Democracy for the People

The more I listen to people in Washington talk about "democracy promotion", the more I am reminded of the discussion in Catch-22 between Yossarian and the Texan about voting.

The more I listen to people in Washington talk about "democracy promotion", the more I am reminded of the discussion in Catch-22 between Yossarian and the Texan about voting. The wounded soldier from the Lone Star state is concerned that the system of one person, one vote allows unworthy citizens to exercise undue influence, and that, to correct this, the virtuous should be allotted extra votes.

Democracy is a tricky thing. In political Russian, two words can be used to render the word "democracy." Demokratiya has come to designate the formal process-elections, transfer of power, rule of law.  A number of the leftist parties, however, draw a distinction between demokratiya and another Russian word which is the literal translation from Greek-narodovlastie (people's power)-which implies that a regime defends the popular interest and welfare. So, following this logic, it is possible to have a democratic electoral system where the people can choose, but only between a series of unpleasant and unpalatable alternatives--in essence, voting for the lesser of evils--without feeling that their specific interests are represented.

From the American side, the risk is that the "wrong" people will be elected or will come to power. So what happens when a democratic or semi-democratic process produces what are, in our view or assessment, unfavorable results?  Russia provides an interesting test.

The Russian electoral process is flawed-there is no doubt about this. The Putin Administration does possess formidable administrative resources which have enabled it to sway the course of elections.  Yet for all the problems, there is no indication that the December 2003 Duma elections are fundamentally unaligned with popular sentiment.

So the results need to be impinged.  Apparently the average Russian voter is easily duped and desires nothing more than the continuation of despotic rule. The new legislature is apparently peopled by hacks and criminals (of course, this brings fond memories of that pop-culture e-mail that circulates around American inboxes that lists in precise detail the rogues in our own Congress).

But the underlying message is that the unabashedly pro-Western parties - the ones that are AEI-approved and Brookings-compliant, whose representatives speak perfect English and are lionized by Washingtonians - haven't been able to win votes.  Even the Kremlin was surprised by the results, because there were some indications that both liberal democratic parties would be able to surmount the low 5 percent threshold for representation in the Duma.

Both liberal parties are re-assessing their strategies, and one heartening sign is that the Union of Right Forces is committing itself to a massive campaign of party-building and recruiting in the provinces - in those areas where their campaign ads - showing party leaders flying in a private jet over Russia -probably didn't have much appeal to people impoverished after a decade of "reforms."

Or perhaps the solution is to give members of Russia's intelligentsia three votes.

What does this say about plans to democratize the Middle East? An Iraqi democracy is not likely to make Ahmad Chalabi the new president, certainly not if Ayatollah Sistani has anything to say about it.

And this raises a more critical question.  There has been an interesting development, a convergence between some liberals and conservatives in Washington who blame America for dictatorial and authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. This is ludicrous. Certainly the United States may not have pushed hard for democracy - a valid criticism, but it did not impose the current regimes either. So to think that the reverse is true - that the Arab world should consider democracy a gift from the United States - is also far-fetched. And this leaves open the possibility that pro-American politicians may not succeed in a truly democratic Arab state.

After all, in a country like Jordan, the monarchy has found it expedient both to retain an electoral system that favors "East Bank" natives as opposed to Palestinians, who might end up choosing more radical, anti-American candidates and to simply delay or postpone elections when needed.

Our interests in Iraq - and in other parts of the world - are best served when there are governments in place that are democratic not only in a procedural sense but in the sense, that most of the citizens accept the regime as legitimate and believe that it serves and protects their interests. Because U.S. interests are more secure when another government can define what its interests are and we both can find an acceptable modus vivendi. A shared community of interests - not a shared community of values--provides for a more stable international order.

Writing in these pages last week, Nicolai Petro cautioned, "Forcing the concept of democracy to serve as a veneer for U.S. policy will ultimately damage both U.S. interests and democracy." It's sound advice to consider.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.