The Houses of Parliament were recently named the most recognisable landmark in all the world. And the merest glimpse of that familiar skyline, silhouetted against the fiery cascades that ushered in the New Year, surely brought a lump to many a British throat. Just now, however, anyone tempted to espouse the evident superiority of the democracy those buildings represent has some explaining and perhaps some rethinking to do.
Three former British colonies in different parts of the world offer graphic illustrations of how the democratic process fails. Kenya, regarded as one of the most stable countries in east Africa, is on the brink of civil war, after an election that many voters believe was stolen on the count. Pakistan is in uneasy political limbo, following the assassination of the Opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, and the violence her death precipitated. An announcement is expected today, postponing the elections that had brought her, fatefully, back to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, voters in the snowy farmland of Iowa tomorrow start the great national pageant that culminates in the election of a new US president. Peaceful and even joyous this feast of politics may be, but also distorted by dollars, dynasties and discriminatory electoral registers. The election of 2000, which hung on a disputed vote in Florida, a politicised Supreme Court, and an electoral college victory that contradicted the popular vote, exposed the flaws for all to see.
If the democratic process is often imperfect, however, few venture to challenge the actual principle of democracy. The clinching argument tends to be Churchill's well-used quip about democracy being the worst possible form of government were it not for all the rest. And the presumption, when things go wrong, is that the practice, not the principle, is to blame.
If elections and everything they entail could be brought up, for instance, to Canadian or Scandinavian standards, then good sense and harmony would reign. So in Kenya, you might argue, as many have done in recent days, that everything went admirably until the count. In Pakistan, all would have been well had Ms Bhutto been afforded better protection. And how much fairer US elections might be were the selection process not slanted towards the north-east and so dependent on moneyed lobbyists. Seduced by the spectacle of "ordinary" voters standing in patient queues to exercise their democratic right, everywhere from South Africa through Romania to Hong Kong and post-Soviet Russia, I am as guilty of romanticising the democratic process as anyone.
Churchill, though, has another much-quoted and rather different quip that also deserves an outing. The best argument against democracy, he said, is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And perhaps it is time to ask whether it is not electoral practice, but democracy "people power" that is the problem.
In many parts of the world elections divide voters, not along political lines which may foster productive debate but along ethnic, religious or clan lines. The imposition of a recognisable political process on Iraq, via elections, was supposed to bring democratic government and peace. But the US and British administration had to downgrade its objective from "democracy" to "representational government", and finally to "security". However conscientiously Iraqi voters turned out for successive elections, these only institutionalised old divisions in the new order.
The same happens in much of post-colonial Africa. The parties in Kenya are divided pretty much along tribal lines, which is why resentment of the outcome is so bitter, and potentially so destructive. In Pakistan there was a strong regional and clan element to Benazir Bhutto's appeal. She recognised that in bequeathing leadership of the People's Party to her husband and her son. If her party wins a majority in Pakistan's parliament, is this a manifestation of democracy, or is it dynasty dressed up in democratic clothes?
Where clans, birth and names matter, the circles of power become closed. A seat in parliament, even national leadership, is inherited. And while a ruling caste may produce responsible leaders born and trained to rule, it may equally spawn an effete priviligentsia that sucks the country dry, perpetuating a cycle of penury and popular revolt.
It so happens, though, that some of today's most successful countries in the narrow economic terms used by today's number-crunchers to define national success are neither democracies or dynasties. Some, such as Russia, might fancy themselves to be democracies, or moving in that direction; others, most egregiously China, are nowhere near. What we supporters of democracy have to recognise, however, is that there are governments that would not qualify under any definition as democratic, that are nonetheless doing well by the vast majority of their citizens. And they are doing so by virtue of an essentially technocratic, apolitical approach to nation-management.
Not all are happy, of course. Those at the bottom of the pile who see others getting rich, and those intellectuals who set more store by spiritual than material things. But who are we in the prosperous world to say that the freedom to discredit the government on the airwaves is more important even as important as a decent education, healthcare or having a job? Especially if standards in all these areas are rising?
In some ways, this is the old Cold-War era argument about the right to work, education and health-care versus the right to freedom of expression, movement and assembly. Then, though, these were very clear alternatives. Living standards in the non-democracies were, at best, static, and most brands of communism veered from the merely repressive to the barbaric.
But when the difference between our system and theirs is the lack of what might be described as a classic dual- or multi-party system, then what? If there is an ostensibly competent ruling group that renews itself as and when, while producing rapid growth rates and rising living standards across the board, then what? If there is not Western-style freedom, but enough to satisfy most people, then what? Judgements are surely more difficult.
Should we then allow perhaps that a stage of benevolent authoritarianism, with a selected rather than elected meritocracy at the head, might provide an answer, especially if it kept internecine rivalries at bay? This need not be the neo-imperialism some have argued for; it would not be imposed from outside. It would be government for, if not of or by the people. The get-out clause would be that such a stage would last only so long as economic well-being were regarded as the chief determinant of contentment.In time, surely, more personal freedom would be granted from above, or successfully demanded from below.
With the rise of China, whose leaders seem to be pursuing just such a course, we may be about to learn whether there might indeed be an alternative to democracy. If there is, we would not be contemplating the end of history, but we would be watching the end of politics as we know it.Reuse content