Sunday, March 30, 2008

Democratic Backsliding

Elections are coming up again in Zimbabwe, my favorite train wreck of a country. The place has nearly as much potential as South Africa, but seems determined not to live up to it. This election will most likely be a sham again. Opposition candidates are arrested or beaten. Regions likely to vote against the ruling ZANU-PF party are threatened. Yet elections are still held, again and again. They are never free or fair, and never will be as long as Robert Mugabe is alive.

This made me think about democracy: some countries have been democratic and somehow transitioned out of it. The most important example is Germany, which really did elect the Nazis at one point. The failed democracies in Russia under Yeltsin and China in the early 1900s are also examples, but neither had any kind of real tradition of voting. Pakistan seems to alternate between weak democracy and military rule that's afraid to be too oppressive.

When a country beings to be democratic, it's obviously seen as a logical progression. We don't seem to talk about countries quitting the democracy club. Outside of Eastern Europe, the number of backsliders roughly approaches the number who have instituted non-shambolic democracies.

I won't go into the reasons why backsliding occurs, but it's worth noting that a lot of democracies that fall into petty dictatorships have an executive President like the US instead of a Prime Ministerial system like Canada. Is there a way to prevent democratic backsliding? Yes - it's very simple and very hard.

To keep a country democratic forever, just hold free and fair elections at a set interval. Free meaning people can vote as they see fit and regionalism isn't used as a hammer against rival parties. Fair meaning that no party obtains government or military help in "campaigning." It's a very simple theory: when any party seeking to be too authoritarian stays in power too long, the citizens will get pissed. They will eventually vote that party out. This is how democracies can be shielded against Hitlers - people who are elected and never leave.

Of course, such a simple solution means that it's also impossible. You can't simply force an unwilling government to hold an election. If the US means what it says about promoting democracy around the world, then maybe it should think about placing more emphasis on demanding elections. Egypt, for example, bans the highly popular Muslim Brotherhood from contesting elections. Vietnam bans any non-Communist party. To promote democracy, let countries elect parties the US hates. When those parties can't deliver on their messages, their reputation will be severely diminished.

Hamas won elections in Palestine, and the US was worried, with good reason. Hamas is much less friendly to US ally Israel than Fatah was. But since coming to power, Hamas has found itself unable to deliver the goods - it actually might have been more effective when it was a non-governmental organization. Free and fair elections, held again and again, will indeed remove from power those people who overreach.

If there were real elections in Zimbabwe, my cynical side tells me Mugabe and ZANU-PF would still win, since the average Zimbabwean doesn't have much basis for comparison. Mugabe did indeed end Western control of the country. He does have popular support. Forcing him not to propagandize a couple months before an election wouldn't undo the pervasive effects of his twenty-five years of propaganda. But the opposition party, the MDC, would probably get quite a few seats - a lot more than Mugabe would like. It would set itself up as a real opposition party, waiting for the elderly Mugabe to kick the bucket. Zimbabwe is not, and has never been, a real democracy. But I hold out hope that sometimes soon, it may join the club.

1 comment:

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