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The Danger of Multi-Party Democracy and Free Elections in Plural Societies:

Sometimes the Wrong Forces Win, Sometimes the Undesirable Happens


Tigrai Online August 24, 2013
By Tesfaye Habisso

" If large rural majorities in Africa are too poor to participate, too dispersed to organize, too remote from information to know alternatives, a multiparty democratic system with universal suffrage does not give them democratic influence. Not least the experience of fascist masses applauding irrational, violent and destructive policies brought philosophers to understand that democracy cannot work without a high level of information, knowledge and commitment to a wider public. Democracy requires considerable depth of opinion, a high level of political consciousness and responsibility in the population at large. Without it, no regular vote and no number of parties can guarantee democracy." [Siegfried Pausewang, "Peasant Self-determination and the State..., 1994]

Though we most often argue and subscribe to glowing statements about the virtues of a democratic political system, electoral democracy can be quite destructive in many plural or heterogeneous ‘transition societies’ or so-called emerging democracies. In such societies, introducing democracy and conducting free and fair elections have not brought about the desired outcome of stable and democratic regimes but in most cases resulted in public disorder, bloodletting and chaos.

For instance, in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, as in Yugoslavia and the Caucasus in the 1980s, political elites pandered to ethnic nationalism of the dominant group to bolster their electoral prospects. Eventually, the antagonisms they had instigated between the majority and minority became uncontrollable and their countries collapsed in ethnic violence and civil war. In these cases, democracy was not a panacea but a disaster. This is why the democracy we see around the world today often has a distinctly ugly face. On the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, American diplomat Richard Holbrooke fretted: "Suppose the election was declared free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists, [extremists, terrorists] who are publicly opposed to peace and re-integration. That is the dilemma." [Newsweek, October 1997].

Indeed it is, not only in the former Yugoslavia but increasingly around the world. Just reminisce the Algerian elections in 1990 and 1992 in which the Islamic Front (NIF) won a plurality of votes in the legislative elections, the Palestinian elections in 2006 which brought to power the anti-US and anti-Israel Islamist party (Hamas), and the recent Egyptian elections in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2012, which enabled the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist/Islamist party to win the majority of votes. In each case, the incumbent governments of the three countries were forced to rescind the election results even though the elections were free and fair to qualify as democratic, sending the respective nations into turmoil, civil war and chaos.

In 1985 the Sudanese overthrew a military regime and replaced it with a new government, which the following year held free and fair elections. Sudan's newly elected democracy led immediately to anarchy, which in turn led to the most brutal tyranny in Sudan's post-colonial history: a military regime that broadened the scope of executions, persecuted women, starved non-Muslims to death, sold kidnapped non-Muslim children back to their parents for $200, and made Khartoum the terrorism capital of the Arab World, replacing Beirut [Robert D. Kaplan: 1997]. In Sudan, at the time, only 27 percent of the population (and only 12 percent of the women) could read. If a society is not in reasonable health, democracy can be not only risky but disastrous [Kaplan: Ibid].

As an unemployed Tunisian student once quipped, “In Tunisia we have a 25% unemployment rate. If you hold elections in such circumstances, the result will be a fundamentalist government and violence like in Algeria. First create an economy, then, worry about elections.” There are many differences between Tunisia and its neighbor Algeria, including the fact that Tunisia has been peaceful without democracy and Algeria erupted in violence in 1992 after its first election went awry and the military cancelled the second. Strangely, Tunisia has now degenerated to an unstable democratic system after the 2010 revolution which led to the ouster of a long-enthroned authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 and the holding of democratic elections on 23 October 2011 with the Islamist Ennahda Party winning the plurality of seats.

In Kurdistan and Afghanistan, two fragile backward societies in which the United States encouraged versions of democracy in the 1990s, the security vacuum that followed the failed attempts at institutionalizing pluralism were filled by Saddam Hussein for a time in Kurdistan and by Islamic tyranny in much of Afghanistan. In Bosnia democracy legitimized the worst war crimes in Europe since the Nazi era.

 In sub-Saharan Africa democracy has weakened institutions and services in some states, and elections have been manipulated to restore dictatorship in others. In Sierra Leone and Congo-Brazzaville elections have led to chaos. In Mali, which Africa-watchers have christened a democratic success story, recent elections were boycotted by the opposition and were marred by killings and riots. Voter turnout was less than 20 percent.

Even in Latin America, the Third World's most successful venue for democracy, the record is murky. Venezuela has enjoyed elected civilian governments since 1959, whereas for most of the 1970s and 1980s Chile was effectively under military rule. Chile has become a stable middle – class society whose economic growth rate compares to those of the Pacific Rim. Democratic Colombia is a pageant of bloodletting, and many members of the middle class are attempting to leave the country. Then there is Peru, where, all the faults of the present regime notwithstanding, a measure of stability has been achieved by a retreat from democracy into quasi – authoritarianism.

Throughout Latin America there is anxiety that unless the middle classes are enlarged and institutions modernized the wave of democratization will not be consolidated. Even in an authentically democratic nation like Argentina, institutions are weak and both corruption and unemployment are high. President Carlos Menem's second term has raised questions about democracy's sustainability-- questions that the success of his first term seemed to have laid to rest. In Brazil and other countries democracy faces a backlash from millions of badly educated and newly urbanized dwellers in teeming slums, who see few palpable benefits to Western parliamentary systems. Their discontent is a reason for the multifold increases in crime in many Latin American cities over the past decade.

