Democracy is ill served by its self-appointed guardians
By Simon Jenkins
Our sonorous moralising lies behind so much bloodshed in the past 50 years. A sense of history surely counsels humility
05/03/08 “The Guardian” — – 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.
Democracies are like two-year-olds: adorable when they belong to you, but you never see them as others do. Downing Street 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’hôte 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 Chávez, hero of Venezuela, had to concede defeat last autumn after a referendum denied his bid to rule for life.
Read all of it here.