Friday, December 07, 2007

Down with democarcy

Down with democracy
Dec 6th 2007From
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.
AFPWhose will?
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.


Martin-Éric said...

That casting a ballot has nothing to do with democracy (power of the people) is nothing new, but try explaining that to the mass of idiots who think that casting a ballot is some wonder drug. Heck, most western countries have electoral systems that factually guarantee that the politicians won't ever accountable; it's not only a Russian issue.

White Crow said...


since you seem to believe that hostility to ethnic minorities makes the case for independence in Abkhazia questionable, how then do you see the case of Kosovo in the light of the hostilities towards Serbs? Or do you believe that suffered injustice is justification for inflicting injustice? Just curious.

White Crow said...

I just noticed you are linking a racist hate site from your blog. That's rather sad, and as a result, this will be the last time for me here. (I must have missed it the previous times I came here).

Konrad von Swalwagner said...

I hope the buddies at The Economist will correct the typo in the title of this article.

shadarca73 said...

I think you make Mr. Lucas makes a good case about democracy going beyond voting (I also think that this is not new and notorious democracies such as Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Popular Republic of China go on experimenting on the concept). Also, I found interesting to learn that the word gain popularity only in the 30ies of the last century (so the old democracies are not that old?).
But even accepting that democracy is something that goes beyond ballots into the society making informed and free choices about its future, I wonder if richness is not a precondition for democracy? To make informed choices one needs to have information and be educated enough as to be able to tell the difference. Well, if people in a poor country cannot afford education, who is really making the choices?
Similarly, the rule of law is a learning process. In the USSR the disputes were settled by the communist apparatchiks outside the courts. How to expect that in the former USSR countries people will all of the sudden trust the courts? Certainly, not before they see some fair trials.
I am coming to make the point that sticks and carrots efforts of the “old democracies” are needed in order to reduce poverty, invest in education and enable the rule of law. Otherwise, the “democratic” propaganda is bound to compromise the concept altogether.