Grappling with democracy


Democracy is an easy idea to be in favour of, unless you are in power in an authoritarian government. But why is it so important? And what is required to make democracy really work?

Those are questions I have increasingly been asking myself in recent months and years. They came back into my mind especially strongly in October, when the world watched more than 10 million citizens of Afghanistan turn out to vote for their president, in the country’s first true election. The sight of such a vote was a wonderful thing, particularly as it was taking place merely three years after America and its allies invaded the country, overthrow the brutal Taliban regime of Islamic fundamentalists, and drove out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists.

It was somewhat the same 10 years earlier, when the people of South Africa queued up in roasting heat to cast their votes for Nelson Mandela, in the first election to be held their after the collapse of the cruel and divisive apartheid system. And since then, democratic elections have spread to more and more countries around the world. Indeed, given the changes in the past 15 years or so, it can now be said that more than half the world’s population lives in democratic countries, for the first time in human history.

But what does it really mean? Clearly, those 10 million Afghans did not view the vote cynically. They, and their local chiefs or tribal elders, thought they should take this new opportunity to vote. As is the case for most people in every country in the world, neither politics nor elections are really among the most important things in their lives. Family, earning a living, educating children, surviving, and probably religion: all those are more important than politics. In Afghanistan, security and stability no doubt come before all else, for without them, none of the other things that matter can be done.

Some of those people lining up to vote may have thought that with the arrival of democracy, everything in Afghanistan would suddenly be transformed. But most won’t have done. And it certainly won’t be true that an election will have any magical effect. The task of rebuilding Afghanistan is going to be a long and hard one. There is still a lot of violence. The main cash crop is opium, serving the drug users of Europe. Many local power-holders, or warlords, still have private armies and control their provinces. The central government remains weak and poor.

In fact, the very worse thing that could happen would be for other countries, which in the past three years have given billions of dollars in aid and have provided soldiers to provide security, to conclude that now that Afghanistan is a democracy it no longer needs so much support. The opposite is true: now is when the support is most needed, but also when it could do the most good.

The reason is that democratic elections are a powerful way of making some good things possible. But elections do not make those things inevitable.

Elections are helpful because they offer a peaceful way in which a government, and the associated institutions of the state, can be made legitimate in the eyes of the people and outside organisations. That legitimacy in turn makes it possible that people, companies and other governments will trust the elected government enough to allow it to levy taxes, employ police and soldiers, set up law courts and lay down laws. They will trust it enough because they think it will be accepted generally in the country for much of its term of office, and because the voters have the power to dismiss it at the next election if it misbehaves.

Such legitimacy can be gained in other ways, which mainly means the use of actual or threatened military force. But that is costly, and is unlikely to lead easily or rapidly to trust, thus weakening the government.

Nevertheless, even with legitimacy and trust, the Afghan government will face a very difficult task in continuing to rebuild state institutions, in establishing a fair judiciary, in raising the money to provide public services, and in policing the country. It has to convince the warlords, one by one, that it, the central government, is destined to become stronger and stronger, so that if they seek to fight it and retain local control they will eventually suffer. Elections help in that process. But only as and when that process succeeds will democracy also become complete and sustainable.

The same sort of effort has been under way in Indonesia ever since the fall of President Suharto, dictator for three decades, in 1998. Six years later, Indonesia has a democracy, and has just held its first direct presidential election, a vote that passed remarkably peacefully. During those six years, the country has been unstable, economically depressed, burdened by corruption, beset by terrorism and constantly concerned that some of its regions might seek to become independent, copying the example of East Timor. The spectre of a possible military rebellion or coup d’etat has constantly hung over the country.

Yet it hasn’t happened. Somehow, Indonesia has remained united and has gradually become more stable, not less. It still faces huge social and economic problems. But democracy seems to have played an important role in keeping things stable: Indonesian citizens have come to believe that the central government is legitimate and capable of being trusted, and have retained sufficient faith that they are better off pursuing their disputes through peaceful political means than through violence.

The big question, however, is whether anything like that process can happen in Iraq. As in Indonesia, Iraq has seen a dictator toppled from power after more than three decades, and it now has its first ever chance at becoming a democracy. Yet unlike in Indonesia, Iraq’s dictator was removed by American-led military force, and well armed guerrillas (or terrorists, depending on your preferred name for them) are seeking every day to challenge or disrupt the effort to create a democratically elected central government.

The provisional government faces a dilemma: given the continued violence, should it postpone the elections, scheduled for January, in the hope that in more peaceful times elections could create a greater sense of legitimacy? Or should it go ahead, in the hope that the elections themselves will strengthen the new government’s ability to deal with the violent opposition?

The right answer, in my view, is the second: that only with elections will an Iraqi government gain the legitimacy and trust it needs if it is to build its power and defeat the violence. Elections will not guarantee that it can do so: in addition, it will also need clever policies, money, well-trained soldiers, patience and luck, all of which will require continued help from America and other outsiders. But without elections, the Iraqi government will never build the support it needs if it is to recruit and retain an army, build a police force, run a judicial system, enforce laws, educate children, and all the other functions of a modern state.

Democracy, in other words, is absolutely necessary‚ÄĒespecially in a country like Iraq (or, before it, Afghanistan or Indonesia) that has gone through such turmoil. But it can never be sufficient.