Thursday 25 October 2007

What happens when democracy means voting for authoritarianism?

I've written before about the difficulties that arise when a newly-democratic country makes a democratic choice, the consequence of which is to exclude or oppress significant sections of the population. The example I discussed in these earlier posts is southern Iraq, where the democratic election of conservative religious parties threatens the rights and freedoms of religious and political minorities, women and homosexuals. Some blame may be attached to the Coalition Provisional Authority, for the way it encouraged a communalist politics in the south and lent credibility to sectarian forces such as the Sadrists. However, the popular vote for the religious parties in the 2005 election appears to have been overwhelming.

So is this democracy? And where does it leave the strategy of encouraging the development of democratic reform in the Middle East, if the result is to install Islamist regimes which then proceed to limit democratic freedoms? I remember seeing a quote from a liberal Saudi woman who was emphatically against democratic change in her country, since she feared it would mean the election of an even more oppressively Islamist government. But does this mean that the west should revert to its discredited strategy of shoring up corrupt Middle Eastern dictators, for fear that their removal would lead to something much worse?

It's an issue that's been exercising Paulie over at Never Trust A Hippy. He writes:

A few times over the past year or so, I've noticed Dave Osler saying something along the lines of (and I paraphrase)...

"The problem with those who advocate democracy in the middle east have to face is that the people will vote for authoritarian Islamicist governments given the chance."... and each time I see it, I promise myself that I'll write a long post pointing out the holes in that argument: That it fundamentally misrepresents what democracy means - and reduces it to the simple process of voting.

He goes on to give a more nuanced definition of democracy:

Democracy is about a robust civil society, entrenched liberties and other important factors as much as it is about voting. A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state.

I think that's about right: in a true democracy, it shouldn't be possible for any government, however popular or democratic its mandate, to take any actions that limit democracy. This is as true of Chavez' Venezuela as it is of southern Iraq. The trouble is, I'm not sure how you guarantee this without a written constitution as a reference point: something that Paulie argued against in another post yesterday.

All of this raises a further difficult question: should political parties whose election would lead to the restriction of democratic freedoms be excluded from the democratic process? This is what an anonymous commenter called for, in response to my earlier post about southern Iraq: 'Reflection would make one realise that the political order of a free society has to be exclusive of at least some people.' But if groupings such as the Sadrists should have been excluded from the Iraqi elections because of the threat their programme posed to the rights of women, does that mean that the BNP shouldn't be allowed to stand in British general elections, since their coming to power would inevitably curtail the rights of black and Asian Britons? It's a tough one: and again, I'm not sure how you can resolve issues of this nature without a constitution setting out what those fundamental and irreducible rights and liberties are.

However, like Paulie (and as I've said before) I have some misgivings about the process of actually drafting a constitution:

All of us (even supporters of the idea) will be driven insane by having to watch the drafting of a constitution. I will personally be convicted of mass murder after a few days watching it. Pressure groups. Political correspondents. Picture the scene? You know I'm right about this?

And (as I wrote here) I have some sympathy with his argument that 'it would not be possible to introduce a constitution in this country without us first having some seismic structural change (war / inflation / revolution)'. Or at the very least, the institution of a republic.

My mention of Venezuela in this context was timely. Chavez is a democratically-elected autocrat who is pushing through constitutional reforms that would severely limit democracy. Now it seems his government is attempting to restrict the right to protest against those 'reforms' (via Harry's Place).


Paul E. said...


The UK is an example of a country that has broadly retained individual liberties without a written constitution. I agree that it would be very hard to *introduce* democracy over a fairly short period of time without one, but converting a democratic state without a constitution into one that does have one would - I beleive - be a nightmare.

And - if a state were to come into being that had all of the ingredients of one that would not need to entrench liberties in a constitution - then I suspect that it would be better off without one.

Anonymous said...

Cross-posted to The New Centrist:

Martin in Margins has an excellent post regarding the tension between emphasizing process or, emphasizing outcome, in democracy promotion efforts. Some analysts and academics place an emphasis on process. Essentially, the result of the election is less important than the election itself being fair and transparent. If people are given a political choice and they choose radical religious candidates over moderate secular ones, who are we to determine their political decisions? For others, often policymakers, the emphasis is on outcome. Simply stated, the goal of democracy promotion is fostering states that acknowledge private property rights and the rule of law, majority rule and minority rights, provide the political space for the development of an independent civil society (media, unions, professional organizations, etc.), and so on and so forth.

Roland Dodds said...

Great post, and it hits the reasons to support democrats in both totalitarian regimes and in “democracies.” The vote is only a part of a democratic system, and unless the other basic principles of a liberal democracy are in place (the respect for an individual and the enshrined right to free speech and organization), a true democratic society it is not. The vote is just one small part of the democratic system.

Martin said...

Roland - thanks for the comment - as a result of which I've discovered your blog - looks good!

New Centrist - appreciate the cross-posting.

Paulie - I have a lot of sympathy for what you say - even more so after this week's talk of a 'bill of rights and responsibilities'..Perhaps what we need, right now, is not so much a rush to a constitution/bill of rights - rather a better-informed constitutional debate, one which isn't left to the politicians or the most vocal interest groups...

Anonymous said...


Not sure if you have had an opportunity (or the inclination) to have a look at this month’s “Commentary.” A large portion of the magazine consists of responses to the question:

'On the specific issue of the spread of democracy—a linchpin of the Bush Doctrine and a point of acute controversy between foreign-policy realists and neoconservatives—do you agree or disagree with Podhoretz that “democratization represents the best and perhaps even the only way to defeat Islamofascism and the terrorism it uses as its main weapon against us”?'

I thought of your post as I read a number of responses. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s comments are especially relevant:

“I think our emphasis must be more on liberty than democracy, which a careful reading of President Bush’s speeches shows is his real emphasis. To state the obvious, liberty is not the same as democracy, the first being freedom from government, the second being one way to select governments. Many Muslim societies—and many non-Muslim societies, while we are on the subject—need the former more urgently than the latter.”

Here is R. James Woolsey:

“[A]lthough I agree with the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on democratization, balloting may not come first. Instead, in many societies, one should often begin (following John Rawls and Amartya Sen) by building on existing “institutions of public reason” such as the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. History and ownership of institutions matter. In Iraq, for example, we should have given back to the Iraqis their own 1925 constitution instead of drafting one for them, especially since in doing so we set up a copy of Weimar Germany’s historically disastrous structure of proportional representation and party lists—an electoral system that encourages factions instead of a more stable system based on single-member constituencies that encourage two parties to compete for the center.”

I recommend checking it out.