GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) – The surging crisis in Iraq and battles over democracy in Arab Spring nations have exposed the failure of the international community to help lay political foundations, a top official says.
In a wide-ranging interview, Anders Johnsson said global players have repeatedly got the recipe wrong by seeing elections as the end of a process rather than the beginning.
Johnsson, a Swede, heads the International Parliamentary Union, a grouping of 164 legislative chambers that seeks to improve representative democracy worldwide.
He retires on Tuesday, after 16 years at the helm.
“I have seen this time and time again,” Johnsson told AFP, saying the international community pours billions of dollars into paving the way for free elections but fails to help newly-crafted parliaments find their feet.
“There is a tendency to look upon elections to a parliament as a means of justifying or legitimizing a government and to forget the rest,” he said.
“But parliamentary institutions are where all parts of society are supposed to have a say in how government policies are conducted,” he added.
He echoed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has said Iraq and other crisis zones should rethink their governance in order to defuse community tensions before they spill over.
Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have launched an all-out assault on the country’s Shiite-run central government.
The latter has ruled since dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted by a US-led coalition in 2003.
The crisis has strained the already-complex ties between Iraq’s three main communities: Shiite and Sunni Arabs, and Kurds.
In Egypt, democratically-elected Islamists were ousted last year by the military, firmly back in control of government and overseeing a sweeping crackdown.
Libya, meanwhile remains gripped by community tensions and Tunisia has also faced instability.
Power ‘taken for granted’
“Since the beginning of this Arab Spring, I have been stating very strongly to all the leaders concerned that they should listen attentively and carefully to the voices of people,” Ban said last week in Geneva.
“A large part of this problem comes when the leaders, when they are elected or they are given this mandate, take it for granted,” he said.
“But legitimacy comes from elections as well as good governance, and respecting human rights, and reaching out to all the people, whatever their ethnicity or religion,” he added.
Ban warned that groups with a grievance are a breeding ground for extremism.
Johnsson said a radical shift was essential, and that established democracies should offer a helping hand without laying down the law.
“There has to be a different way of doing politics and of making sure that the day after the elections, we still have an inclusive process worth its name that is allowed to function, that is given the support to be able to function,” he said.
“One problem is that this is seen to be too political, because people say, ‘But then we’ll get involved in political processes’,” he explained.
“It’s also because it’s expensive. These things don’t come cheap,” he said, adding that investment was worth it if global stability was the return.
In addition, governments can be reticent to take help because strong parliaments act as a brake.
Failings are also clear in established democracies, Johnsson said, pointing to the populist mood in crisis-afflicted Europe.
Voters sense little change despite elections and feel out of touch with an increasingly professionalized political class, he said, blaming parties for narrowing their candidate pool.
“And then leaders, I’m not so sure that they really understand what citizens think about the process. I think there is a real, serious issue here,” he warned.
He also condemned lobbyists.
“We have run completely out of spin and it is essentially money that rules, and big money at that,” he said.
“We have hardly drawn any real lesson from the crisis that took place in 2008 and we are nowhere near creating a better world than we were before the crisis hit,” he added.