Tue, Jan 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Democracy means more than just elections

The rule of law must come first when rebuilding former dictatorships. Elections come second

By Ralf Dahrendorf


The philosopher Karl Popper had ample reason to propose a precise definition of democracy. Democracy, he said, is a means to remove those in power without bloodshed. Popper's preferred method, of course, was the ballot box.

Popper's definition avoids theological disputes about the "rule of the people," and whether such a thing can actually exist. It also spares us the attempt to stick all kinds of possibly desirable objectives into the definition, like equality in social as well as technical terms, a general theory of the actual process of "democratization," or even a set of civic virtues of participation.

But Popper's definition of democracy does not help when it comes to a question that has become topical in many parts of the world: what if those removed from power believe in democracy, whereas those who replace them do not? What in other words, if the "wrong" people are elected?

There is no shortage of examples. In Europe, parties of dubious democratic pedigree have done well in recent years: Joerg Haider in Austria, Christoph Blocher in Switzerland, Umberto Bossi in Italy, Jean-Marie LePen in France -- the list is long. At best, the electoral victories of such groups make the formation of responsible governments difficult; at worst, they foreshadow actively anti-democratic movements capable of getting a majority by election.

This is what has happened or is happening in many parts of the world. Two recent examples stand out. One is found in the post-communist countries of East and Southeast Europe, a surprising number of which have elected members of the old nomenklatura under a new guise.

The most extreme current case is Serbia, where a big part of the electorate gave their votes to men standing trial for war crimes in The Hague. The other example is Iraq. What if the American dream of bringing democracy to that troubled country ends in its citizens electing a fundamentalist movement to power?

The mere thought of such examples leads to the clear conclusion that democracy is not just about elections. In fact, of course, the early advocates of democracy had all kinds of things in mind. John Stuart Mill, for example, regarded "nationality," a cohesive society within national boundaries, as a precondition for democracy.

Another precondition for Mill was the ability and desire of citizens to make considered choices. Today we no longer take such virtues as given. They were probably exercised by only a minority of people even at the time when Mill wrote on representative government.

Today democracy has to mean "elections plus" -- but plus what? There may be some technical measures that can be taken, like banning parties and candidates who campaign against democracy, or whose democratic credentials are weak.

This worked in postwar Germany, but then traumatic memories of the Nazis and the relative weakness of anti-democratic movements helped. A more relevant example may well be Turkey, where Islamist movements were dissolved by the courts; when they reappeared in a different guise, they had to undergo severe tests.

Yet one can easily see the problems: who judges the eligibility of candidates and how are such judgments enforced? What if the groundswell of support for an anti-democratic movement is so strong that the suppression of its organization leads to violence?

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