THE BLOG
16/09/2013 08:06 BST | Updated 13/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Critiquing Electoral Democracy: The Case for Looking Beyond the Ballot Box

Relying solely on the ballot box will not fulfil the democratic ideal of a legitimate government by the people and for the people. Election results in both Egypt and the UK demonstrate the need for the political process to be anchored much more in a highly participatory civil society, with high levels of ongoing social engagement both before and after elections.

I recently spent a month interning in Egypt, arriving the night before the 30 June anti-Morsi protests began and was thus there to witness the extraordinary developments which followed. One of the most common arguments I heard from Egyptians who support Morsi is the idea that he had 'legitimacy', ie. he had won an election and should therefore have been allowed to rule as he pleased for a full term. I want to explore this idea of electoral legitimacy through an analysis of recent election results in both Egypt and the UK, in order to argue that healthy democracy requires not only a vote in a ballot box every few years, but also participation in an ongoing process of meaningful engagement in political and social affairs. If we truly wish to live in a system governed by the people and for the people, we must move beyond the limitations of electoral democracy.

In the first round of the 2012 Egyptian presidential election, Morsi received 25% of all votes cast (5,553,097 votes out of 22,887,921 votes cast). Given that the Egyptian electorate is composed of roughly 50 million people, Morsi had the actual support of around 10% of registered Egyptian voters. Despite winning a majority in the second round (52% or 13,230,131 votes out of 26,420,763 cast), Morsi in fact had the support of just 25% of the registered electorate, or 15% of the population. Any claim of legitimacy based on Morsi's electoral victory is thus clearly undermined by the fact that around 75% of the population did not vote for him. (All stats from http://middleeast.about.com/od/egypt/a/Results-Of-Egypts-2012-Presidential-Election.htm)

In the UK general election of 2010, the Conservative Party (led by David Cameron) won 36.1% of votes cast, (or 10,726,614 out of 29,691,380 cast). Again, when we consider the UK population is roughly 62.74 million, Cameron and the Conservatives were effectively chosen by just 17.1% of the population. Yet the government has (with a little help from their coalition partners) been able to impose a series of controversial policies, using the 'legitimacy' of an apparent electoral majority to create an illusion of popular support. For example, a recent Home Office anti-immigration campaign saw vans driving around around London emblazoned with the racist slogan 'Go Home'. It is very important to remember that over 60% of those who voted in the 2010 election (and over 80% of the UK population) did not vote for Cameron's party. (All stats from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/)

Clearly elections can be a rather flawed method for choosing a government with genuine popular support. However, there are a number of ideas which we might consider if we want to work towards greater democratic legitimacy.

Firstly, perhaps the most important step to establishing a more healthy democracy is to educate the population in support of wider engagement in civil society. People must realise the importance of participating in the political process beyond voting in elections, for example by engaging with the media, in public debate or in pressure group activism. Encouraging wider participation might also boost electoral turnout and increase political accountability, bringing greater legitimacy to election results.

Secondly, our electoral systems need to be reformed. For example, steps could be taken to ensure that candidates receive at least 50.1% of the vote to win an election. Additionally, tackling a culture of 'winner takes all' would deal with the problems of elected governments ruling on behalf of just those who voted for them, a criticism thrown at both Cameron and the Conservative Party and also Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thirdly, all social groups must be included in the political process. It is when groups are marginalised (and perhaps demonised) that more radical and less democratic movements can spring up. Elected governments must seek wider mandates through inclusive dialogue with all social constituencies, and opposition groups must exert influence to hold elected officials to account, ensuring that they govern on behalf of the whole population. This is of particular importance right now in the deeply dangerous and polarised situation in Egypt where electoral democracy descended into anarchy and a coup.

Relying solely on the ballot box will not fulfil the democratic ideal of a legitimate government by the people and for the people. Election results in both Egypt and the UK demonstrate the need for the political process to be anchored much more in a highly participatory civil society, with high levels of ongoing social engagement both before and after elections.