Sunday, December 4, 2011

Occupy the Electoral Process

If there is one lesson that the Occupy movement can learn from the Arab Spring this last month it is that the electoral process should not be ignored.

There was resounding participation in the parliamentary elections in Tunisia, and there appears to be in Egypt as well. In Morocco where the Arab Spring has not yet bloomed, turnout in the elections was only slightly better than the previous elections and the February 20 movement officially called for a boycott.

The message to the Occupy movement: participate or boycott.

There has been a debate of sorts ‘within’ the Occupy movement about demands. Some argue, like philosopher Slavoj Žižek has in the Guardian, that the movement should occupy first and make demands later. Others have argued, like Naomi Klein in an interview with Grounded News, that the movement is currently amorphous – without a clear organizational structure, leadership, demands – but much could be lost in staying this way.

I agree with Naomi Klein. By moving toward more structure with time, the movement does not have to take a normal non-amorphous form that some contemporary social movements have taken. In the US, this normalcy often translates into blind embrace of the Democratic party at the time of elections. The movement can rather take a number of forms, some with more clarity and shape than others – one being an articulated position on the electoral process.

If consensus within the movement is to shore away from conventional politics, as Robert Jensen has argued in, based on the opinion that electoral choices are not democratic and/or policy making is a centrifugal force to the right of the center and/or the electoral mandate is hijacked by the 1 per cent. Or whatever the valid reasons may be, the movement should not pretend that the elections are not happening – as many disillusioned and disenfranchised have been doing in northern countries for the past decades. The movement should boycott the elections – and in a way that educates and mobilizes citizens for more democratic systems of governance.

If those involved in the movement want to participate in the electoral process, then organize, not into the grave of national parties that win elections and nearly always disappoint, but for a new party or new bloc or coalition.

Whether participating or boycotting, the electoral outcome in the short and medium term is likely not promising for those advocating systemic, progressive change. Revolutionaries throughout the Arab world are confronting this reality now. Groups that were for and against the uprisings, participating when it suited them and refraining when it didn’t, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, look to be making considerable ‘wins’ in the elections. The capture of the electoral process by conservative forces is not a complete loss, however. By taking an active stance in the electoral process, the Occupy movement can raise awareness about policies and politics, public demands for representation, new frameworks for policy debates – and the list of democratic gains in the long haul is long.

This is our moment to re-shape the electoral process in our shallow democratic societies and the undemocratic world order.

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