Holy Smoke: The symbolic nature of voting processes

March 17, 2013

Pope FrancisThe election of Pope Francis illustrates the symbolic nature of the voting process deployed by the Catholic Church in the selection and election of its spiritual leader. But how different is it to the practices of decision making found in many other Organizations?

In a papal election the symbolism is evident. The conclave of Cardinals assembles in Rome from around the world and its members are prepared for their elective duties. Through dress, location and traditional rituals they are reminded of their sacred duties. The process combines periods of prayer, periods of intense discussion cut off from the ears and eyes of the world. The votes are recorded anonymously, each Cardinal adding a single name to a simple voting slip. these are scrutinized to assess if the required majority has been reached. In either case the slips are ritually burned to provide one of the most famous of signs, the smoke emerging over the Sistine chapel, black for an inconclusive result, white for the awaited news that a new Pope has been elected. [Incidentally, the chemicals now used to achieve the dark and white plumes are pretty noxious…]

Unique and Universal

The ceremony is unique. Yet I suggest it has near-universal aspects which can be noticed in leaders appointments elsewhere. This week, for example, election results were announced in The Falkland Islands and in China.

More symbolism in voting

In each case there was a heavily symbolic component. The Falklands have remained disputed territory between Britain and Argentina which the ‘Thatcher war’ did little to resolve. In the Falklands referendum-type vote, , 98.8% voted to remain British. Three votes were cast against. In China, the electorate voting for President Xi returned an almost identical 98.86%. I will spare you lengthy political analysis. There was one point I found interesting made my commentators in each. On the Falklands, a spokesperson said the result was good because a 100% vote might have seemed suspicious. A Chinese blogger said it was Xi himself for reasons of modesty returned the one vote against, not wanting it be seen as voting for himself.

My unreasonable view of voting

Like many citizens around the world, I value the symbolism of participating in voting. But part of me carries a suspicion that many ballots are more about symbolic process through which a contested election appears to be ‘the will of the people’. Too often, the voting conceals the power behind the ballot box, for example in the choice of candidates or voting procedures. This applies to decisions of corporate boards as much as to those made in the election of a parliamentary representative or a President.

Archbishop Sentamu early front-runner in Church of England Spring Chase

March 19, 2012

The betting on the next leader of the Church of England has thrown up a front-runner in the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and a large field for punters to choose from

By general agreement, the post of Archbishop of Canterbury is only matched in difficulty with that of manager of the English football team. Dr Rowan Williams had barely made official his intention to stand down, when the betting, as well as the lobbying, started.

Sky-pilot and high-flying charismatic

The front-runner John Sentamu is the candidate with a flair for the charismatic gesture, and sound-bite quote. He was imprisoned by the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin. He has espoused many high-profile causes. He has sky-dived for charity. He also writes for the Sun (proceeds to charity). He defies simple classification into traditionalist or moderniser, with a mix of the controversial and pragmatic positions (against gay marriage; non-judgmental on cohabiting royals).

The front runners

The Telegraph had a detailed list of runners:

Dr John Sentamu has been installed by bookies as their favourite in the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury announcing that he will step down by the end of the year. He would be the first black leader of the Church of England and would inherit an Anglican communion badly split over how to deal with homosexuality and whether women can become bishops. Dr Williams himself conceded that his own attempt to prevent schism in the Church over the issues was likely to fail.

Dr Sentamu is 11-8 [i.e. odds on favourite]. The second favourite is currently Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, but church observers believe he is highly unlikely to [succeed] as he does not ordain women into the clergy. Although he is a close friend of the Prince of Wales, and seen as a charismatic and urbane figure, his strong traditionalist stance on the issue is seen as a severe handicap.

Other senior clerics rated by bookies include: Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry, who is 7-2; Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford who is 8-1; Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, who is 9-1; and Graham Jones, the Bishop of Norwich, who is 10-1. [Sunday 18th March]

The Guardian’s betting guide

The Guardian also turned to the betting metaphor

The bookies’ favourite to succeed [Rowan Williams] is the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said he had received the news of Williams’ resignation “with great sadness”.

The other name frequently mentioned is the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is opposed to the ordination of women but has become increasingly quiet. Both men are older than 61-year-old Williams.

Background struggles

A similar narrative can be found in more ecumenical publications:

Tory backbenchers are demanding a traditionalist figure to replace Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, amid growing anger about gay marriage. John Sentamu, who won friends in the Tory party for his outright opposition to gay marriage, has emerged as the leading candidate for many conservatives. “I don’t want the Archbishop to say we can’t have gay marriage because it is not socially acceptable. I want him to say we can’t have it because it is wrong” Peter Bone said.

Nadine Dorries said: “I think we need someone who is prepared to stand up for Christian values that the vast majority of Christians identify with and Rowan Williams didn’t do that.”
Some church figures believe Dr Sentamu could be a problematic figure due to his heavy-handed tactics behind the scenes. Others still respect him for his opposition to Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and his inquiry into the murder of Damilola Taylor.

