Democratic schisms: The clash of old and new voices – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyTechnology
September 24, 2012

Democratic schisms: The clash of old and new voices

For Egyptians and Mexicans, this past summer showcased the imperfections of democracy. Indeed, one year after the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, some Mexican observers sought to import the label and all its hopeful aspirations. As in Egypt, the results were far more modest and humbling, but not without reason for hope.

Egyptians went to the polls in their first, free presidential elections in decades, a two-round process that narrowly favoured now-President Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Aside from the laudable absence of violence in this fragile transition still playing out, the presidential contest proved to be something of a cold shower for proponents of the social media-infused uprising one year prior, especially tech-savvy youth. Between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the time and means were simply not there to enable an alternative candidate to organize sufficiently, with several prominent prospects bowing out as a result.

This episode is emblematic of the schism between spontaneous and organic forms of societal democratization (fueled by Internet freedoms and online mobilizing) and the more arduous task of constructing political institutions capable of delivering both legitimacy and stability. For many that flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square one year prior, incessantly tweeting and video chatting with global media talk shows most everywhere, there now seems little to do for the moment but watch and wait.

For Mexico, a youthful but more established democracy, a similar dynamic revealed itself on July 1 as the victory of Enrique Pena Nieto coupled a charismatic new leader with a revived old guard. His Institutional Revolutionary Party (IRP) once ruled the country for 71 years consecutively before peacefully ceding power in 2000. Promising open and accountable governance, the IRP now controls the presidency, both Houses of Congress, most State governorships, and as a result, many are glum about the prospects for serious debate and contested authority.

Why, then, claims of a “Mexican spring” just a few short months ago? Such hopeful claims stem from the unprecedented mobilization and impact of Mexican youth during the campaign, and not surprisingly much of it online. Having been accused by the IRP as being partisan and manipulated by the Opposition, some 130 Mexican youth activists took to YouTube to declare their independence and to voice their aspirations for change. The video quickly went viral, as they say, leading to massive protests in Mexico City and elsewhere, and was described as the most important student movement since 1968 (a comparison no doubt resonating with Quebec’s political class).
 
Although the movement galvanized interest in an otherwise lethargic campaign, its electoral impacts were quickly stunted, a sign of either democratic maturity for the country as a whole or an inability to sustain momentum and organization (or more likely some combination of both).

Unlike 2006, when many Mexicans protested a perceived fraudulent result, the main challenger this time around found his similar calls falling on deaf ears, as most domestic and international observers deemed the election imperfect but reasonably fair. Still, protests continued throughout the summer: among other antics, the PRI is accused of distributing pre-paid debit cards to disperse campaign funds to eligible voters.

Despite starkly different religious orientations, Mexicans and Egyptians now look ahead with a mix of hopefulness and trepidation – especially among more educated and increasingly online youth. A recent study by the respected PEW Research Centre in the U.S., for instance, found two-thirds of Egyptians expressing a desire for democracy, with Tunisia and Turkey emerging as important regional role models (a complex relationship with the U.S. also enjoins Mexico and Egypt as only a small minority of citizens in the latter country view the U.S. as a proponent of democratic change).

Such countries, of course, have little in common with Canada, a richer and more solidly democratic country. Or do they? A summer 2012 public opinion survey of Canadians commissioned by Reader’s Digest Magazine found the highest levels of trust afforded to the military and the courts (suggesting an attachment to order and stability), whereas the least trusted institution…the federal House of Commons.

Put into this light, perhaps the student movement in Quebec denotes something more than an attachment to low tuition; instead indicative of a globalizing struggle between rising demands for new political voices and venues on the one hand, and the virtues of order and stability that also underpin safe and prosperous ways of life on the other.

 Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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