On Sunday the people of Tunisia, the country that launched the Arab Spring at the beginning of this year, voted in their first free election. Turn-out reached 90% of registered voters, a figure that would be truly stunning if achieved in the United States; people were lining up before dawn to vote. The value of democracy is, perhaps, better appreciated among those who have recently had to fight hard for it.
The vote was for an assembly which will write a new constitution and plan elections for a president and legislature next year. The big winner was the moderate Islamist party al-Nahda, which won between 30% and 40% of assembly seats. This is disappointing but not necessarily cause for alarm. Al-Nahda does seem genuinely moderate; a party leader said its goals are "stability, conditions for a dignified life and the building of democratic institutions" and "the right conditions for investment in Tunisia", and the party promises it will "respect Tunisia's strong secular tradition and the most advanced women's rights in the Arab world". Many who voted for al-Nahda said that they hoped it would take care of the poor -- clearly the secular parties need to do a better job of convincing the masses of their commitment to socialism.
Also, the secular vote was divided. There are two main secular parties (one of these, Ettakatol, is likely to join a coalition with al-Nahda), and the total number of parties participating was over eighty. Hopefully there will be some consolidation before the election next year. Finally, as one secular-left activist pointed out, even if 40% voted for the Islamists, that means 60% did not.
The election sets a valuable precedent for the Arab world, a region where democracy has not traditionally thrived, to say the least. Elections will be held over the coming months in Egypt and Libya, and likely elsewhere if dictators continue to topple. After Tunisia, those peoples know they don't need to settle for anything short of a genuine free vote.
The following day, a very different vote was held in the country where modern democratic institutions originally evolved.
The British Parliament held an acrimonious debate and vote on whether or not to hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership in the European Union. The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, did not want this vote; like most of Europe's political elite both left and right, he adheres to a rigid pro-EU consensus. However, Britain has recently introduced a process whereby any proposal from the public which wins over 100,000 signatures on an online petition will be considered by Parliament, and the British people forced the EU referendum onto their leaders' agenda via that method.
There was never any chance that the initiative for a referendum would actually pass; the leadership of all three large British parties solidly opposed it (even the leftist Labour party leadership is part of the pro-EU consensus, despite the fact that the EU's imposition of austerity policies is now wrecking socialism in country after country). And even if it had passed, it was clear that Cameron would nevertheless simply refuse to hold the referendum. But even so, Cameron invoked a rarely-used rule whereby he, as party leader, is entitled to simply order his party's legislators to vote as he chooses -- in this case, against the referendum.
In an unprecedented rebellion, 81 Conservative legislators defied him and voted yes. A further 14 abstained or refused to vote. Two who held minor cabinet positions resigned those positions to show their displeasure.
The referendum initiative still lost. But the sledgehammer heavy- handedness of Cameron's determination to allow it no chance at all has highlighted the gulf between the political elite and the popular will over the EU (a poll showed that if a referendum were indeed held, 49% would vote to leave the EU, 40% would vote to stay -- and most Britons agree that there should be a referendum).
The issue will not go away; the size of the rebellion suggests that the elite consensus is weakening in the face of popular discontent.
In the meantime, it looks like British commentator Pat Condell is right: "Soon the Arabs will be lecturing us on democracy."