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Democracy Isn't Built on One Election Alone

By Samuel Issacharoff
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page B01

Despite the deteriorating security situation that has left dozens dead in Iraq during the past few days alone, many Iraqis will feel justifiably proud to take the first step toward democracy when they cast their votes for a transitional national assembly a week from now. By itself, the election is a milestone. But it is not the key to their country's democratic legitimacy. The lasting success of democracies lies not in seeing that the will of the majority is expressed through the ballot box, but by two more long-standing factors: first, a commitment by a nation's elites that a victorious electoral coalition will not use its hold on power to exact revenge on the losers; and second, proof that the people can vote their leaders out as well as vote them in.

The history of the 20th century is littered with the remains of elections that augured neither democracy nor the rule of law. The entire Soviet empire was enamored of show elections in which every citizen was given the privilege of voting for the winner -- and only the winner. Fascist and corporatist regimes would routinely invoke the plebiscite to crown the claimed rule of the people, a tool used by Hitler to consolidate power in the 1930s. Post-colonial regimes in countries such as the Central African Republic or more recently Zimbabwe would hold elections only to see the victors proclaim themselves rulers for life -- what the British ex-colonialists would sneeringly call "one man, one vote, one time." What's more, all these oppressive regimes would hold their elections pursuant to constitutions that stood as paeans to human dignity.


Democracy in the making? Workers load ballot boxes in preparation for next Sunday's election. The paper ballots will be counted by hand at each of the 6,000 to 9,000 polling stations in Iraq and abroad -- a process that could take as long as two weeks. (Hrvoje Polan -- Reuters)


For most Iraqis, the act of voting alone is understandably a major event, as their country has not had a meaningful election since 1953. Assuming that the elections are held across most of the country, that they are not fraudulent and that the majority prevails, most would conclude that democracy, at least in some rudimentary fashion, has been established. While elections may be necessary to a democracy, though, they are by no means sufficient.

The dirty secret about democratic processes is that they come into being in a decidedly undemocratic fashion. Before any election can be held, there must be ground rules that determine what the elections are for, and formal institutional structures that will be filled by the elections. But what justifies those rules? The answer can only be given retrospectively, based on the success of the democratic experiment itself.

All democracies enter this world with this so-called democratic deficit -- a system preordained by no particular democratic process. In Iraq, for example, over 100 parties appear on the ballot, but no candidates do, even though there are more than 7,000 candidates running for the 275 seats in the National Assembly.

Each party has named a slate, and its delegation to the constituent assembly will be determined by the overall party votes that entitle a set number of slate members to assume office. Each party is obligated to name a woman to every third slot on its list in order to ensure that 25 percent of the Assembly be women. There are no districts, as in the United States or Britain, there is no second chamber of the Parliament, as in many countries, and the Assembly will select the president and the two deputy presidents, as well as serving as the drafting body for a new Constitution.

All of this is the result of negotiations conducted under the auspices of the United Nations and implemented under the authority of the recently created Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

This lack of democratic pedigree puts Iraq in excellent company. No one authorized the Americans gathered in Philadelphia at our founding to jettison the Articles of Confederation and craft a new constitutional order. No one selected the South African negotiators who decided the terms of a new democratic era, complete with an embryonic constitutional plan. No democratic election preceded the gathering of the loya jirga in Afghanistan, which met to decree a new election code and plan the transition to democracy. In fact, with the possible exception of the French Fourth Republic, no constitutional democratic order has emerged from anything that would pass muster as a genuine democratic process. And the Fourth Republic, a duly authorized constitutional overhaul by the French Parliament after World War II, collapsed in only a few years -- a victim of the paralysis built into it by parliamentary self-interest.

Which brings us back to the two critical elements to a democracy's success. Prevailing political thought prior to the 20th century doubted that it would ever be possible to gain a credible commitment from a nation's elites to prevent a victorious electoral coalition from misusing its hold on power to settle old scores. British philosopher John Stuart Mill, for instance, wrote that political liberalism was impossible in a country with ethnic or national divisions: "Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist."

Over the past half century the need to secure democratic order in countries fractured by racial, ethnic or religious cleavages has robbed us of the easy assumption that democracy simply cannot take hold in riven societies. From the Asiatic steppes of the former Soviet Union to South Africa to the Iraqi cauldron, stabilizing democratic tolerance is the most vital issue to face the geopolitical order.

Much as we may associate democracy with the will of the majority, the success of constitutional democracies, in fact, turns on the ability to constrain the majority by limiting the powers of government, while allowing minorities and oppositions to exist and flourish. Constitutions by their nature impose obstacles on the ability of the majority to claim its immediate objectives. The U.S. Constitution creates a formidable hurdle through the amendment process. Most Western European constitutions build in delay to temper the momentary zeal of an electoral majority, as with the Finnish and French requirements that two successive parliaments must approve any constitutional change. Germany goes even further and declares critical portions of its constitution unamendable.

In South Africa, the most successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule of the late 20th century, negotiations between Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the apartheid National Party focused extensively on the interim principles that would form the basis of the new constitutional order. It was this embryonic constitution that provided protection against the country's white minority trying to hold out in a fratricidal civil war. The promise of limits on the political power of the majority was the precondition for the new democratic order.

The second requirement is even more difficult to assess. The key to democracy turns out not to be the capacity to elect rulers, because elections can also provide tyrants-in-waiting with the ability to marshal their partisans and use the veneer of democracy to consolidate their treachery. Whether in the form of pure evil, as with Adolf Hitler, or simple venality, as with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, or just demagoguery, as with Argentina's Juan Peron, the partisan zeal unleashed in electoral combat may prove the first step to a power grab immune from any form of further accountability.

Democracy, then, is ultimately not about the ability to elect rulers; it is about the ability to send them packing. The political tragedy of post-colonial Africa was not the absence of elections. It was the inability to ever vote rulers out of office.

This is why the election of 1800 in the United States continues to fascinate historians: Amid tremendous rancor and charges of foreign intrigue, the fledgling republic faced its ultimate challenge: Could elections dislodge a chief executive (John Adams) and bring to office his bitter rival (Thomas Jefferson)?

Democracies aspire to ennoble their citizens, to allow them to reach beyond the most basic concerns for security and survival. The first elections in a divided nation such as Iraq will no doubt revolve around group identities. The hope, however, is that the process of governing will diminish those concerns and allow politics to focus on governance and statecraft. The ability to vote out of office the initial governors is critical to the democratic enterprise.

Whether an election is indeed a harbinger of democracy is best addressed in hindsight once the security of the minorities can be assessed and once the first elected rulers face retrospective accountability before the electorate.

It may well be, as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington once famously wrote, that "Elections, open, free, and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non." Iraq will have made great strides if it is able to hold elections across most of the country and if a governing coalition can be forged. But we should also be aware that elections alone are not enough.

Author's email:si74@columbia.edu

Samuel Issacharoff is a professor at Columbia Law School and an author of "The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process" (Foundation Press).


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