Vote “No” for Democracy

NOTE: This piece was written in May, 2013 some six weeks before the anti-Morsi protests erupted at the end of June

INTRODUCTION:

What is meant by “democracy” in the title is its common usage–that is to say, representative democracy characterized by elected assemblies as practiced, let us say, in the United States and England.  Democracy can, however, assume alternative forms as discussed later that would not be subject to the title’s negativity.  Let me hasten to add, that, in any case, the title is not to be construed as “Vote ‘Yes’ for Autocracy.”

In these trouble times, the peoples of one nation after another have overthrown failing autocracies be they the remnants of the USSR or the dictatorships of the Middle East.  Inevitably, such dramatic upheavals have left such “liberated” countries with disrupted economies and political turmoil.  To regain their footing, it was only natural for them to turn to the West for material aid and advice.

The material aid that was furnished varied so much from one nation to another that no meaningful generalization can be made other than to say that it involved various proportions of humanitarian help, weaponry, support of social institutions, economic assistance, connivance with the existing authorities, and, of course, generous dollops of corruption.

On the other hand, the advice given these struggling nascent states varied not at all.  Each country was encouraged to demonstrate its adherence to  democratic principles by staging general elections at the earliest possible moment.  It was led to believe, that upon its performance of this sacred ritual, all the benefits of democracy would unfold before them:  a reversal of past subjugation, the enjoyment of personal freedoms, an equitable system of justice, sound property rights, a healthy economy, and a political system guaranteed to promote peace and prosperity.

This advice, along with the inducement of special grants and loans, reinforced the understandable demands made by internal reformers intent on casting off repression and achieving democratization as soon as possible.  Little wonder then that liberated governments succumbed to the populist drumbeat and, as instructed, scheduled early general elections.  Unfortunately, this was a mistaken policy.  Rather than uniting the disparate groups that had festered under authoritarian regimes, the advent of general elections left them more polarized, more embittered, and more vengeful than before.  Rather than instruments of peace, elections proved to   be weapons of mass social destruction.

Recent history is littered with countries that have been bruised reaching for the chimera of democracy.  A partial recital would have to include Serbia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt.  Of these, the last serves, as well as any other, as a poster-child example of the situation I’ve outlined.

Cited below are some of Egypt’s ill-fated political gyrations in the two years after Mubarak’s deposition in February, 2011.  Following this condensed, unhappy history is an enumeration of the negative factors that contributed both to Egypt’s misery and that of other liberated nations in the past—the inference being that, if the same course is pursued, there is every reason to believe they will similarly bring ruin to other nations in the future.  The essay concludes with an outline of what I believe would be a far better set of policies for similar situations that may arise in the future.

TURMOIL IN EGYPT

After weeks of rioting, the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak was finally forced out of office on February 1, 2011.  His departure was celebrated by the populace in the hope that better days lay ahead.

Things started off well enough in March when over three-quarters of the population voted for amendments to the constitution that provided a blueprint for parliamentary and presidential general elections to be held within the next six months.  But within three months, Cairo was again the scene of demonstrations, this time with Copts and Muslims clashing with one another.  A month later, street fights over the pace of reforms left 1000 injured.  And a month after that, new waves of protests injured dozens more when elections were postponed.

Finally, in August, it took the army, bolstered by riot police and tanks, to retake Tahrir Square from reformists encamped there to protest against continued government foot dragging.  Then, when it was announced that elections were to be held in November, the accompanying rules only increased the suspicion that the odds were stacked in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and government hangers-on.

Twenty-four were killed in October when Christians marched in reaction to an attack on one of their churches by Islamists.  Then more were killed—this time on political grounds—in skirmishes with the security forces of the military junta.

A high turnout rate coupled with a lack of incidents at the polling stations led to hope that the November elections would inaugurate a period of calm between the country’s factions.  Instead, when the results left the military in control of shaping the new constitution and the Muslim brotherhood in control of the new assembly, tensions arose once again.  In December, eight were killed in Cairo.  Then tens of thousands flooded the streets a month later in one of the bloodiest days of the revolution.  By February violence had spread to Port Said in the form of mass marches.

The anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow in February, 2012, prompted the “Poverty Matters” blog sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to admit that the revolution had, thus far, caused Egypt’s overall condition to deteriorate. Inflation had moved basic necessities further out of reach for the poor and middle class, unemployment was higher, tourism reduced by some 40%, social cohesion was fractured, the economy weakened, and freedoms suppressed as much as ever.

With the spirit of the revolution having petered down, the Egyptians elected  the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who inaugurated a regime that remains to this day as dictatorial as Mubarak’s had been.  Opposition leaders have been arrested and freedom of speech suppressed.  Although violence has subsided, Egypt exists in a quasis-crisis state and living conditions remain unimproved.

Hopefully, the country can somehow shake off its recent past and Egypt will emerge from its revolution a better state than before.  However, no matter what the eventual outcome, there is no question, but that the pursuit of democracy over the past two years has exacted a well nigh intolerable cost.

THE ELUSIVE SPIRIT OF 1776

One might have hoped that, having witnessed one or two early exemplary consequences of their democracy-first-last-and-always policies, the  powers that be would have begun to question their religious dedication to the cause.   Unfortunately that has not been the case.  Instead they have remained transfixed by the mystique surrounding the successful adoption of representative democracy by the American colonies.  This is, indeed, a truly inspiring model but, unfortunately, woefully inappropriate to the liberated countries to which it has been applied.

Recall that the American colonies had something like 150 years to study English law, to adapt it to suit their colonial status, to experiment with general assemblies, to develop a leadership class, and for each to profit from the experience of its twelve neighbors.  Recall also that the populations of these colonies were, by and large, culturally homogeneous and generally tolerant of what differences there were between them.  Recall also that the people of the new world could boast of a high rate of literacy and over ninety newspapers.  Finally, recall that the American colonies were politically stable, economically self-sufficient, peaceable, and orderly.

Now how many of these advantages were possessed by the liberated countries we were so eager to instruct?  Few, if any.

TODAY’S REALITY

Unlike the fledgling American colonies, the liberated nations were  untutored in democracy, rife with deep-rooted internal schisms, and, in many respects, chaotic.  It was delusional, then, for the doctrinaire, “fix-em-up” crowd of international advisors to hope that these countries could be convinced to suddenly bury their differences and unite under democracy’s banner.  Nevertheless, policy-makers continued to clamber over the prone bodies of previous casualties to administer the same poisonous prescriptions to the next naïve patient in their care.  In coutry after country, their unvarying prescription to conduct general elections as soon as possible produced a whole series of unwanted and predictable side effects:

  • Typically, liberated countries contained factions that had coexisted for years—centuries, in some cases—on reasonably amiable terms.  However, in the absence of a tradition of equal rights, just the announcement of a general election set up a competitive atmosphere that tended to poison existing relationships.
  • Not surprisingly, given the high stakes involved, both the prospect for an election and its invariably disputed aftermath gave rise to factious quarrels that, more likely than not, erupted into violent confrontations with the ensuing casualties further embittering the contestants.
  • Within each faction, the conflicts brought to the fore the more militant extremists while diminishing the influence of their more moderate comrades thus making coexistence less likely than ever.
  • Under the unsettled conditions in which elections were likely to be held, their rules could be readily violated by the party in power.  Neutral observers could be barred from polling stations, vote counters selected on the basis of their loyalty to the regime, voters intimidated, others excluded altogether, some bribed, and some conscripted to vote multiple times.  Then, if the ruling officialdom deemed that even these measures might prove insufficient, the tally itself could always be corrupted and ballot boxes made to disappear.

Hence, with the legitimacy of such rigged elections cast into doubt, their presumed purpose—i.e., the resolution of disputes—was, perforce, unachievable.  An exercise in futility.

