mara, a member of the government who's also the head of a nascent political party. When you chat with folks in Bamako, Mali's capital, you hear lots of disgruntled talk about the problems of the "political class." Most of that complaining is clearly justified. The people who tend to get elected to high office in Mali generally come from a small circle of a few dozen well-established families. The ruling elite is deeply corrupt, and those who challenge its authority are often co-opted into its ranks with promises of a share in the loot. (The rather benign-sounding term for this is "consensus politics.")

When I spoke with Moussa in his tidy office in a spiffy, Libyan-built government complex in the center of the capital, he spoke at great length about how his country's young people are disillusioned with the pace of change. We talked about the problem of corruption and how it can be fought. We discussed the problems of development in a country where many people still don't have enough food, schooling, or protection from infectious disease.

But then he surprised me: "The biggest problem of democracy is the absence of the Malian citizen." The people of his country, he said, are still hobbled by lack of education, the everyday struggle for survival, and alienation from the political process. Many of them still vote, but many of those who do aren't sure whom they're voting for or why. "I want to see citizens become more active," Moussa told me. "I want to see them demand more of their leaders."

I don't think Moussa was selling me a line. He's right: You can have all the elections you want, but they won't be worth the paper the ballots are printed on unless you have a citizenry that actually wants democracy. Yes, Malians are voting again. But back in March 2012, when disgruntled army officers chased the president out of office (and ultimately into exile), no one in the country took to the streets to support their elected government. Instead there was one big collective yawn. How strong is Malian democracy if its people don't really care about its fate?

I suspect that Mali will be in the back of my mind this year as we watch for the next indications of democratic change around the world. 2014 is already being billed as the "biggest year for democracy ever" by the Economist, which notes that 40 percent of the world's population will be voting in national elections. Bangladeshis have just voted; still to come are the people of Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, and the United States (along with several other less populous countries). That's a lot of ballots. But how much will the results tell us about the actual state of democracy in these countries?

They'll certainly reveal something. Elections are the bedrock of any genuine democracy; it's hard to imagine a democracy that's run by leaders who weren't chosen by their own people. But elections aren't enough on their own, either.

First of all, the quality of elections matters. There are plenty of tyrannies (see: Hitler, Stalin) that used votes to create the appearance of popular legitimacy. "Soft" authoritarian states often use elections as alibis for continued rule. (Last week's election in the putative democracy of Bangladesh, for example, certainly doesn't suggest that the leaders of the country's ruling party, the Awami League, were keen on allowing genuine political competition: members of the opposition party have now gone into hiding, apparently to evade the fate of the 18 people killed during election-related violence.)

Second, elections aren't an end unto themselves. They're supposed to result in transparent, accountable, and effective government. If they don't, it's likely that trouble is on the way somewhere down the road.

If elections aren't the only ingredient in the democratic recipe, what are the others? Democracy is scarcely viable in the absence of genuinely democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, relatively free media, and organized groups that reflect the varied needs and interests of community (that mysterious beast known as "civil society"). And you probably won't have sufficiently strong institutions unless there's a critical mass of engaged citizenry who are willing to fight for them.

There it is again, that word "citizen." In Egypt, three elections are set to take place in 2014 -- all of them under the sheltering hand of a vicious new military government that has dismissed all members of the Muslim Brotherhood as "terrorists." For the military, members of the Islamist party almost don't count as Egyptian citizens. When Mohamed Morsi and his fellow Muslim Brothers were on top, though, their actions suggested that they viewed Egyptians above all through the lens of faith: those who didn't share the religious ideas of the Brotherhood were left virtually without a say in the construction of the new, post-revolutionary state. Being a citizen was less important than being a believer.

Egypt isn't the only Muslim country facing potentially turbulent elections this year. Turkey, which is experiencing intense political instability thanks to last year's surprising protest movement and the current corruption scandal engulfing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist government, is preparing for what is likely to be a highly contentious national poll in August. Afghanistan's continuing ethnic and religious divides can actually make matters worse when expressed at the ballot box. But we can also expect to see a lot of tension when Thais head off to pick their leaders early next month. Thailand, too, is a country deeply split by religious and class identities (majority Buddhists versus minority Muslims, northern supporters of populist ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra versus Bangkok-centered elites). Bridging those gulfs will be crucial to the fate of democracy there.

