Thursday, January 4, 2007

Elections = Democracy?

There's a lot of talk about democracy and elections these days. It's a good time to examine the relationship between the two.

Most governments in the world today profess to have elections, and the majority have free and fair elections based on some kind of constitution. Do "free and fair" elections guarantee democracy? No. Just ask non-Party members in China, the minority Sunnis in Iraq, non-Muslims in Iran, non-mafia in Russia, non-Saud in Saudi Arabia, etc.

Democratic institutions are what create democracy. A democracy with elections is a representative democracy. An example of democratic government without elections would be the anarchist Zapatistas in Mexico, who use consensus government at the local level.

We need to remember the core characteristics of democracy, so we don't end up without one:

- The rule of law. Usually this is enshrined in a constitution and other stable codes of law, and it's always enforced by an independent judiciary.

- Equal protection under law with basic rights guarantees. This limits majority rule.

- Loyal opposition. That means no civil war or secession.

- Professional bureaucracy. Democracies must have stable, effective, corruption-free government institutions that last longer than terms of office.

- Equal representation of individuals. This could be through elections of representatives, through town hall-style issue polls, through consensus government, etc.

- Economic justice. So powerful people and institutions don't effectively run the show despite the above.

A nation missing any of these things will not succeed as a democracy.

1 comment:

Peter LeSourd said...

This is a basic reason why the Bush Administration's "export democracy" policy is fatally flawed. An example from my own experience is Croatia, where I spent a year in 1996-97 running a program that assisted the Croatians with the transition of their legal system after the collapse of communist Yugoslavia. Communist Yugoslavia had extensive commerce with the West. Prior to WW II, Croatia and the rest of Yugoslavia had a private market economy and one of the oldest Civil Law systems in Europe, so they had a tradition to return to. Yet now, more than 15 years after achieving independence, Croatia still struggles to implement the policies and systems you have outlined. Those who hold power will do everything within their control to maintain that power when the underlying political structure is ostensibly changed.