Adrian Hamilton: Let's not despair of democracy

What is wrong is what we want elections to achieve in places such as Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

The joke circulating Afghanistan is that the election results have now been declared and that Ahmadinejad has won with 42 million votes. The parallel is apposite. Even as the first results are dripped out in Kabul, they have been declared a fraud by the leading opposition candidate. Reports, and evidence, of malpractice is widespread. As a means of establishing consensus through the country and setting the scene for stable government, the election, just as in Iran, has manifestly failed.

The one difference of course is that, whereas in Iran the world wanted the government to fail, in Afghanistan they have wanted it to succeed. Where Iran is concerned, the West wishes any democratic gesture to be seen as a sham. In Afghanistan's case they want it to be seen as a crowning achievement of outside intervention.

Which is where the trouble starts with all the discussion about democracy in the Muslim – indeed the whole of the developing – world. It keeps getting overlain with what the outside world wants it to achieve, not what the people of the country concerned wish. Democracy is being presented, and was very obviously promoted by President George Bush, as a political mechanism that will automatically bring about a change in regimes to a more peaceable, free market and pro-Western world.

It hasn't. After the first glorious outpourings of popular revolution in Eastern Europe, the introduction of democracy has proved a difficult and often hopelessly flawed enterprise, as we can see from Afghanistan, Iran and, for that matter, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan as well. It is not that people don't want the vote. Almost invariably they do. It is just that the mechanics very quickly become bent by governments as a means to sustain power.

That is not to argue, as too many people have, that democracy as a political system is somehow a cultural issue which you cannot export. That would be a truly terrible conclusion if it were to become the general assumption. What is wrong is our expectations of what it can achieve in any particular situation.

In Afghanistan's case, what we wanted it to do was to produce a result that would show Afghanistan was on its way to being a stable nation able to take care of its security – in other words, exactly what we have always wanted from authoritarian countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, only with a more convincing effort at a popular mandate.

In the case of Palestine, we wished (and still wish for) an election result that would produce a nice pro-peace government that would have the mandate to negotiate a successful treaty with Israel. In Pakistan, we wished for an administration that would impose its rule on the tribal lands, stop cross-border movement of fundamentalists and get on better with India.

When it came to the Iranian presidentials, we looked for a result that would decisively overthrow President Ahmadinejad and challenge the whole theocratic rule by showing a public that wanted freedom at home and openness abroad.

But that's not how the public of these countries saw it. In Palestine, Hamas were elected because the majority of voters were fed up with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and its endless and fruitless concessions to the Israelis at the behest of the West. They weren't voting for war with Israel. They were voting to kick out the previous lot.

The same in Pakistan and, quite possibly, in Afghanistan and Iran too if we were ever to know the true results. There isn't a natural belief in democracy as such because there isn't a trust in politicians. What there is usually is a desire to hold regimes responsible for their perceived failures – which is not a mood that produces the kind of stable regimes that the West keeps wanting.

There are no particular cultural differences in this. It's what regularly happens in British, American and European elections. Nor is there anything peculiarly "Third World" about the manipulation of election results. George W Bush and the Republicans were quick to do it in Florida in 2000. It's no surprise that Karzai is trying it in Afghanistan and Ayatollah Khamenei has been accused of doing it in Iran.

The difference is that, in the West, you have fairly well-established rules governing procedures, and enough experience and resources to make sure they are properly carried out. That was not true in Afghanistan, where there hasn't been sufficient security to ensure a good turn out or enough resources to manage the voting properly. It wasn't true in Iran, where the Ministry of Interior finally controls results. It was true in Palestine, but then the outside world chose to ignore the tally because it didn't produce the results wanted.

Deeply embedded tribal or clan rivalries clearly complicate the issue. The vote cannot easily overcome this. Indeed, democracy can actually make life more difficult by emphasising differences and imposing the will of the majority on the rest – which is still the fear in Iraq. If Lebanon has so far coped with sectarian-dominated elections, it is because the final balance of power is held rigid by a constitution guaranteeing those differences. If Syria has sustained its ethnic minorities, as it has, it is partly because it remains an authoritarian state run by a minority sect.

Yet even the most flawed elections can play a part in opening up societies. If you take Iran, the election system there could hardly be described as free and fair in a society where all ultimate power rests with clerical authority. But, despite the present crackdown, the fact that elections were held, and open debate allowed, is a reflection of a society that still pays heed to the idea of popular consensus. Far more, it could be said, than the West's allies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the North African states.

That the generals in Burma took such trouble to make sure that Ang San Suu Kyi could not take part in next year's vote is a sign that they still fear it, as well as her.

The West has put far too much store on elections in Afghanistan, as Iraq and Pakistan. They're too flawed and unsatisfactory to do their duty by the citizenry, never mind the occupying forces. But it is still not right to dismiss them out of hand any more than the elections in their neighbours' territories. It's just that we shouldn't look to them to do what we want from them.