A very notable event happened on the fourth of July. Apart from being Independence Day in the USA it was the date of a by-election in Gibraltar. The election was free and fair, the candidates and their parties behaved within the norms of electoral law – and here’s the big shock, the winning party, the GSLP, happened to be the socialist party in a coalition Government and increased its popularity with the voters.
Whilst in Old Europe we take free and fair elections for granted such a situation does not even hold true within the entire EU. Likewise whilst the majority of Old Europe sees its political parties act within the electoral norms there are other countries in the EU where vote rigging and buying are the norms instead. And here’s the real shock: Gibraltar has a government party entering mid-term which is more popular now with voters than when it was elected. That situation is very unique in Europe.
So whilst democracy is seemingly safe in Gibraltar there are worrying signs elsewhere that suggest that some countries may be becoming ungovernable or are indeed already there.
Let us look at Egypt for example when President Mohammed Morsi has been deposed from power in a ‘peaceful’ army coup, ‘peaceful’ being a relative term here. There may be many reasons why Morsi was not the man for the job or his party the one to unite Egypt. However the fact is he was elected to the post of president in the country’s first fair and free elections in our life time. The people of Egypt had every right to peacefully protest against his actions and policies: but did the army have the right to remove him from power? If we believe in democracy surely that is the job of the electorate at the next election.
In Bulgaria the popularist GERB government resigned in February after violent street protests over a hike in electricity prices which few could afford and the economic state of the EU’s poorest country. In the May general election GERB, which has links to organized crime and is notorious for vote rigging, was returned as the largest party but its share of the vote collapsed. It could not govern on its own so the socialist BSP which came second joined a coalition to keep GERB out. However to do so it had to pact with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the nationalist party ATAKA to rule. ATAKA is anti Turkish and anti Roma whilst the MRF speaks for both: the MRF also has a history of vote rigging.
Some initial mistakes by the new prime minister brought the same protestors out on to the streets again and even the president has now suggested that new elections will have to be called. If so where does Bulgaria go from here? Do the protestors want GERB back? Certainly not. Do they want a socialist government, possibly, but even the BSP has in the past had links with its communist roots, oligarchs and criminals. Do they want the MRF or ATAKA to govern? Hardly. So how do you run a country when the rejected options are the most voted for parties even if vote rigging and buying is rife? The current anti-GERB coalition is far from perfect but it is realpolitik like it or not.
In Spain Transparency International reports that 86 per cent of Spaniards believe their politicians are corrupt as Rajoy wobbles under the sleaze accusations of Bárcenas. The political and summer heat is getting much hotter for the Partido Popular Prime Minister.
In a country where over 26 per cent of people are jobless, where if you are young you a more likely to be on the dole than in work, where thousands have lost their homes and are still deep in debit, where the economic crisis stumbles from bad to worse then for how long are people going to stand idly by whilst they are ruled by crooks. My guess is for not long at all and social upheaval will soon be upon Spain as it is in Turkey and has been in Greece.
Italy and Portugal could well be next.
Gibraltar was already remarkable in that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of other religions and none live side by side in perfect harmony in a world where that is far from the norm. In addition to that distinction Gibraltarians can get on with their lives safe in the knowledge they live in a stable democracy, as solid as their Rock.
However there are warnings for Gibraltar’s politicians and voters in what is happening around the world. The warning to its politicians is that voters will not accept governments that govern for themselves and not the people. The warning to its voters is to treasure the open, free and fair democracy they enjoy and protect it with all their might – because it is rarer and more fragile than they may think.
(Photograph: Albert Isola, the GSLP’s successful by-election candidate).
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on July 19, 2013 and a version appeared in Panorama on July 17, 2013)