Special Reports



Every day, somewhere in the world, people vote. They vote for presidents and for dog catchers. They vote on policies ranging from whether to build nuclear plants to how often to put out the rubbish. They vote when they feel they have the power to change things. They vote when they have little hope of changing anything. They vote, shamefully, when they are bribed to vote. They vote, pitifully, when they are coerced into voting. They vote, heroically, at the risk of losing their lives. Yet, although democracy is a global phenomenon, and a solution to which people have constant and sometimes desperate recourse and, although its procedures are everywhere, its substance is elusive. In many countries it is a fraud, in some it is a joke, in others it is fragile or partial. Even where, as the phrase goes, it is "well established," it often seems to lack both meaning and momentum.

Next month brings the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet the sense that the tide is running in favour of democracy, so marked as the Cold War ended, has diminished, if not entirely evaporated. At that time, the combination of democracy with a lightly regulated free market seemed to many a model on which all the world must converge. Central and Eastern Europe, much of Latin America, South Africa, Indonesia and a number of other countries did indeed set out stoutly on the democratic path. Yet the magic package was decisively rejected by China at the very beginning of the new era, and although initially embraced by Russia, it ultimately failed there. It was not even tried in most of the Middle East, and staggered from crisis to crisis in Africa. The propagation of democracy, in which the developed democracies invested much money and hope, shows the patchiest of records. There were already disasters like Cambodia, where the United Nations, while allegedly encouraging democracy, had actually ensconced an authoritarian regime. To these now had to be added other failures, notably the shambles of the Iraq project. Even if Iraqis may eventually be able to create a stable society on the back of the American intervention, the stated object of bringing democracy to the whole region looks vainglorious, to say the least, in retrospect. Finally, the financial crisis and the world recession has cast a shadow over the whole democratic endeavour. Democracy failed to control the market, and the market, as a result, threatens to damage or even bring down democracy, because it has both undermined the prosperity which sustains the democratic way and hollowed out the ideology which provided the necessary collective faith in the system.

If we only look at the most recent events, the grounds for even qualified optimism appear shaky. We have had the corrupt shambles of the Afghan elections, with Peter Galbraith resigning from his United Nations job to tell us that a third of Hamid Karzai's votes were fraudulent and that the UN is trying to cover up the problem for political reasons. Before that there was the disputed Iranian election, a grave disappointment to those, Iranian and non-Iranian, who believed that the Islamic Republic was a genuine hybrid, combining some elements of real democracy with its authoritarian and fundamentalist traditions. To go to the opposite end of the spectrum, we have had the Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty. No corruption or fraud there, true, but nevertheless a classic example of European Union arm- twisting masquerading as democracy. The Irish had rejected the treaty, so they had to be made to vote again, as the Danes were made to do in a similar situation. This time they saw reason, or, rather, they were more frightened, because of their dire economic situation, of offending Brussels, and so voted Yes. Any notion that they voted on the merits of the Lisbon Treaty is pure whimsy.

Yes, the optimist may say, but what about solid elections in countries with deep democratic roots ? Germany, Greece, and Norway have recently held orderly polls, changing or confirming their governments in an exemplary way. Even here, it is hard to be triumphant. Greece's election was influenced by forest fires, hardly the fault of the incumbent, while Norway's was cushioned by oil revenues. Germany, in particular, managed to have an election at a most critical time in its and Europe's history, without discussing any of the serious issues before the country. The key debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was characterised by one sharp-tongued journalist as "more a duet than a duel," after a campaign in which Mrs Merkel announced no policies, advanced no programmes, and rested her case on the meaningless slogan "We Have the Strength." Is it democracy when both politicians and voters run away from the issues ?

But, still, the optimists would insist, there is Obama. That was a real election, facing up to the real questions, ending with the election of an unusually attractive and charismatic leader pledged to radically amend, or to abandon, the failed policies of the Bush era. Yet in the aftermath of the elections the weaknesses of American democracy are glaringly evident. The Republican Party is so much the creature of extremists who want Obama to fail that, as Paul Krugman put it in a recent column, "the guiding principle of one of our nation's two great political parties is spite pure and simple...If Republicans think something might be good for the president they're against it -- whether or not it's good for America. Hastening the day when the rightful governing party returns to power is all that matters." Two party systems -- indeed all party systems -- depend on a balance between co-operation and competition. When that balance slips, as it has in the United States, the most rigorous observance of democratic procedures will not in itself bring good government.

