Democracy has become a popular ploy of dictators to gloss their jaded image. Musclemen around the world are donning civilian plumage in preference to their military uniforms and presenting themselves as less obnoxious creatures. This is particularly true in the Muslim world.
At virtually two extremes - Indonesia and Algeria - military dictators are going through this exercise in futility. But they know that they can fool the people; or, at least brow-beat them into submission. Indonesia’s general Suharto (one-word name, whatever that means) has been at it the longest, 31 years, when he grabbed power in a CIA engineered military coup that resulted in the murder of more than one million people. The Algerian junta is still at it and according to Swiss Red Cross figures, at least 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Algeria since the election result was annulled in January 1992. General Liamine Zeroual, the Algerian dictator, who stole the presidential election result last year, is now going to enact a parliamentary elecoral farce to spruce his image further.
His western backers applaud this ludicrous exercise because it is what they want. The west is only for democracy if it likes the winner. Compare the west’s contrasting reaction to the situation in Algeria and Burma. In the former, the west has financed the junta’s brutal clampdown; in the latter, the junta is berated but only insofar as it concerns the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Ky. The Burmese junta can continue to kill the Muslims, drive them out of their homes and even torch their places of worship. This does not matter because these people are, after all, Muslims. The junta must be stopped from doing terrible things only to the Burmese opposition leader.
In Indonesia, the Javanese have waged a brutal campaign against the people of Aceh-Sumatra, Sulawesi (Celebes) and other regions for 30 years but the only outcry raised is for the people of East Timor because they are Christians. Quite aside from the Christian/Muslim dimension, Suharto’s electoral fraud is being enacted to ensure that he gets a rubberstamp parliament with a thumping majority. This he needs for next year’s presidential elections at which either he himself or his up and coming daughter, Tutut, will be a candidate.
The Indonesian example is quite interesting. In the May 29 elections, only two opposition parties were allowed to contest. In one case, even the leader was imposed through manipulation by the Suharto regime. Then there is the induction of 75 members of the armed forces, without contest, into the 500-member House of Representatives, the Indonesian parliament. These 500 automatically become members of the 1,000-member People’s Assembly. The remaining 500 members are again appointed directly by the regime. So the strongman stacks both houses of parliament with his henchmen and calls this the great experiment in democracy.
Thousands of miles away in Algeria, Zeroual is trying to repeat the same experiment. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was the clear winner in the December 1991 elections, is banned from participating this time. A number of other parties have announced a boycott of the election but that is not going to deter the regime from going through the farcical exercise.
Why do dictators bother to go through such exercises? Elections confer a kind of halo that does not come through the application of raw power. Even dictators need the cleansing process of democracy so that they can sanitize their brutal image. That is what democracy is all about.
Muslimedia - June 1-15, 1997