Down with democracy
Dec 6th 2007From Economist.com
A democratic vote is necessary, but not sufficient
WHAT could be more democratic than an election that reflects the majority’s will? Opinion polls consistently give Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, an approval rating above 80%. So his party’s thumping election victory on December 2nd simply shows that Russia is being governed as its people wish. If the rest of the world doesn’t like it, then the rest of the world had better mind its own business.
Actually, it shouldn’t. Democracy is a slippery concept. It has become a hooray-word, with lots of loosely defined positive associations, but it is worth remembering that it used to be a boo-word, with lots of negative ones.
For most of the 19th century it was a synonym for mob rule (for which the lovely but little-used “ochlocracy” would be an even more precise term). Democracy as a term came into fashion during the 1930s, as a counterpoint to the then fashionable autocratic regimes in most of continental Europe. Since then it has become stretched and debased, almost to the point of uselessness.
The trouble with democracy is that the vote in itself means so little. Everything depends on who is allowed to vote, who selects the candidates or drafts the question, and what happens in the years, months, weeks and days beforehand. That raises harder questions about the rule of law, public-spiritedness, and the strength of fair-minded, disinterested institutions.
The Soviet Union held a referendum in March 1991 asking (some) voters “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”
Was that a “democratic” vote? The drafters of the question certainly thought so. But the Baltic states regarded it as a fix: their peoples had already voted for parliaments that were trying to regain independence from the Kremlin as soon as possible. Yet their decisions in turn were termed illegitimate by the men in Moscow.
Particularly when coupled with ethnic self-determination, “democracy” can be a recipe for disaster, in which multi-ethnic countries splinter into smaller and smaller units, with tempers fraying and the danger of violence growing. Kosovo has voted clearly for independence from Serbia. But if that claim rests solely on popular will, why should not the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo themselves vote to secede? And if that were allowed, what about the Serb regions of Bosnia, which was so painfully re-stitched into a multi-ethnic country again at Dayton?
Popular will is important but not enough. An entity that secedes must be viable, either by joining another country, or making a legitimate go of independence. Historical context matters too: Kosovo’s claim to statehood is strengthened by its history as a constituent province of the old Yugoslavia, and even more so by the fact that its people suffered a near-genocidal attack by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade.
Even more important is a willingness to accommodate the outside world’s scruples and standards. Hostility towards ethnic minorities, for example, undermines the case for independence. Until the breakaway states of the Caucasus (Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh) are willing to offer a safe and attractive life to refugees returning from Georgia and Azerbaijan, they will find little support.
In guaranteeing good government, “democracy” is the wrong tool: a hammer in place of a screwdriver. The unpleasant paradox is that the countries that most need strong institutions and a law-based state are the ones least likely to have them. So Russia’s election result may look like a thumping democratic mandate, but it is merely a rigged plebiscite that confirms the continued rule of junta of ex-spooks.
Friday, December 07, 2007