May 21, 2004 | Commentary on International Organizations

Voter power

Democracies can be pesky things; sometimes you just don't know what the voters will come up with next. Even here in our over-polled United States, where taking the temperature of the voters is an industry unto itself, surprises do happen.

In part, this is because voters don't always tell pollsters the truth about their intentions. In part, it is because reporters who cover politics can get the story wrong themselves, either out of laziness or because their view of the world differs so radically from that of the majority of voters that they can't see what is staring them in the face. We all know the story of Pauline Kael, famed New York movie critic, who is said to have told a group of friends that she just could not understand why Walter Mondale lost the 1984 presidential election - because everybody SHE knew had voted for him.

Over the weekend, newspapers blared the headline "Bush poll hit's ratings low" of 42 percent, immediately following the Iraq prisoner scandal. Yet, support for the war remains about at 50 percent. Americans are often far more steadfast than pollsters give them credit for. Of course, this does not yet produce a clear picture for the election; even the liberal media have hesitated to credit the Kerry campaign with making much headway over the scandals.

A brand-new case of pollster confusion comes in the shape of elections in India last week, where voters threw the government out on its ear -- to everybody's gigantic surprise, including the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Pollsters and reporters had anticipated another win for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who has brought the benefits of globalization to India's cities and thriving middle class.

Under Mr. Vajpayee, India has become an international player, a cooperative partner of the United States in the war against terrorism, and a center for outsourcing for companies looking for high levels of technical education, English language skills, and an inexpensive and virtually inexhaustible labor supply.

Even more surprising perhaps was that Indian voters turned out for Sonia Ghandi, the Catholic, Italian born leader of the Congress Party. That certainly is a first for India. Her late husband, Rajiv Ghandi, elder son of Indira Ghandi, was assassinated during the 1991 election. Mrs. Ghandi did indeed make an unlikely candidate, and was dismissed by her opponents as a "half-bred Jersey cow" and an "Italian housewife."

What she did, however, was connect with the two-thirds of the Indian electorate that lives in villages far away from the booming urban, 21st century Indian economy. As quoted in the Financial Times, V.P. Singh, former prime minister of India, put his finger on the cause of the disconnect.

"We all missed this undercurrent of popular sentiment," he said. "While Mr. Vajpayee was talking about the stock market and foreign exchange reserves and economic growth, Sonia was talking about issues like jobs and electricity. Ironically, it was the she who was quietly talking in a language that people could understand."

Mrs. Ghandi will not be leading the government herself, but the Congress Party will certainly at first redirect its energies towards a much more inward-looking agenda than has recently been the case. Indians accused Mr. Vajpayee of having become a poodle to the United States; the next government will try to make a distinction - up to a point.

Now, these events give some cause for thought as we move towards a hand-over of political power in Iraq - which remains set for June 30. And when and if there are elections in Iraq, we may find that we don't even particularly like the result. After all the American lives and bloodshed there, that may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Furthermore, after the surge in terrorist violence and the targeting of anyone who has the courage to work with Americans for a better Iraq, only truly brave souls will have the courage to apply. On Monday, yet another car bomb killed eight people including Izzedin Salim, president of the Iraqi Governing Council

The continued levels of violence indicate that a U.S. military presence will be required for a long while to come to give Iraqis who want freedom and democracy in their country a fighting chance.

But here is where the example of India also gives us hope. The fact is that democratic systems can flourish in multi-ethnic societies, even when circumstances have seemed desperately discouraging. This was certainly the case on the Indian subcontinent where a horrendous civil war broke out after the British withdrew from India and Pakistan after World War II. Likewise, years from now, Iraq may present a case for hope for others.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times