Adrian Hamilton: Democracy is not an end in itself

The West's desire to show progress makes it reluctant to call a dud election a sham

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:04

While we embark on our own scrappy election, elsewhere democracy doesn't seem to be going quite so smoothly. The withdrawal of the main opposition party in southern Sudan has thrown the elections there into crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to allow her democratic party to take part in the vote in Burma. In Afghanistan the head of the Independent Election Commission and his deputy have been forced to resign after an election which nobody thinks was conducted fairly and few believe President Karzai won, while the recent poll in Iraq has left that country's government paralysed by an indecisive result.

And that is not to mention the troubles in Egypt over the prospect of a genuine challenger to President Mubarak, the bloody confrontations in Iran over its disputed elections and the tense, not to say oppressed, parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka after the civil war there.

Not that the British can exactly boast about their Mother of Parliaments, with expenses scandals tarnishing the brand and voter participation heading below 60 per cent in elections (far lower in local polls and the European Parliamentary votes).

In all the somewhat patronising talk about how it takes time to root democracy in emerging countries, and even how it is not always appropriate to other cultures, it is sometimes forgotten that we, who have been at it over 700 years, seem to be losing faith, or at least popular enthusiasm, for it back here.

But then that may be the best thing to remember in the post-Bush discussion about democracy and its suitability around the globe. Too often it has been presented – and was certainly presented by Bush and Blair – as a sort of civilising gift from the white man to the developing world which would ensure them peace, prosperity and freedom. Enforce free elections, and authoritarian regimes would be overthrown, belligerency would be abandoned and a spirit of rationalism and conciliation would draw even the most fractious states together.

If only it did work like that. But it doesn't and it hasn't. Democracy, like any other political system, is ultimately about power. And for those with power it becomes a means of retaining their position. For authoritarian regimes in particular, with control of the registration and voting procedures, elections are used as a means of asserting their authority not a way of challenging it. It is what is happening in Sudan and in Burma. It's how President Karzai saw it in Afghanistan and how President Mugabe took it in Zimbabwe. Far from being threatened by the vote, they see it as a stick with which to beat back domestic opposition and foreign criticism.

The trouble is that so much of Western pressure on countries to introduce democracy actually aids authoritarian regimes in this approach. Elections are made the condition of approval of aid or diplomatic relations. They are then seized on as a useful gesture by the governments concerned, who see that they can turn them to their own advantage, while other power groups look to them as a means of furthering their own interests.

Of course the outside world tries to ensure fairness with observers and rules. But they are inevitably caught up in the politics of place which they don't usually understand and have little control over. Worse, the desire by the Western world to show progress and open up communication means that they are very reluctant to call a dud election a sham.

Take Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has come under some criticism for boycotting the elections, not least from an international community desperate to try and get some kind of movement from the military junta there. Any vote is better than none, they argue. But the reality, from the National League for Democracy, is that none is a great deal better than a complete charade in which they are expected to accept a negation of their victory a decade ago and to participate in a vote that they know is stacked up against them.

So too with Sudan. Anxious to draw the Sudanese regime back into the international fold, and to cement the peace agreements in the south and in Darfur, the outside world has tended to dismiss the actions of the main opposition party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, to boycott the presidential elections and remove itself from most of the parliamentary ones as self-interested and unhelpful to the wider interests of peace.

But democratic politics is about self-interest and outside intervention only intensifies the conflicts by interposing another element to be called upon in the power struggle.

Democracy is rule by the majority and, in a deeply divided society, that majority uses it to suppress the minority. That is what happened as the Shia took power in Iraq and it has occurred in Kenya and much of Africa. If outsiders then move in to prevent that happening, or to favour one candidate over another, as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq, it only makes matters worse.

That does not negate the idea, or the benefits, of democracy. Clearly it did work in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union. And it seemed to be working in Ukraine and Georgia. But that only lulled the world into a false sense that it was easy. It hasn't been so, as the experience of the Caucuses, central Asia and Africa have shown.

Democracy is a mechanism for resolving competing interests and giving a voice to those who would otherwise have no stake in the system. At the very least it's a lot better than tyranny. At it's best it can bring a resolution to the internal strains of a country.

But it is not an end in itself. The West has made a mistake in presenting it as such. It has made an even greater mistake in wrapping it in the clothes of a Western ideal that is being gifted to the world at large.

In doing so we downplay the values which are universal and which make democracy work – free speech, equal opportunity, the protection of minorities and the rule of law. If we hammered on about those and talked less of the "spread of democracy", we might well get further.

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