In December, the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, stood for re-election. Karimov, a one-time ally in the "war on terror" who in 2002 had one opposition leader boiled alive, has long faced criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations. Having already served two terms, he was not even eligible to stand. A minor detail for a man like Karimov. His three opponents all endorsed him and did not ask Uzbeks to vote for them. Those who would not endorse him were disqualified and imprisoned. Karimov won the day with 88.1% of the vote.
There is a profound difference between holding an election and having a democracy. Elections are the best means that we have come up with so far for giving people a voice in the running of their affairs. Democracy is the system which ensures that voices are heard by empowering them with the ability to change those who run our affairs.
Elections, in and of themselves, are a purely technical matter. The authorities name the day, tell the voters, provide the booths and the equipment. The voters make their choice. The authorities then tally the results. But, as we know from countless incidences, from Kenya to Florida, the technical elides effortlessly into the political. Which day? Which voters? Where are the booths? How does the equipment work? Who's counting? Whose votes count? All this has a bearing on the result. That's why democracy, if it is working, gives us the right to kick out the authorities.
Since the beginning of January, the Democratic party in the US has held elections that have provided great excitement and held the attention of much of the world. We are about to see if its commitment to democracy is equally impressive. Having started this election season with scenes of rural folk gathering in frontrooms and schoolhalls to stand up and be counted, the final decision is now likely to be made by party apparatchiks accountable only to themselves. Or worse still, the courts.
For the one thing we do know at this stage is that unless something dramatic happens, winning the Democratic primaries and winning the Democratic nomination will not be the same thing. The elections we have all been watching account for 80% of the total voting delegates who will nominate the candidate. The remaining 20% goes to "superdelegates" - Democratic legislators, governors, former presidents and vice-presidents, and other party officials.
At present, Barack Obama is winning by a narrow margin. By most calculations, voters have given him around 133 more elected delegates than Hillary Clinton - a mere one-eighth of the total in states yet to vote. Predictions of Clinton's imminent demise - like most other predictions in this race - are premature. It is far more conceivable that she will turn this around by April than it was on New Year's Day that Obama would be the frontrunner. This race has the peculiar distinction of being both volatile and close.
So close in fact that the superdelegates will almost certainly determine the outcome. If they do, it will not just have the potential of making the entire process a travesty of democracy but also a tragedy for the Democratic party. For if the superdelegates go against the popular will of the voters, whoever emerges as "victor" will enter the presidential election shorn of democratic legitimacy and devoid of electoral credibility. Indeed in much the same shape as George Bush emerged in 2000 after Florida.
In short, it would be a monumental own goal. The Democrats are passionate about their candidates. A recent Gallup poll showed that 80% of Democrats were more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous elections - the highest figure since the question was first asked in 2000. Meanwhile, almost 50% of Republicans said they were less enthusiastic than usual - also the highest on record. This enthusiasm has been borne out in the polls. So far 15.7 million Democrats have voted in primaries compared with just 10.9 million Republicans. In Virginia, a swing state waiting to happen, Obama received more votes than the entire Republican field combined.
The effect of party officials overturning whatever decision the voters make would be to squander all the energy and hopefulness that has characterised the campaign so far, leaving the millions who have been drawn into the process for the first time disaffected. Whoever feels hard done by is likely to stay at home during the presidential election.
And that's before we get to Florida and Michigan. These two states decided to hold their primaries in January, in defiance of Democratic party rules. The party warned them beforehand that if they persisted their delegations would be disqualified. They went ahead anyway. The party asked the candidates not to campaign in those states. The candidates obliged. The elections went ahead without them - Clinton won both, but Obama's name was not even on the ballot in Michigan. Now Clinton's camp wants to change the rules and is calling for those delegates to count. The lawyers are on standby.
All this would present a much-needed gift to the Republicans, who are struggling with entirely different demons. They have chosen a candidate. The trouble is, they don't like him. Or at least not enough of them. John McCain, who, barring a miracle, will be nominated in August, was booed last week at an American Conservative Union conference. Since then, his attempt to pose as the presumptive nominee has appeared, well, presumptuous.
Mike Huckabee may not stand a prayer of winning enough delegates to beat McCain at this point - even if he won every contest (which he won't) by a 60-40 margin (which he definitely won't), McCain would still be the nominee. But Huckabee believes in miracles and prays a lot. Last week in Virginia, where McCain won just 51%, he nearly pulled it off. When 49% of an electorate turn out to vote for candidates they know cannot win, they are really voting against the candidate they know will win.
Conversely, while the Democrats may be evenly divided, they are not rancorously split. At this stage, the overwhelming majority would be happy if either Clinton or Obama won. That could change depending on how they win. Obama says superdelegates should respect the wishes of the voters; Clinton says they are part of the process and should exercise their independent judgment. Clinton has found relatively few takers for her position so far.
But these are early days. Over the past few weeks Clinton's huge superdelegate lead has dwindled with her electoral performance. Over the weekend, a number of African-American superdelegates abandoned her and pledged to back Obama, who has a narrow lead in both regular and superdelegates combined. Before this process is over, each candidate could be arguing the opposite.
"It would be a problem for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided," said Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives' speaker. Too true. But while Pelosi's argument answers the question about what the superdelegates should do at the party convention in August, it begs another. If superdelegates are going to follow the popular vote anyway, why have them in the first place?
Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist and feature writer based in the US. His most recent book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States; he is also the author of No Place Like Home, published in 1999
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