It's in the places where citizens are prepared to mobilize, and to work actively to claim and realize their own rights, where the prospects for democracy are best. This week, Tunisian representatives are voting on a new constitution -- a process that, with the right outcome, could finally lead to a happy ending for the country that started off the Arab Spring. And despite the chaos enveloping the country, Libyans are still showing a remarkable willingness to take to the streets in protest against their leaders, to form civic organizations, and to continue open debates about their nation's course.

The big surprises for democracy will come in the places where citizens manage to mobilize effectively despite the odds. I doubt very much that 2014 will see a triumph of democratic culture in Russia or China. But I wouldn't be completely astonished to see dramatic change in Sudan, where bouts of unrest over the past two years have shaken the rule of President Omar al-Bashir. That's the funny thing about democracy: It has a knack for breaking out where you least expect it.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Desert Versus the Delta

Why democracy is good for the environment.

GUIDIO, Mali — I've just had the privilege of interviewing Hamadoun Touré, the mayor of a village deep in the heart of one of Africa's most sensitive environmental crisis zones. He's not a man who's easy to reach, but I'm not complaining. To get there, we started by driving for a full day from Bamako, the capital of the West African republic of Mali, to the provincial capital of Mopti. We spent the night there, and the next morning we got on a small boat that took us up the Niger River, another full day's journey.

It was an extraordinary experience. Chugging along at 25 miles an hour, our boat took us straight through the Inner Niger Delta, one of the world's most unique ecosystems. Look at a satellite image of this part of the world and you'll see a big green splash at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. This is where the Niger River (Africa's third-largest) loses itself in an immense braid of marshes, lakes, and canals, before emerging on the other side to continue its orderly way toward Nigeria. (At 18,000 square miles, the Niger Delta is about 25 times the size of the 734-square-mile Florida Everglades, the most prominent wetlands zone in the United States.)

We saw nomadic herders in a boat guiding a huge herd of swimming cattle across the Niger, a scene reminiscent of the Wild West. We passed the portable wood-and-thatch homes of fishermen who move from place to place in search of the next catch, and adobe villages that boasted mud-colored mosques with spiky towers that looked as if they'd been dripped from wet sand. We didn't see any of the hippos, African manatees, or electric eels that are known to frequent the waters of the Delta. But we did see monkeys, monitor lizards, and an astonishing variety of birds, evidence of the extraordinary biodiversity of the place.

So you can see why I didn't mind the effort involved in reaching Mayor Touré. I finally caught up with him in the village of Guidio (pronounced GEE-jo) on the shore of a lake at the northern edge of the Delta, where we talked about the complicated relationship between democracy and the environment. At this time of year, when the water in the Delta is high, the village (pop. 5,500) can't be reached by car; it has neither electricity nor running water. Despite its remoteness, though, Guidio finds itself at the front lines of the global fight to safeguard the Earth -- a challenge with which the mayor and his constituents grapple every day.

I started off by asking the mayor to explain what people in his community are most concerned about. His first answer: "Poverty." His second: "Wood." People in this part of Africa rely on wood to fuel their fires, and they also need it to build homes (usually made here of adobe applied to a framework of branches). But years of uncontrolled cutting, combined with climate change, have devastated the forests that once surrounded Guidio. As a result, the sands of the Sahara Desert, which used to start many miles north of the village, have now moved right up to its edge. They know that their community's past practices have contributed to the desertification that threatens them, and they're trying to change. But they're desperately poor, so they're struggling to find alternatives.

The villagers' plight might sound exotic and remote, but it's actually our problem too. The Niger Delta is under severe pressure. As we traveled through it, I was struck by how densely populated the area is: everywhere we went, there was someone in a boat or on the shore. 1.4 million people -- fishermen, farmers, nomadic herders -- depend on the Delta's water, grass, and fish for their livelihoods, and overuse has been taking its toll. The five countries along the Niger's course have all been taking out as much water as they can for irrigation and drinking, and demand continues to rise. And then there's climate change. To Mayor Touré, who has spent a lifetime watching rainfall shrink and shorelines recede, this isn't a bone of ideological contention -- it's a palpable reality.

