Vexing Questions of Democracy

 "Given the desire of the government to have a one-party Parliament … Remarks by the President and other leaders … that [the] elections were democratic and fair are very far from reality.

 "Given the desire of the government to have a one-party Parliament … Remarks by the President and other leaders … that [the] elections were democratic and fair are very far from reality.  We hope that observers will report on numerous violations of the electoral code and fraud that took place in the pre-election period as well as during the voting and the vote-counting process in an objective manner. … Abuse of government and administrative resources …  in the pre-election period, which created a very unfair environment for the opposition political parties … Pressure by government officials on precinct and district electoral commission members with the goal of increasing the results of the government party at the expense of the opposition groups.   [The] President … was popular enough that the government would have won a landslide victory without fraud, legal violations, or government intimidation.  However, the … leadership did everything in the power of the administrative resource to ensure that no opposition party would enter the Parliament."

At first glance, many would assume this statement refers to the parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. After all, those flawed elections were nearly universally denounced in the West as near-fraudulent and unrepresentative.

Surprisingly, this statement was released by the Rightist Opposition of Georgia (comprising the liberal reform Industrialists and New Rights parties) in the aftermath of the March 28, 2004 elections. In those elections, apart from the pro-government National Movement, only the Rightist Opposition and the political movement of Aslan Abashidze, the leader of Ajaria, cleared the threshold for party-list representation in the new Georgian parliament. Indeed, the Georgian opposition parties had been deeply concerned by apparent pre-election comments made by President Mikheil Saakashvili that there was no need for an opposition in parliament that might "stab him in the back" in his efforts to promote reforms.

Sour grapes on the part of politicians who couldn't win at the polls? Or credible allegations that Georgia is moving in the direction of a one-party state?

What is most fascinating is to observe how the political processes in both Georgia and in Russia appear to be moving in tandem - the creation of a strong presidency and dominance of the legislature by a pro-government party, both developments that enjoy overwhelming popular support. Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, writing in the "zero issue" of Russia Profile (www.rian.ru) characterizes Putin's regime as a "plebiscitary democracy based on the will of the majority" where elected rulers "have to violate democratic principles from time to time in the name of progress." Can this not serve as a useful description of Saakashvili's regime as well?

If so, then it may point to the absolute necessity of "managed pluralism" as a stage in development from dictatorship to normal democracy in societies that lack stable, functioning democratic institutions.

This backs into another issue, raised by David Malone and Simon Chesterman, in Monday's Globe and Mail.  Their piece, entitled, "Don't Liberate and Leave," observes that "nation-building takes longer than a U.S. election cycle" and that a serious investment of time and resources is needed to create stability. Indeed, elections without institution-building can have a counterproductive impact; they note that "political life in Bosnia has been further polarized by the many elections foreseen in the Dayton accord, with no multiethnic parties and little prospect of reconciliation." But in the absence of such a major and sustained effort by the outside world in many of the developing democracies, is managed pluralism not a preferable solution to advancing the long-term goal of creating and maintaining a stable democracy?

Georgia and Russia during the Shevardnadze and Yeltsin administrations, respectively, had a great deal of party pluralism in government (leading to ineffective and inefficient legislatures, among other things). More voices did not lead to stronger institutions. Both Putin and Saakashivili have mandates for change. Let's see what they do with that authority and political capital, and judge by the results.

 

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