Democracy is not a panacea

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — U.S. President George W. Bush has at times seemed to regard “democracy” as a panacea for all the problems of government throughout the world. It’s far from clear, though, what exactly he means by “democracy.” If a government is duly chosen by a majority of voters in a fair election, should not the results be accepted even if they are unpalatable?

“Democratic” elections, if they are to be seen as fair, require some important preconditions. One of these is an independent legal system and acceptance by voters of the rule of law and outlawing corrupt practices. Another is that voting rules are transparent and electoral registers properly maintained to prevent fraudulent votes being cast. A third is that the vote count be viewed as fair, and confirmed by an independent body.

But these alone are insufficient. There must be a willingness to accept that elections could bring about a change of government. Other necessary rules include a fair system of deciding constituency boundaries. But the existence of a free press (as well as other media) must be an overriding condition.

Sadly there are not many countries where all these conditions are met. In Kenya, where the recent election has led to violence, practically none of these necessary conditions applied. The governing party of President Mwai Kibaki refused to accept that Raila Odinga had won and tribal violence erupted.

No independent observer doubts that corruption is widespread in Kenya and the independence of the judiciary is widely questioned. The election in Nigeria earlier in 2007 was marred by widespread corruption and allegations of intimidation.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe only remains in power because of the thuggish behavior of his supporters. Democratic government is possible in Africa, as we can see in South Africa, but there is no real alternative to the present government and a strong opposition is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy in the longer term.

In Pakistan, elections have had to be postponed, and many question whether the conditions for free and fair elections can exist in present circumstances where so much power lies with the army and where terrorists are working hard to disrupt the political process.

India remains the world’s largest democracy, where it is possible for opposition parties to gain power. There are no doubt holes in the electoral system and corruption is rife, but the situation in India contrasts very favorably with that in its neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the Far East, Japan and South Korea have sound democratic systems even if they don’t always work in the way politicians want them to. It is difficult to see how free and fair elections can be held in China while one party rule is upheld, human rights are set aside and corruption is not kept in check.

In the Middle East, democracy is widely challenged. And American efforts to spread democracy have not generally had much success.

Iraqi elections are often held up as an example of the progress Iraq has made, but it is hard to see how the elections could be wholly fair when there is so much intimidation and lawlessness in Baghdad and in the regions.

Iran is regarded as a theocracy rather than a democracy, but the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president was at least partially democratic and it seems possible that in due course he could be ousted from office. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have so far successfully resisted American attempts to persuade them to accept more democratic forms of government. Egypt did modify some aspects of its regime under American pressure but it is hardly a parliamentary democracy. No Arab regime can be regarded as democratic in the sense we normally use the term.

In the Caucasus, the results of the recent election in Georgia have been contested by the opposition, but observers while critical of some aspects of the election seem to think that the president was correctly re-elected.

The election in the Ukraine last September was contentious but the “orange revolution” seems to have been upheld. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin remains popular but opposition to him is dangerous and the media seems subservient. So it is impossible to regard Russia as a democratic state.

The existence of a parliamentary democracy and of the rule of law is a condition for membership in the European Union, and in the last few years there have been significant changes of government in Europe and some interesting elections, such as that in France last year. The French Socialists did not like the result but they accepted it. Now they can have their fun watching the antics of their president with his latest girlfriend.

Most of us view with some bewilderment the extraordinary spectacle of the American primaries. It seems a very odd process, but despite the way in which American congressional districts have been rigged, congressional and presidential elections do ensure that parties can and do swap power. The constitutional amendment limiting a president to two terms seems sensible.

Some observers might think it would be a good idea to try to find a way to limit the ability of families to hold office consecutively not only in the United States but also in Japan, where some families seem to hold sway from generation to generation. But it is hard to see how this could be done without going against democratic principles!

In democratic countries we cannot afford to be complacent about our procedures. In particular we need always to be vigilant to prevent abuses of the voting system. In Australia it has been alleged that in the last election multiple voting was allowed to take place in some constituencies. In Britain we need to make political funding more transparent. In Japan more should be done to ensure equality between constituencies and to prevent rural areas from being over-represented.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.