Can Single-Party Rule Be Democracy?

April 2, 2012 • The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1051

By Danielle Bella Ellison:

After winning a large majority of the seats in Egypt’s Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood now seems to be looking towards capturing the Presidency as well. Last winter, protestors in Egypt overthrew the authoritarian Mubarak government with hopes of instituting a new democratic regime that would bring citizens opportunity and prosperity. But can there be democracy if one party dominates the government?

In the two-part elections for Egypt’s new parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won far more seats than any other party. The FJP will hold as many as half of all seats in the parliament. Furthermore, other Islamist parties claimed the most seats after the FJP, meaning that the Brotherhood’s Islamist policies will dominate legislative decisions.

In the first stage of the Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom & Justice Party (FJP) won 40% of the parliamentary seats. (Ahmad Abdullah / Wikimedia Commons).

But this week the Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it plans to make a bid for the Egyptian presidency as well. Khairat al-Shater will run in the presidential elections scheduled to take place in May. While there are many candidates planning on running for president, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is putting forth a candidate when it already has control of Parliament is disconcerting to many. Furthermore, the organization had repeatedly stated that it would not put forth a presidential candidate, a promise that it is now retracting. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly extended its political involvement beyond previous promises.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would indeed succeed in capturing control of every branch of the Egyptian government, would this situation be detrimental or even fatal to the fragile democracy Egyptians are trying to establish? A single party controlling the government is not by definition at odds with democracy; even in the American government, widely considered the model for liberal democratic government, at times the legislative, executive, and even judicial branches are dominated by either the Democrats or the Republicans.

But Egypt is not the United States. The Egyptian people are just on the verge of trying to establish a democracy in a state that has been controlled by oppressive authoritarian regimes for decades. And in such a changeable environment, the dominance of a single-party in a democratic government could very quickly disintegrate into authoritarian rule once again.

The definition of democracy is one of the most highly contested questions among political scientists. Although it has not widely been concluded that single-party control of a government precludes democracy, many political scientists agree that a new democracy cannot be considered consolidated until power has been peacefully transferred twice between different parties. Therefore, from this perspective, the test of whether Egypt will be a democracy is yet to come: it does not depend on whether the Muslim Brotherhood will gain control of the government, but rather on whether the Brotherhood will, when the time comes, be able to give it up peacefully.

Danielle Bella Ellison ‘15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on the Middle East. Contact her at danielle.ellison@yale.edu.

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