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Elections Do Not a Democracy Make: Call it The Year of the Ballot

By A. Weiss

Last weekend, voters in three countries went to the polls. In Malaysia, voters rejected the Islamic Party in favor of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's moderate brand of Islam. In Taiwan, the disputed presidential election has been thrown to the courts. And in El Salvador, a pro-American businessman defeated a pro-Cuban Marxist for president.

In Algeria, the presidential election next month will reveal whether secular nationalists and moderate Islamic parties can co-exist after a bloody 12-year civil war. In India, the governing nationalist coalition is expected to prevail in elections next month even as it struggles to preserve what Nehru called "a secular state in a religious country" of Hindus and Muslims. And Indonesia's first direct presidential election will show this year whether the country continues its slow march forward as a democracy-in-progress.

In Iraq, the new interim Constitution -- the most progressive document in the Arab world -- calls for national elections by January 2005. Whereas in Afghanistan, the first free elections will likely be delayed because of continuing violence and the challenge of registering voters, especially women.

Commentators are celebrating these and other electoral mile-stones as proof of the triumph of democracy. But as demonstrated by the recent phony election in Iran and the coronation of Czar Vladimir Putin in Russia, elections do not a true democracy make.

From Hitler to Milosevic to Aristide, history is littered with examples of democratically elected leaders undermining democracy itself. The aborted Algerian elections of 1991 threatened to empower the Radical Islamic Salvation Front, one of whose leaders declared, "When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling." Put another way: one man, one vote, one time.

Today, a majority of the world's countries are indeed electoral democracies. At the same time, most countries still are not free, according to the independent institute Freedom House. How to explain this paradox? Democracy and freedom are not the same. Democracy is the ability to choose one's leaders in elections. Freedom is the ability to exercise one's personal, political and economic rights.

The democratic ideal may be universal, but history reveals that democracy is a luxury. A country can afford democracy only after it fulfills the most basic needs of its citizens, especially their economic security. No one can think of democracy on an empty stomach. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in The Threepenny Opera: "Food is the first thing. Morals follow on. So first make sure that those who now are starving get proper helpings when we do the carving."

Many conflicts around the world attributed to ethnic or religious rivalries are in fact battles over economics, resources and wealth. In Indonesia, the 27-year separatist revolt in Aceh is as much about keeping more of the province's oil and gas profits as about the right to practice Islamic law. Muslim agitation in southern Thailand stems less from religious fundamentalism than economic neglect from Bangkok. The root causes of Algeria's troubles are not religious but economic - the persistent inequities between the francophone elite and the unemployed masses.

Good economics, on the other hand, promote good politics. The seed of democracy and prosperity was planted in autocratic South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and elsewhere by building market-based economies. Political and economic stability helped attract investment. Economic growth eventually produced history's greatest catalyst for democratic change - a prosperous middle class that demanded more political freedom.

This is the great balancing act now underway in Beijing - how to preserve Hong Kong as China's trade and finance capital without allowing local demands for direct elections to undermine the Communist grip on the mainland.

Get the economics right, and a country has a much better chance of getting democracy right. Developing nations can learn from Japan and the "four little dragons." South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore achieved high growth by investing in the education and health of their peoples. Conversely, from Angola to Venezuela, citizens of resource-rich countries that fail to diversify their economies tend to be worse off by every measure - income, jobs, education, health - than people in resource-poor countries.

The great task of building stable, prosperous, democratic states is neither quick nor easy. The American experience counsels patience. After the first eight years as a weak confederation, the United States was divided and bankrupt. The word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Inde-pendence or the U.S. Constitution. Full suffrage was denied to African-Americans and women until the 20th century.

What has taken the West centuries cannot be transplanted or replicated overnight. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish observed: "Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing." Among the most important things that a nation must do is to give its citizens a vested economic interest in a stable, prosperous, democratic future.
 

 

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