Saintly familiar?

No prize for seeing the connection between these signs of election power-struggles with another battle for election and power going on in The United States. At least, the process of electing a successor for Dr Williams will be far less prolonged.

Robert Mugabe and the Anatomy of Tyranny

June 27, 2008

Tyranny has a pattern of leadership that has been chronicled since ancient times. Tyrants exercise control by increasingly repressive methods, assisted by their close associates who become reluctantly or willingly complicit in their often criminal acts. Does theorising have any relevance to Zimbabwe’s situation today?

Jeff Schubert has made a study of tyrants. His powerful critique of the tyrant has been discussed in earlier posts in Leaders We Deserve. He believes that the tyrants may differ in context, but in other respects are aspects of a common pattern of repressive behaviours, be they on battle fields or board rooms.

He considers Mugabe a prime example of a tyrant. Commenting for Leaders We Deserve he noted:

Tyranny is not only associated with “criminal acts”.. even those tyrants and lieutenants who do engage in criminal acts, do not necessarily see it that way – they often think that they are doing good, and that some brutality is thus justified …perceptions change over time – Mugabe was once broadly seen is a much more positive light. Time in power almost totally obliterates the ability to see any difference between one’s own interests and the interests of the country

BBC’s political editor John Simpson has continued his high profile career as foreign journalist in a series of clandestine reports from within Zimbabwe. Simpson has largely let the facts speak for themselves.

Simpson’s report on the elections [June 2008] is stark.

It has been done with great brutality, but Robert Mugabe has achieved an extraordinary turnaround here.. Back in March, when the first round of voting took place, he was humiliated by being beaten into second place in the presidential race, and by losing the parliamentary election outright. Now he’s the sole effective candidate in Friday’s presidential run-off, and he cannot fail to win with an overwhelming majority.

His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been completely outmanoeuvred. The outside world, which mostly sympathises with him, can do nothing whatever to help him


Simpson does not explain the moves which outflanked the MDC, only suggesting that Mr Tsvangirai had blundered in choosing to seek refuge in a European Embassy (the Dutch Embassy) rather than an African one. His report is one capturing his frustration.


The tyrant who has a long life is very skilful. The Overview of my book has some nice quotes on this – on Stalin etc — but I particularly like this one from Albert Speer which also highlights the role of caution in the success of the long-lived tyrant : “To the imagination of the outsider Hitler was a keen, quick, brutally governing dictator. It is difficult to believe that in reality he edged along hesitantly, almost fearfully. But that was the case.”

The dark side

The dark side of leadership has been an important if uncomfortable neck of the woods for theorists some while. Transformational theorists wrestled with the realization that a Hitler seemed to be manifesting many of the characteristics of the idealized transformational leader.

I am of the view that the idealization of leaders is a process which is well-explained by a socio-psychological treatment. By that I mean exploring the behaviours of the leader drawing on clinical models, particularly those exploring dysfunctional (psychotic) patterns. The behaviours are likely to impact on an organization. If we are talking about political and military leaders the impact may be on army, an orchestra a state or an entire continent. If we are talking cultural groups the impact of the dysfunctional leader may eventually weaken or destroy a media network, an orchestra, or a football team.

It should of course be added that there have been notorious examples of leaders who would be widely considered tyrannical, who had extremely negative effects on a wide range of people, but whose armies, orchestras, or organizations survived and even flourished beyond their tenures.

Mad, bad, dangerous?

According to Schubert

..the tendency is always the same … power becomes a narcotic … The people who .. allow themselves to be dominated [do so] because of the [personal] advantages… The basic result is always the same ..in individual businesses, business associations, sporting clubs, institutions and government bodies of all kinds’.

Schubert is not concerned with older questions of whether the tyrants are mad, bad, or simply dangerous. He argues simply that tyrants dominate, and there is always a cadre who become sucked into compliance, becoming part of an apparatus of repression, and a social system of the oppressed.

While the tyrant may become the primary symbol of the oppression, we may expect to find henchmen whose loyalty is in part because the fall of the tyrant will also signify their own downfalls.

The bigger picture

Simple isn’t it? On one side the tyrant and cronies. The country in economic ruin, and with an AIDs epidemic that has been driven out of the main story. The oppressed people, displaced, and brutalized.

Many suggestions: military intervention. More sanctions. More direct denunciation of Mugabe from South Africa, from China, from anywhere. Nelson Mandela on the eve of his ninetieth birthday to reclaim moral leadership.

Update: Within hours of this post being prepared, Nelson Mandela administered a magnificent and brief comment on ‘the tragic lack of leadership’ currently, in South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe. The elections under Zimbabwe go ahead in bizarre and repressive circumstances.

To be continued …