Nothing settled, but progress
There were several important elections yesterday in sharply divided countries. In Brazil, incumbent president Dilma Rousseff barely squeaked past her more business-oriented challenger. Secularists in Tunisia beat Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, in a parliamentary contest (the presidential election is scheduled for November 23). Pro-Europe figures led in Ukraine, where voting was impossible in Crimea (now controlled by Russia) and those parts of the southeast Russophile separatists control. With that important exception, the electoral mechanisms appear to have functioned well, with relatively few allegations of fraud.
None of these elections produced a solid one-party majority. Coalitions will be required to govern. This is good. All three of these countries are polarized. Elections accentuate differences. Formation of a governing majority in parliament provides incentives for moderation and compromise. The incentives may not be strong enough. In Kosovo a winning party and its opposition coalition, which controls more seats in parliament, are quarreling over who will get first dibs on forming the government months after the election. But in the three countries that held elections yesterday there is an opportunity to overcome divisions and form governments committed to resolving difficult problems.
In Brazil, the main issue is the economy. After a long stretch of growth and investment with low inflation, Latin America’s largest country (yes, 78 million more than Mexico’s 122 million) is facing a slowdown and rising prices. Brazilian expectations have been rising with incomes. Rousseff now has to find a way to reconcile her popularity among the poor and her support for a strong social safety net with the reforms needed to reignite growth.
Tunisia is the one “Arab spring” country seemingly headed in a good and peaceful direction. It managed to write a constitution most of its Islamists and non-Islamists can live with. Now it has managed a second post-revolution parliamentary election, one that displaces the Islamists from their previously dominant position. Peaceful alternation in power based on electoral results is one of the key indicators of progress in a democratic direction. Tunisia is too small and marginal to the Arab world to be regarded as a model. But if government formation goes smoothly, it will become a lodestar in a part of the world that needs one.
The Ukrainian election cannot be expected to overcome the division between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow forces, which are locked in a continuing political and military struggle even if currently there is a nominal ceasefire. Pro-Moscow forces in parliament will be much weaker than in the past, but some of the more extreme Ukrainian nationalists will be as well. President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk led parties that did well at the polls. They have no hope of winning back southeastern Ukraine by military force so long as Russian President Putin is prepared to commit Russian troops to the fight, as he did this summer and fall. They need to negotiate a new constitutional arrangement that will “make unity attractive” (in the Sudanese formulation, which failed) and win over the majority of the Russian speakers to Kiev’s legitimacy.
None of these elections settled anything. But they open up possibilities that did not exist two days ago. That’s progress.