RENDERING FIRST AID TO BROKEN COUNTRIES

Obviously, the first requisite for an efficacious transition to a new order is a period of political stability.  No armed groups taking the law in their own hands, no violent sectarian clashes, no destructive mass demonstrations, no looting, and no gratuitous attacks upon helpless minorities.  To this end, a liberated country would have to be willing to place all segments of its armed forces into a new police force under the control of a foreign commisioner appointed by the UN.  The force’s assignment would be the same as that required of the police everywhere—i.e., on its own authority, employ overwhelming force to suppress violence as quickly and effectively as possible.  The force would be empowered to apprehend offenders, but their trial, sentencing, and incarceration would be left to the individual country’s justice system.  If necessary, the new police force could call upon the UN for whatever aid was necessary for it to perform its duty.

Once relative peace was restored, the country would operate under an interim UN constitution that ensured human rights, equal treatment under the law, the protection of personal property, free trade and the unrestricted freedom of movement.

The country would then have to decide upon a political system that best met its needs.  The most direct solution would seem to be modeling its government on that of the established democracies.  This approach, however, runs the risk of exposing immature countries to one-party, dictatorial rule with its attendant biased regulations, distorted justice, graft, patronage, bribery, and extortion.  With such tantalizing prizes at stake, feuding factions could be counted on to fight tooth and nail for themselves with whatever tactics, however bloody, were in their means.

A safer path for liberated nations to pursue would be a form of democracy in which the power at the helm is so diluted that it is physically impossible for it to be abused because the personal life of the average citizen remains largely unaffected regardless of the outcome of any particular election.  Such a system could be achieved, I believe, by modeling it on that of Switzerland’s in which critical decision-making has been devolved from the central government to the country’s semi-independent cantons.

More specifically, under the Swiss system the extension of the Federal government’s authority is limited to those functions that, by definition, require centralized administration such as:

  • the conduct of foreign relations
  • control over the army
  • currency controls
  • value-added taxation
  • railways and communications
  • the determination of the nation’s economic policy
  • the operation of nationwide utilities

Each of the above functions is administered by a department headed by an elected official.  Officials, so chosen, create a more variegated-opinioned government than those appointed by a single executive and beholding to him.  And, as a further precaution against the possible excesses of majority rule, the president is chosen, not by popular election, but by a panel composed of department heads.

Those functions that can best be handled locally are left to the individual cantons.  These include:

  • the operation of public schools, health services, and higher education
  • the maintenance of a local police force
  • policies toward support of a second language and religion
  • the collection of cantonal taxes
  • the administration of courts to settle local disputes, domestic matters, etc.
  • affording social services
  • garbage collection

As in the Federal government, department heads are elected and they, in turn, decide who is to lead them.

One obvious advantage of such a fragmented country is that cantons are in competition with one another.  For example, lower taxes in one canton might well promote immigration whereas the imposition of Sharia law might well discourage it.  Likewise corruption would drive out people and an honest canton invite them.  Competition also  results in a more efficient, more responsive, and more varied society nationwide all of which discourages extremism. Finally, a canton-based system is a more peaceable one.  A citizen has every incentive to peaceably pull roots and move to a canton more nearly aligned with his opinions and has virtually no incentive to obtain that accommodation at the barrel of a gun.

In Switzerland, laws are made by its two legislative chambers and most cantons have their own legislatures as well.  Referendums, that supplement this law-making process, can be initiated by any citizen provided he can summon a level of popular support for his particular proposal.  Although this multi-level approach seems to work well enough for the Swiss who have had a long experience with it, the system strikes me as unnecessarily complicated.  I see no reason why liberated countries could not dispense with legislatures altogether and depend on their inventive citizens to propose new laws and the electorate to decide which of these they wished to implement.

In the future, then, I propose that, instead of cramming general elections down the throats of liberated nations, we instead adopt a humbler attitude and work with them to help create a stable, livable society.  Let’s stop terrorizing them with our version of democracy

 

 

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