Doha Debates' audience calls for democratic elections
Thursday, November 11 2010
The Doha Debates have shown a powerful majority of Arabs pushing for free elections and democracy, in a region where governments routinely shy away from the ballot box.
At the latest politically-charged session, young Arabs repeatedly called for democratic rights – rejecting the notion that they keep quiet about politics in return for the right to make money.
“When do you want democracy?” one Qatari professional was asked. “Now,” he replied, without a moment of hesitation, provoking loud applause.
When it came to the vote, 63 percent of the audience turned down the motion: “This House would prefer money to free elections”, but not before they had heard impassioned arguments on both sides.
Speaking for the motion, Dr N Janardhan, a UAE-based political analyst, said many countries, including South Korea had shown that free-market reforms often preceded political freedoms.
“Money is a necessity, “ he said. “It allows you to survive. Free elections are a luxury.”
His views were echoed by Jean-Francois Seznec, a businessman and visiting academic at Georgetown University in Washington, who warned that free elections were no guarantee of stability, especially in the Gulf.
“If you have open microphones in today’s Gulf societies, we will have Islamists take over, and I am not sure they will let you speak out,” he said.
Standing against the motion, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a member of the Indian National Congress Party and a former government minister, claimed most countries with highly competitive economies had free elections that could remove under-performing governments.
“Prosperity under a dictatorship cannot be sustained,” he said, adding that “democracy is a safety valve… you can get more money and more freedom if you move into a democracy - not an autocracy.”
He was supported by Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Abbas who addressed audience fears that Islamists could come to power in free elections in his country.
“You need to achieve participatory politics. To do so you need an active civil society, a free media, a reformed educational system away from government controls and political parties that rely on grassroots support.”
He added: “If the government keeps shutting up leftists, Nasserites, liberals and democrats, the Islamists will win.”