Because both a middle class and civil institutions are required for successful democracy, democratic Russia, which inherited neither from the Soviet regime, remains violent, unstable and miserably poor despite its 99 percent literacy rate. Under its authoritarian system China has dramatically improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of its people. The point, hard as it may be for many to accept, is that Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy and China may be succeeding in part because it is not.

The social and economic breakdowns under democratic rule in Albania and Bulgaria, where the tradition of pre-communist bourgeois life is weak or non-existent (as in China), contrasted with more successful democratic venues like Hungary and the Czech Republic which have had well-established bourgeoisie, constitute further proof that our belief in democracy regardless of local conditions amounts to cultural hubris.

Look at Haiti, a small country only ninety minutes b y air from Miami, where 22,000 American soldiers were dispatched in 1994 to restore “democracy”. Five percent of eligible Haitian voters participated in an election in April of the same year: chronic instability wreaked the nation, famine continues to kill thousands upon thousands of Haitians even today. What has befallen Haitians since the recent devastating earthquake is beyond one’s imagination.

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Democracy, like any other political system is ultimately about state power. And for those with power it becomes a means of retaining their position via fair or foul means, i.e. by any means possible thus going astray from their previous promises of consolidating and building stable and well-functioning democracy that would benefit the present and future generations. As Daniel Kaufmann correctly sums up:

 “History has shown that even those who rose to power with good intentions    soon became corrupt. They took advantage of their position to enrich themselves and their family and friends. Then in order to protect their wealth and power, they silenced those who threatened their authority. As one injustice led to another, and as their friends became fewer, they grew increasingly paranoid and oppressive. They desperately clung to power in fear that if they lost control then they might also lose their fortunes, their freedom, and possibly even their lives.”[Daniel

Kaufmann,“The Rise of Modern Democracy”, 2008].

It is a well recognized principle, for example, that one of the most important conditions of the existence and sustainability of a democratic society is respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and among these freedoms, freedom of expression is considered the most precious and, indeed, the very foundation of such a society. But in newly democratizing societies, media manipulation often plays a central role in promoting national and ethnic conflict, and thus, promoting unconditional freedom of speech or speech without any legal limitations and public debate in such societies is, in many circumstances, likely to make the problem worse, even devastating. Historically and today, from the French Revolution to Rwanda, sudden liberalizations of press freedom have been associated with bloody outbursts of popular nationalism.

 The grim story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the sheer horrors of neighbors hacking each other to pieces---neighbors who had previously lived together in apparent harmony-- was decisively influenced by the active manipulation of ethnicity by the incumbent Hutu regime, whipping up popular resentment against the minority Tutsis by misusing the power of media freedom, especially the TV, radio and print media. That is one solid example of the dilemma with unconditional press freedom in new democracies today. It is because ethnically heterogeneous societies are divided and not cohesive unlike integrated class societies in well-developed Western democratic states, and thus what works well for class societies does not work for plural societies. This grim fact should be well understood by all political elites in transition societies, which sometimes do not seem transiting to nowhere. In such societies, economic democracy, unity and social justice are more important than electoral democracy and multi-party pluralism.

As Vera points out, the most dangerous situation is precisely when the government's press monopoly begins to break down [Van Vera, "Hypotheses", p.33; Human Rights Watch, Playing the "Communal Card,"' p. VII]. "During incipient democratization, when civil society is burgeoning but democratic institutions are not fully entrenched, the state and other elites are forced to engage in public debate in order to compete for mass allies in the struggle for power." [Van Vera, "Hypotheses," p. 33]. Under these circumstances, governments and their opponents often have the motive and the opportunity to play the nationalist/ethnic card. When this occurs, unconditional freedom of public debate or free speech is a dubious remedy. Just as economic competition produces socially beneficial results only in a well-institutionalized marketplace, where monopolies and false advertising are counteracted, so too increased debate in the political marketplace leads to better outcomes only when there are mechanisms to correct market imperfections [R. H. Coase, "The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas," American Economic Review, Vol. 64, No.2, May 1974, pp. 384-391].

The lesson to draw is not that dictatorship is good and democracy bad but that the values of democracy and free market economy, though often mentioned by social theorists as universal human values, are still the values of well-developed Western societies that require non-Western emerging democracies long periods of time to implant them, based on their local conditions. Democracy is said to emerge successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements such as the existence of: a well-informed and literate citizenry; an educated and robust middle class; a critical mass of democrats; a far-sighted and enlightened political leadership; emancipated womenfolk; independence of judiciary and rule of law; a responsible political elite and free press; a non-violent and tolerant political culture and society; in brief, modernization and industrialization.

Finally, it is a fallacy to assume that a democratic society can be established through violence or revolution, by decree or canons. Democracy can neither be exported nor imposed. It is a learned process and not inherited. It takes time and exacts huge costs. Democratization of non-democratic societies is a highly complex, complicated social, political and cultural process. It is only those who value democracy, human dignity and freedom, and willing to persistently and continuously struggle to learn, to internalize and to apply these values can eventually succeed in implanting and consolidating democracy and economic development. “There is no gain without pain’; ‘democracy without bread is fragile and bread without democracy is bitter.”

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