Losing the Delta would certainly destabilize Mali, since those 1.4 million people (in a country of 15 million) would suddenly find themselves desperately looking for new livelihoods -- something that this country, already one of Africa's poorest, really can't afford.

And not only for economic reasons. Last year, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis managed to seize control of the country's north (an area the size of France). The prospect that this rogue territory could become a sort of Taliban state in the center of West Africa so unnerved the government in Paris that French President Francois Holland dispatched a contingent of his own troops to Mali to put an end to the rebellion. Experts pointed out that one factor contributing to the revolt was a recent spate of drought that exacerbated the area's longstanding economic problems.

The Delta reminds us powerfully of the world's interconnectedness.

Bakary Kone, of the environmental organization Wetlands International, says that one recent study shows a remarkably precise correlation between the steady decline in the population of purple herons summering in Europe each year and the decline of water levels in the Delta, where most of the birds winter and breed. Dozens of species of birds, animals, and fish have already disappeared, says Kone.

That overlaps with the personal experience of Mayor Touré, who notes that older people in the area can recall the days when lions, hyenas, and jackals still lurked in the now-vanished woodlands. "Many kinds of birds and fish have gone," he says.

So what does all this have to do with democracy? A lot. Mali prides itself on the resilience of its democratic institutions -- something that's much more typical of contemporary Africa than you might expect.

  Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were.

Twenty-four years ago, three African countries were democracies; last year, 19 were. The mayor, himself an elected official, believes that there's a lot that local people can do to revive the Delta's beleaguered ecology -- but only if they can agree on what needs to be done. That, he says, requires constant discussion among everyone in the community -- among all concerned "stakeholders," as humanitarians would put it. And in fact, local democratic institutions help to build consensus. "Whatever the local assembly decides, people have to abide by it," explains Mayor Touré.

The villagers are desperately trying to learn from past mistakes by doing what they can to resuscitate the Delta's ecology. They're participating in schemes to restore the Delta's native swamp grass as well as replanting trees. Several international nongovernment organizations, including Wetlands International and the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are helping out with advice, organizational assistance, and some funding. Mali's democracy allows plenty of civil society activity, in contrast, say, to Russia, where these foreign NGOs would not even be allowed to help.

Key among those efforts are projects helping locals supplement their livelihoods in ways that don't degrade the Delta. IUCN, for example, gives training and microcredits to women to help them start small businesses (in animal husbandry, for example). Touré praises the community's elected representative to the national parliament, who, he says, has done a good job of making the central government aware of the region's problems.

Otherwise, though, the government in Bamako is conspicuous by its absence -- or its corruption, a notorious problem in Mali's system of governance. Politicians in the capital, for example, have signed off on opaque deals that hand over thousands of square miles of arable Niger Delta land to foreign companies (South Africa and Saudi Arabia).

Even high-ranking bureaucrats say they've never been apprised of the details behind the agreements. Kone says that thousands of people in the Delta have already been forced off the land, which will now be used to consume precious resources and grow food for people in places most Malians will never have a chance to see.

Perhaps the most notorious agreement was drawn up between Mali's ex-president Amadou Toumani Touré and the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. The contract set aside 250,00 acres (roughly 391 square miles) of good Delta land (and the water that came with it) to grow produce for Libyans. But Qaddafi's death in the 2011 revolution and Touré's fall from power in the military coup that derailed Malian democracy for a time last year have left that deal in tatters. The Chinese engineers who had already started digging a canal to divert water to the Libyan agro-complex have fled, and the project has since been abandoned.

What's happening with the other land deals in the wake of Touré's death remains unclear. Yet what's evident is that Mali and its environment need more democracy, not less. Accountability and transparency can't solve all the Delta's problems, to be sure; many of the factors involved are much bigger than Mali alone can handle. And finding proper jobs for the region's people, in a country that's still one of the poorest in Africa, is a gigantic challenge.

Still, shining light on the government's books -- especially where the vast flows of foreign aid to Mali are concerned -- would be a great place to start. It would also be good news for the Delta, which might then begin to see more of the public services and benefits it's been promised over the years. But it's not only Malians who should be worried how the story turns out.

FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images