Democracy Paradox

In our globalized world, the potential divorce between elections and the public franchise has assumed a new dimension

Opinion | Dominique Moisi | October 2009

Elections stolen in Iran, disputed in Afghanistan, and caricatured in Gabon: recent ballots in these and many other countries do not so much mark the global advance of democracy as demonstrate the absence of the rule of law.

Of course, elections that lead to illiberal outcomes, and even to despotism, are not a new phenomenon. Hitler, after all, came to power in Germany in 1933 through a free, fair, and competitive election. Moreover, problematic elections constitute a specific challenge for the West, which is simultaneously the bearer of a universal democratic message and the culprit of an imperialist past that undermines that message’s persuasiveness and utility.

In a noted essay in 2004, for example, the Indian-born author Fareed Zakaria described the danger of what he called "illiberal democracy." For Zakaria, America had to support a moderate leader like General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, despite the fact that he had not come to power through an election. By contrast, Zakaria argued, Venezuela’s populist president, Hugo Chávez, who was legitimately elected, should be opposed.

In our globalized world, the potential divorce between elections and democracy has assumed a new dimension. With instantaneous communication and access to information, the less legitimate a regime, the greater will be the temptation for it to manipulate, if not fabricate, the results of elections. The "trendy" way is to manufacture a significant but not too massive victory. Today’s despots view near-unanimous Soviet-style electoral "victories" as vulgar and old fashioned.

But another new aspect of this phenomenon are opposition forces that are willing to attempt to negate such machinations by the party in power. Confronted with this dual process of illegitimacy, the West often finds itself condemned to sit between two chairs, and to face criticism whatever the outcome. Those in power, as in Iran, accuse Western governments of supporting the opposition, and those in opposition accuse the West of supporting the government, as has happened to France in the case of Gabon.

So what lessons should we draw from the inevitably messy nature of electoral processes in countries where there is either no middle class or only a rudimentary one, and where a democratic culture is at best in its infancy?

The time has come for the West to reassess its policies in a fundamental way. It cannot switch from "activism" at one moment to abstention the next. A refusal to act, after all, is also a political choice.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

Other articles from this issue