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Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Democracy Really the Best Political System?

Is Democracy Really Inevitable?

Hugh Graham

           It’s wonderful what happened in Libya and what’s happening in Syria. Or is it?  While the West congratulates  Libyan moderate and liberal Mahmoud Jibril on his landmark electoral victory over the Islamists, it wonders uneasily what “liberal” means in Libya and whether it includes a measure of Islamic law or if the defeated Islamists will even respect a liberal victory.

           Whatever happens to Democracy in Libya, free and fair elections remain the last sacred shibboleth for the West. And yet the more Democracy spreads across the globe, the more uncertain its future has become. Not just abroad, but at home. Most in the West take Democracy for granted, few have a passion for it, many do not even feel its effects. This is partly because of the relentless growth of executive power in places like Canada and the United States; in fact there is some apprehension that society is becoming too complex to be fully democratic, especially in the case of conglomerates like the European Union and behemoths like China.

            And then there’s decline: our political parties, like enemies under a dictatorship, are beginning to indulge the sort of rank hatred in which the other side is compared to the Nazis or simply dismissed as evil, suggesting that it has to be stopped by fair means or foul. The 2000 election of the conservative George W. Bush was turned into a coronation by a conservative supreme court on the pretext of technicalities. Money in US electoral politics is more powerful than ever.  Here in Canada, robocalls have been used in an attempt to distort election results and we have a government which tries to cripple the opposition by withholding information, hiding controversial legislation in omnibus bills and proroguing parliament: small but ironic similarities to Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” in Russia.

            Confusing perhaps, but nowhere near as confusing as the Arab Spring which has, Libya notwithstanding, turned out to be something less than the tidal wave of  Democracy everyone had hoped for. In the West, democracy is supposed to be an end in itself. In the Middle East, that is by no means clear. Tunisia and Egypt have elected Islamist governments and it’s entirely uncertain whether either one would step aside if it lost the next election. It may indeed be Bad Faith: using democratic means for undemocratic ends.

          Secular incumbents are no more likely to budge. If the Egyptian military decides it has to keep the Islamist government in check, it’s unlikely that democracy in Egypt will survive. If the Islamists prevail, things will be no better. This sort of standoff has already been seen at its worst: when Algeria elected an Islamist government in the 1990s, a secularist military voided the elections and wiped out the Islamists in a bloody civil war.

        The secular Assad regime in Syria has forestalled the Algerian dilemma by cracking down even before the Islamists have a chance at a vote. And the western media, once again, is turning a blind eye to the growing number of Islamists among the ranks of a reputedly heroic democratic opposition.  For Democracy to prevail, at the very least, such democrats, if elected, would, like the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, have to be willing to concede electoral defeat.

          If Democracy is stalled or declining, one can only ask how it will fare if autocratic China becomes the next world power. Though Democracy has been around for more than two thousand years, it’s been but one system among many and only recently the preferred one. Could the past return? To the Greeks  Democracy wasn’t even the virtuous Athenian discovery that we imagine: monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy were often considered preferable. The Democracy of the Roman Republic was thought to favour the Senatorial class while the dictatorship of Caesar and those that followed were seen to reflect the popular will (China would agree). There were small, short-lived democratic republics throughout the Middle Ages but it was feared they would lead to tyranny. American democracy, since its founding, has required a broad middle class; a class which is now in sharp decline. 

        Finally, to ask the forbidden questions: will Democracy survive? And will it always be the best system for everyone? It’s doubtful that the election in Libya, even of a moderate, will provide much of an answer.
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