Was Egypt's Snap Election the Crucial Misstep?

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The Morsi power problem in Egypt prompted me to look back at Marc Herman's piece from a year ago, "The Road to Democracy Doesn't Start at the President's Palace." Even before the Arab Spring, a Berkeley political scientist was counseling against quick elections in countries emerging from dictatorship. His advice sounds fairly obvious, but as Marc points out, it was surprisingly counter to much of the advice young democracies were given.

[The] lack of hard information ... had prompted two researchers, political scientists M. Steven Fish of University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig, to set out several years ago to identify the rare formula for a successful revolution. In 2009, working with data collected since 2005, the two claimed to have found it: a pattern that could predict a successful transition between dictatorship and democracy.

It was, simply put, to have a post-revolution legislative body in place before holding national elections to put a single leader in power.

In 2007, Fish (who had worked in Moscow during its transition) and Kroenig had measured how all the world’s federal governments divided power between their executive and legislative branches. When they looked at the data, they noticed something that had previously escaped researchers. Among recently post-dictatorial nations, those with greater balance of power between their legislatures and the rest of their governments were far more likely to become a stable democracy than those with big imbalances in power.

That seemed fairly obvious, Fish allowed. And yet, it was also counterintuitive and contradicted most advice young democracies received about the need for quick elections and immediate replacement of the former regime. Their data, he argued, proved that the key to a successful transition from democracy was, curiously, not to hold an election—at least, not right away.

“One of the most important predictors of a successful transition,” Fish said, “is how strong the legislature is when the dust settles.” Fish said he didn’t oppose elections, he just thought the priority after a revolution is first, to completely take apart the old constitution and rebuild it — this is the important part, he said — around a new legislature.

“Even Mandela served at the pleasure of a parliament,” Fish said. “What people don’t realize is a strong president, no matter how charming and courtly, is going to try to acquire power unless there are forces that limit the ability to do so.”

His advice for the Arab states undergoing transitions now is to delay the vote until the people are voting for legislators who can keep the next would-be dictator in line. This is more important, he argues, than recovering stolen money, rewriting corruption laws, hiring new judges, refunding the banks, everything.

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