I'll be traveling to Tunis soon to observe the first election of the Arab Spring. Tunisia and Egypt -- which I'll also visit -- have the best odds in the region of building democratic institutions.
Yet they are embracing electoral politics just as more-experienced countries are souring on the value of the ballot. "Protests Rise Around the Globe as Faith in the Vote Wanes," says a New York Times headline, with examples from India, Israel, Britain and Spain. I've witnessed similar frustrations about the value of the vote in Russia and Iraq -- not to mention in our own country.
So, just as Tunisians gear up for their first free vote, is electoral democracy losing its global status as the most desired political system? And what are the lessons to be learned?
These questions are too big to answer in one column, but let me offer some thoughts.
Countries that have taken part in the Arab awakening are still hopeful about the ballot. "If you're not free, you don't scoff at elections," notes political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, rightly. Arabs who fought hard to dump authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya -- and who are still struggling in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria -- want to choose their own rulers.
But cynicism is already on the rise among many Egyptians and Tunisians about the fairness of election regulations. That bodes ill for the future.
What's even more disturbing is the dismal fate of democracy in some key countries that embraced it after the end of the Cold War, when it seemed that the liberal democratic model had triumphed. There, the ballot is no longer held in esteem.
In post-Soviet Russia, the population was initially thrilled by the right to vote. Yet public enthusiasm was sapped by a decade of instability, economic collapse and massive government corruption. In return for stability, Russians were willing to accept a return of authoritarian rule that permitted some personal freedoms.
In Iraq, I witnessed huge excitement over the first elections in 2005 (remember the purple fingers?). Yet bloodshed and massive corruption soured Iraqis on the value of the vote. Today, they regard the ballot as a permanent guarantor of power for the majority Shiites, and payoffs for the well-connected. Most Iraqis are disgusted with parliamentarians who don't deliver services but gorge on the spoils of oil.
The lessons: In countries with no democratic history and high expectations, frustration is inevitable. It takes time to build democratic institutions. If living standards stagnate while a new political class enriches itself, voters lose faith in elections. Would-be strongmen wait in the wings.
And there's one more factor that sours the global image of elections. Not long ago, democratic wannabes in the Arab world and elsewhere looked to Western models as examples of what they could achieve if they had freedom. In these hard times, Western models look less attractive. Many young Europeans -- hit by severe economic woes -- have lost faith in politicians of any party.
In the Mideast, Islamists will tout the failures of Western systems and gain strength in initial elections. But all Arab politicians will face steep odds, as impatient publics demand better living standards. Oil-wealthy Libya can buy off popular discontent, but Tunisia and Egypt aren't so lucky.
Those Arab leaders who curb corruption may earn themselves more time to deliver. But -- at a time when publics worldwide are frustrated by elections, and Arab publics are street-ready -- that time frame won't be lengthy. Faith in the virtues of the ballot could fade fast.