H.D.S. Greenway

Democracy - it’s not for everyone

By H.D.S. Greenway
November 17, 2009

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WINSTON CHURCHILL once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time. But Churchill was speaking from the mother of parliaments in 1947, in an age that had emerged from the fascist darkness only to see the iron curtain of Communism descending across Europe. India and Pakistan had just gained their freedom, but most of the other lands in what came to be called the Third World were still in the grip of European colonialism.

How has democracy fared in the decades since? It has thrived in Eastern Europe since the end of Soviet empire 20 years ago. It has served India well and Pakistan badly. In much of Africa democracy has provided a shell under which gangsters plunder and beggar their people.

Recently, a stolen election in Afghanistan has been a disaster for American hopes and policy. There will soon be another election in Iraq that will do little to heal that bitterly divided country.

An American-backed election brought Hamas to power in Gaza in 2006. But instead of honoring the voice of the people, Israel, with American connivance, simply locked the territory down, turning Gaza into a virtual prison in one of the most notable cases of collective punishment on the face of the globe. When Islamic parties won an election in Algeria in 1991, the West encouraged the reversal of election results, suggesting an hypocrisy that says democracy is only permissible when the results are favorable to us.

People the world over treasure a chance to have some say about how they are ruled, but too often elections are used cynically. There used to be a saying east of Suez that democracy was like a ceremonial elephant, splendid to look at and very good for pleasing foreigners. But there must never be a question of who rides whom.

George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives put a great deal of store in the transformational power of democracy. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, many naively believed, would transform the Middle East from the authoritarian rule of sheiks and emirs to a Western democracy that would be friendly to Israel.

Instead of the invasion of Iraq transforming the Middle East, the realities of the Middle East transformed Iraq. Democracy has not brought divergent Iraqi interests together, nor has it erased the divisions of ethnicity and tribe. And there seems little chance that Iraq will be opening an embassy in Tel Aviv any time soon.

In many societies democracy is imperfectly understood. Rory Stewart, in his book “The Prince of the Marshes,’’ remembered when an American came to the Iraqi district where he was administrator to explain democracy. The American drew the typical organizational rectangle on the blackboard with four lines coming down to represent branches of authority. “He’s drawing a dog,’’ Stewart heard some of the sheiks in the back saying. When the American began to talk about democracy in Africa, the sheiks grumbled and wondered whether he thought they were Africans. When the American mentioned Nigeria, the sheiks walked out.

Perhaps the best to be hoped for Iraq is that it emerges into something like Lebanon, a troubled land at best, riven with factions and prone to undue influence from other countries.

Jessica Stern, in her book “Terror in the Name of God,’’ wrote that “democratization is not necessarily the best way to fight Islamic extremism. Most states that attempt to transition from autocracy to democracy get stuck in a kind of in between state. And electoral democracy does not necessarily imply liberal democracy. . . ’’ Too often Western-style democracy just leads to cronyism and kleptocracy.

It would be hard to argue now that a traditional loya jirga, in which Afghan tribal elders get together to decide who rules, wouldn’t have been better than insisting on a Western-style election in Afghanistan.

Churchill, were he alive today, might have said democracy is the best of all forms of government in countries that have the necessary institutions in place and are ready for it. All democracies need elections, but not all elections lead to democracy.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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