It is in this context of imperfect performance in the democratic heartlands that the broader democratic defeats of the last 20 years have to be examined. What is clearer now than it was then is the importance of the Chinese rejection. In June 1989, Tienanmen put paid to hopes that China would go down the path on which Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet regime had already set out. At the time it seemed as if the Chinese leadership would soon be isolated as democratic change came to the other great communist state, and to Eastern Europe, and spread unstoppably through the rest of the world. In fact, China created a successful authoritarian capitalism, a version of which Russia would eventually adopt, and not only served as a non-democratic model for others, but also sustained, by trade and aid, dictatorial states like Burma. Its growing influence in Africa could undermine western democracy building programmes in that continent. The discontent that manifests itself in the thousands of demonstrations and riots that occur every year in China suggests that the Chinese regime may at some stage have to allow more popular participation in decision making, as well as to concede that its people have certain basic rights, that cannot be arbitrarily set aside for the convenience of the state, or for the enrichment of elites. But that day does not seem close.

Vladimir Putin revealed a month ago that he plans to be a fixture in Russian politics for many years to come. The almost joshing way in which he told Western journalists that he and Dimitri Medvedev, the current president, would decide which of the two would take the top job in 2012, tells us a great deal about the Russian system. No mention of policies, elections, campaigns, or opponents, although these will no doubt materialise, in a somewhat artificial way, when the moment comes. There are certain democratic aspects, but the essence of the system appears to be a kind of controlled predation in which the major enterprises which exploit Russia's resources do so at the regime's pleasure. Putin has squeezed independent media, political parties, and non-governmental organisations to the point where they scarcely exist, or scrape along on the margins. As in China, an assertive nationalism assures a degree of popularity when combined with enough economic growth and opportunities to keep at least the middle classes quiescent.

Democracy's failure in the territories of the two great communist powers was paralleled by its fate in the Middle East. In the Arab world a few steps forward -- a consultative council created here, women allowed in parliament there, a free vote in Lebanon after years of Syrian domination, and successful elections in Iraq -- could not conceal the fact that most regimes displayed only the trappings of democracy, and some not even those. Leaving aside the special case of Israel, the exceptions were Iran, Turkey and, perhaps, Iraq. Iran's democratic institutions were damaged, probably irretrievably, by the disputed election in June. Iraq's were only shakily established, and it is unclear whether elections there will ever escape the grip of ethnic and sectarian groups. Turkey's problem was that it looked set to join the category of countries with a permanently dominant ruling party, like South Africa and Malaysia now and like Mexico and Taiwan in the past, a condition in which the maintenance of democracy is by definition difficult. President Bush's attempt to subsume the Iraqi intervention into a campaign for democracy throughout the Middle East, meanwhile, was buried without fanfare soon after it was announced. Although Obama's approach is more subtle, and although his Cairo speech was acclaimed, there is no evidence that American pressure will bring about change any time soon in calcified regimes like that in Egypt.

Onto this already shadowed political landscape burst the current world financial crisis. Its effect has been twofold. The impoverishment, unemployment, and social tensions to which it has given rise could in themselves have a corrosive effect on democratic institutions. But the immediate impact is less significant than the damage done to the ideological underpinnings of modern democracy. The classic division between reforming parties with a critical approach to capitalism, and right of centre parties inclined to leave the market alone, while preserving certain traditional aspects of society, had segued in recent years into a consensus across most of the political spectrum in most democracies, that business must be wooed and accommodated almost without condition. This had already had unfortunate consequences for democracy. Well before the crisis, for example, the UN had found after a three year survey that "half of Latin Americans have little faith in democracy, " in the words of Mark Malloch Brown, then head of the UNDP, because of slow economic growth, growing inequality and worsening poverty.

There was an even more pernicious development, explored by John Kampfner in a recent book (1). He focuses on an unholy deal which he believes unites a number of otherwise dissimilar societies. Whether they are authoritarian states like China or established democracies like Italy or Britain, the trade-off is the same: the political class offers the better off a degree of security, comfort, and personal freedom -- in the narrow consumerist sense -- in return for the suspension, abrogation, or abandonment of freedoms and human rights in the broader society. The less better off enjoy fewer of the benefits, and suffer more from the disadvantages of such deals. The result is a "narrowing of the gap between democracies and autocracies." This also of course represents the abandonment of the ideals of solidarity and socialism. Kampfner's "pact" works better as an explanation of some societies than it does of others, but it is undoubtedly an illuminating concept. John Kenneth Galbraith laid a version of it out in ”The Affluent Society”. Mrs Thatcher's Britain, after all, was described as an "alliance of the comfortable" and as "the three quarters society."

The modern democratic wave, whose beginnings can be traced back to the Spanish, Portuguese and Greek transitions from autocracy in Europe in the seventies, and the "people power" revolution in the Philippines in 1986, swelled with the changes in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the late 1980s and after, and seemed likely, many hoped, to go on to wash over at least some of the world's remaining authoritarian redoubts. But its force is spent, and, until democratic societies can resolve the contradictions that were laid bare by the financial crisis and offer again a convincing political and economic model, that seems likely to remain the case.

(1) “Freedom for Sale” John Kampfner. Simon & Schuster 2009

Martin Woollacott

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