Tue, Nov 22, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Elections alone do not guarantee a free democracy

There is no ultimate safeguard against the abuse of political power, especially if that power has been democratically gained

By Ralf Dahrendorf

There can be no liberal order without political democracy, but today we are frequently reminded that political democracy alone does not guarantee a liberal order. Free and fair elections may lead to the ascendancy of a president of Iran who wants to "wipe Israel off the map of the Middle East." Or to a president of Venezuela whose intolerance of the business class causes jubilation in the streets, but emigration by those whose initiative is crucial for the welfare of the people. Less damaging, yet problematic, is the election -- as in Poland -- of a minority government that ruthlessly pursues its members' personal interests and breaks all promises of cooperation made before the polls.

In other words, elections are not enough if one wants to bring democracy to the world. Elections can lead to illiberal democracies and worse. They must be embedded in a much more complex institutional framework, which I would describe as the liberal order.

The first feature of the liberal order is that democracies must not tolerate those who set out to destroy democracy. Some countries, like Germany, have laws that make it possible to ban political parties whose programs are recognizably anti-democratic. In the past, the law has been used to curb parties of both the extreme left and the extreme right. This has clearly contributed to preventing any sign of a possible return to the totalitarian ways of the twentieth century.

However, it is not always evident when people and parties stand for election what they are going to do if they win. This is where rules that impose term limits on officeholders, such as the twenty-second amendment of the US constitution, have their place. Many constitutions contain such a rule and even Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he will abide by it.

Let us hope that this will in fact be the case. Elsewhere, notably in many of the Soviet Union's other successor states and in Latin America, those in power have often simply changed the constitution -- including rules on term limits -- to their advantage. This is where the second pillar of a liberal order comes into play: the rule of law.

It cannot be said too often that democracy and the rule of law are not the same thing. There are lawless democracies and undemocratic "states of law" (Rechtsstaat). The constitution of liberty requires both and the rule of law is the more difficult of the two to establish and maintain, for it requires not just a constitution but, almost more importantly, an independent judiciary that is sensitive to violations of constitutional and other legitimate rules.

It is extremely important that Iraq held elections to a constitutional assembly. This has produced -- albeit with a certain amount of external pressure notably on behalf of the Sunnis -- a document that may provide the basis for the rule of law.

But the task of finding, appointing, and accepting independent judges remains. It will be particularly difficult in an environment in which the Shariah -- that is, Islamic religious law administered not by judges but by clerics -- is never far away. The rule of secular law is the most delicate prerequisite of a liberal order.

Even then, we know from history that it takes but one enabling law to unhinge the rule of law and replace it by an ideological tyranny, as happened when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930s.

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