Democracy ill served

THIS week’s Russian elections were “limited” and “less than free and fair”, according to western monitors. The last elections in Iraq, by contrast, were “a triumph for democracy”. The forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe and Iran have been pre-emptively dismissed as a travesty. Those in Pakistan were, by general consent, an affirmation of freedom.

By Simon Jenkins (World View)

Published: Fri 7 Mar 2008, 9:31 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:24 PM

Democracies are like two-year-olds: adorable when they belong to you, but you never see them as others do. London had a problem with the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, since the procedure by which he was chosen was little short of feudal. Yet Gordon Brown could hardly slap him on the back as the victor in some great electoral tourney. Medvedev might hit back with a joke about Western leaders also being slid into office by friends and predecessors — and at least he had an election of sorts. The British prime minister wisely muttered something noncommittal and put down the phone.

We are in the midst of an astonishing festival of elections in countries as diverse as Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Taiwan, Kenya, Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, Thailand, Serbia, Zimbabwe, Spain and Italy. And then there is the daddy of them all, America’s primaries. Only one generalisation can be made of them, that no generalisation applies.

Democracy is the new Christianity. It is the chosen faith of Western civilisation, and carrying it abroad is the acceptable face of the Crusader spirit.

In reinterpreting Tony Blair’s interventionism, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, spoke recently of the West’s “mission” to promote democracy, even by economic and military warfare. With his eyes fixed on Iraq and Afghanistan, Miliband contrived both to assert that “we cannot impose democratic norms” and then demand that we do just that.

The truth is that neither Blair nor Miliband, nor the rest of us, has any idea of what we are about. We expect far too much of democracy, and of others who claim to espouse it. We treat it as a rigid set of rules from which no wavering is tolerable. The ballot is a sacred rite and any contamination is blasphemy. We incant the Nicene creed when we should stick to the Sermon on the Mount.

Let us upend the customary analysis. At one extreme stands an ideal: democracy as the full table d’hote of secret ballots, civil rights, a free Press, freedom of assembly, balance of power and discretionary local government. It applies in pathetically few states, even in the supposedly democratic West. Menken reasonably dismissed it as “a dream, to be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus and Heaven”.

At the other, more crowded extreme is a rough and ready electoral process exerting some form of restraint on a ruling elite. One of Africa’s nastiest dictators, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, regards as a genuine threat the electoral challenge of his former finance minister, Simba Makoni, in an election Mugabe feels he cannot avoid. In Kenya what is significant is not that the leadership rigged an election but that the outcome was denied popular consent, and order collapsed as a result. The same happened in Serbia in 2000. Even Hugo Chavez, hero of Venezuela, had to concede defeat last autumn after a referendum denied his bid to rule for life.

Likewise Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, felt obliged to hold reasonably open elections, despite the likelihood that they would lead to his downfall. In Iran, thoroughly polluted elections still threaten to undermine the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is milking the popularity bonanza America has handed him in Iraq.

In all these cases some ideal of democracy is exerting its mystic force. Even where consent is presumed, as in Russia, the ballot is the ghost in the machine. It is the ultimate legitimiser, the point to which all power aspires and from which it measures its own backsliding.

Russia’s elections were imperfect, their casual and crude corruption by Vladimir Putin yet another way of displaying his autocratic machismo. He may have failed to live up to the standards the west “expects”. But he appears to have correctly read the mood of his people, who simply want a strong hand on the wheel for as long as possible.

I cannot see what purpose is therefore served by hurling abuse at these states. Russia’s path to political emancipation is tentative, if not in reverse. That country has never ticked more than a handful of democracy’s boxes, yet is still incomparably freer than under communism. Its pastiche of monopoly capitalism — Putin’s “managed democracy” — so contrasts with the chaos of the 1990s that even sophisticated Russians tell western interviewers that they would happily buy stability and discipline at the expense of another such gamble. We can tell them they are wrong until the cows come home. But we did not live in Russia in the 1990s.

Western leaders, as they beat a cringing path to the door of China’s dictators, buy this argument from Beijing. Why do they expect Moscow to behave differently? The famous “raising of human rights issues” by western visitors to China, before talking hard cash, now has the familiarity of a tea ceremony. It is these same leaders who, having destroyed order in Iraq and Afghanistan, hail them as democracies when in reality they are anarchies, failed states. To vote for a ruler in a fortress is not to participate in a democracy.

There is just no point in the sonorous moralising of western NGOs characterised by the (normally admirable) Human Rights Watch. It complains that “by allowing autocrats to pose as democrats, without demanding they uphold the civil and political rights that make democracy meaningful, influential democrats risk undermining human rights”.

What are these words “allowing ... demanding ... undermining”? Their major premise is not just western superiority, to which I might subscribe, but western potency and, most extraordinary (and illegal), a western right to global sovereignty. The assumption behind “demand” has lain at the root of so much useless bloodshed in the past half century that a sense of history might surely counsel humility. And this from a Europe whose rulers in Brussels propose using opinion polls as the basis for their legislative legitimacy, without a peep of complaint from democracy’s self-appointed guardians.

Democracy is an invitation to hypocrisy. Let us practise it ourselves and, if we must preach, preach by example.

Simon Jenkins is a veteran British journalist and Guardian columnist

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