Published on Arab Voices

The demand for elections and the supply of politicians: The structural economics of democracy

World Bank | Arne Hoel | 2012Successful democracies need more than elections, according to Professor Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago. They need a steady supply of politicians with good reputations for responsible leadership. While this may seem an obvious conclusion, the question of how politicians develop track records is a critical one. It is especially critical for societies in transition, with no tradition of competitive elections. In his opening remarks to the MENA Chief Economist Forum on Economic and Political Transitions, Professor Myerson looked beyond processes such as elections to the very structure of democratic systems and how they determine outcomes. 

As an economist, he drew an analogy between the need to guarantee a supply of trustworthy politicians with the importance of competition for a dynamic private sector. Everyone may agree on the benefits of the latter, but established companies do not necessarily welcome it. They would be just as happy to have the field to themselves, setting prices as they see fit.  It is the structure of the private sector that produces competition. New companies need to be encouraged with access to finance, and a regulatory framework that eases their entry into the market. Businesses compete, but it is the business environment that encourages and sustains competition.  This is equally true of the political environment.  Meaningful elections are needed to keep politicians focused on delivering services, rather than dispensing favors to the party and supporters that brought them to power. The challenge has to come from newcomers that have had an opportunity to prove their abilities. In the same way that private sectors need to be structured to foster competition, political systems need to provide the conditions that facilitate the emergence of new politicians.

The question of how to nurture new politicians is an important one in the post ‘Arab Spring’ MENA region. For Prof. Myerson it is no surprise that the Islamic organizations, and their political offshoots, have dominated recent elections. Of all the opposition groups, they are the only ones with a track record of managing community funds, in their handling of donations, and delivering public services. As new constitutions are drawn it is vital that the demand for political inclusion be answered with opportunities for new politicians to emerge. Prof. Myerson noted that the 1971 constitution drawn up by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt called for the creation of local councils. Though it never happened, and its sincerity was suspect, the devolution of power it called for is still a good idea. Local councils not only empower citizens, but also encourage them to give the administration of local affairs a try. It is the sort of political opening that is needed to draw people into the system. It can deliver the experience managing public funds and delivering services that can form the basis of the track record needed to compete on a national level. As important as an election, is the supply of proven politicians to compete in it. Democratic systems need to be designed to encourage new politicians and guarantee that supply.

The newly elected politicians in the MENA region are undoubtedly genuine in their commitment to the ideals driving the transition. They too can be distracted, however. A steady stream of new politicians will be needed to mount meaningful challenges, and keep them focused.  A political opening is especially critical for the young people and social movements, who were in the vanguard of the revolution but have been excluded by the electoral process. It would both address their frustrations, and be the formula for a more vibrant and successful democracy.

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