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).