Sat, Jan 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Elections don't equal legitimacy

By Ralf Dahrendorf

In Western countries, notably in the US, people tend to assume too much when it comes to bringing democracy -- meaning elections in the first instance -- to others.

In particular, we assume an essentially homogenous electorate, so that even a low turnout does not involve any disadvantage for particular ethnic or cultural groups. We also assume an automatic acceptance of rules that in fact took a long time to become embedded even in the US.

Without legitimacy, there can be no stability in any political system, and without elections -- that is, an explicit expression of popular consent to the holders of power -- there can be no legitimacy. But while free elections are a necessary condition of legitimacy, they are far from being sufficient to assure it. Constitutional arrangements must guarantee all entrenched groups a place in the countries' political institutions. It is equally imperative to establish the rule of law, exercised by an independent and respected judiciary.

We should remember this as we pursue the elusive objective of democracy in Iraq, so that we are not surprised if the upcoming election fails to generate a legitimate government.

Ralf Dahrendorf, author of numerous acclaimed books and a former European commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a former rector of the London School of Economics, and a former warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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