Routine FIFA coronation of Blatter is like many elections in Africa

Jun 1, 2011

FIFA, corruption and controversy are words often heard together. It's perhaps most controversial election is amazingly similar to elections in many African countries.

There is not really much shock that the international soccer association's governing body's presidential election has been tainted by allegations of attempted vote-buying. A hastily convened panel accused of being a kangaroo court suspended the candidate involved, Mohamed bin Hammam from Qatar, and a number of other FIFA officials.

Long-serving incumbent, Sepp Blatter from Switzerland, is going into the election today unopposed. But Blatter has had a lot of accusations of impropriety hurled at him over the years. Most haven't stuck, and those that seemed to didn't make any difference to his tenure. He has always been able to brush them aside.  

The English football association argued for today's one-candidate presidential election to be postponed until the storm of controversy has died down.

"We are faced with an unsatisfactory situation. We are subject to universal criticism from governments, sponsors, media and the wider world. With this background the election has turned into one-horse race.
In the view of the Football Association this should be avoided both for the sake of Fifa and the president itself. A coronation without an opponent provides a flawed mandate.

"I ask for a postponement to allow time for an additional candidate or candidates to stand and compete in an open and fair election. Only by so doing will the winner have proper credibility over the next four years."

Perfectly reasonable, well-argued and clearly stated, one would have thought, even elegant.

But "The conclusion to his speech received a noticeably cool reception from the Fifa members in Zurich, with one or two applauding but the rest sitting in silence. The lack of support became even clearer when several Fifa members who followed Bernstein to the podium voiced strong criticism of the FA's stance."

In the end 176 voters out of 206 voted against postponement.

A few days before, Blatter reacted to the international storm and the early calls for postponing the election with a blithe, "What crisis?"

The whole circus is familiar to voters in many African countries.

Vote buying is rife on all sides, and the incumbent has the clear advantage in this regard. If the challenger makes one false move which can be clearly pinned to him, he is taken down very fast. Arguing that the incumbent has been guilty of even worse examples of the same wrongs is rarely effective, and may make things worse for the hapless suspect.

The full weight of the incumbent's apparatus of power is brought to bear to destroy the challenger. It is not always necessary to give explicit instructions for this. Over many years of being in power, the incumbent would have used his vast influence and the coffers of the state/organisation to spread and deepen his influence. Everybody in the ruling structure understands the benefits to themselves of protecting the deeply entrenched incumbent, and the possibly very great costs of backing the challenger.

The delegates to the congress have all been long bought. They are resentful of the challenger, and they are outraged when he attempts to further challenge clear signals that he should drop out. So the challenger is dispatched quickly and thoroughly, with little or no evidence of the process being directly tied to the incumbent's office from which it is directed.

African strongmen are not the least bit embarrassed about holding elections in which they are unopposed. They prefer them. What confers the type of veneer of legitimacy that is important to them is not the clean-ness and fairness of the the election process, but just being seen to go through the motions of having it at all, no matter how blatantly flawed it is. Elections are merely a slightly inconvenient but increasingly necessary part of what they consider to be a periodic 'topping up' of their original coronation.

The FIFA process sounds fascinatingly just like the flawed election process in many African countries. At least there is no obvious violence involvement, and the Big Man does not have the power to send his hapless challenger to jail or into exile, at least not directly.


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