What makes vibrant democracies

Gulf News, December 7, 2005

What could be the link between a constitutional referendum in Kenya, the arrest of a former military dictator in Chile and the electoral defeat of a flawed populist in India’s state of Bihar?

Each of these events, spread over three different continents, is unrelated to the others. But these apparently unrelated developments of the last fortnight or so shed some light on the process that helps nations become, and remain, democracies.

At a time when governments as well as citizens in the greater Middle East are confronting the question of building democratic political systems, here are some lessons that can be learnt from recent events.

In Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki held a referendum on November 22 to seek the people’s approval of a new constitution proposed by him. Some members of his own cabinet joined the opposition in campaigning for a “No” vote while the president staked his reputation on securing approval of his constitutional package.

When the votes were counted, after a truly free and fair campaign and poll, the people of Kenya voted “No”. President Kibaki accepted the results of the referendum and dropped his plans for changing the constitution.
President Kibaki was elected to a five-year term in 2002 and, therefore, has two more years as Kenya’s elected head of state. But the opposition is now demanding early elections.

If Kibaki adheres to the unaltered constitution and persuades the opposition to wait until the next presidential election, Kenya can continue along the democratic path.

Kenya’s latest experiment teaches authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world the value of respecting the people’s verdict once the decision to consult the electorate has been taken.

The pattern so far in the greater Middle East, including Pakistan, has been that the establishment tries to fix the result of electoral exercises.

Constitutional consensus, which is a vital pre-requisite for democracy can hardly be obtained if constitutional issues are settled by decree or if the electoral process is not above board.

Free and fair elections

In India’s Bihar state, free and fair elections brought to an end the 15-year misrule of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Under Yadav and his unlettered wife as chief minister, Bihar’s law and order situation steadily declined.

The state’s physical and social infrastructure also suffered. Yadav ignored development to focus on redistributing political power, favouring the lower castes and Muslims who formed the backbone of his voting bloc.

The voters forgave his poor administration and incompetence because they felt they needed the social engineering he provided. Intellectuals and economists cited Yadav’s example while questioning the validity of the democratic model for a poor developing country.

Had Bihar been a part of Pakistan, Yadav would have been toppled in a military coup supported by civil servants, Western educated bankers and multinational corporation employees. But Indians accepted Yadav’s excesses and corruption to uphold their democratic constitution.

In the end, the democratic process itself brought Yadav’s misrule in Bihar to an end. There is a lesson here for those who cite corruption or administrative incompetence of elected leaders as justification for doing away with democracy.

As long as strong constitutional structures are allowed to exist and political parties compete for power on a level field, democracy itself sorts out corrupt populist leaders. Bihar has lost 15 years in development terms but Indian democracy has matured further in the course of putting up with Yadav’s shenanigans.

The decision by Chilean courts to authorise the arrest of former military ruler General Augusto Pinochet on charges of human rights violations during his 1974-90 dictatorship also has important lessons for emerging or struggling democracies.

Pinochet was hailed as an anti-communist hero by some in the Western world during the 1970s and 1980s. His economic reforms were credited with reviving Chile’s economy.

While he held power, Pinochet was thought to be an honest and incorruptible ruler. But Chile’s intelligence services jailed hundreds of dissidents, several of whom died in prisons.

Chile’s democratic political parties and the relatives of the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship have fought a long court battle to bring the former dictator to justice, overcoming constitutional and legal protections put in place in the final years of military rule.

Last year, Pinochet’s reputation for incorruptibility was also shattered when it was revealed during a US Senate investigation of Riggs Bank in Washington that Pinochet kept $8 million (Dh29.36 million) in that bank. Other accounts have since been discovered in Britain and other countries.

The manner in which Chile’s democrats have pursued Pinochet through the courts, and the way Chile’s courts have finally acted against him, serves as a reminder that evolving democracies must not ignore the injustices inflicted on a nation by coup-makers and usurpers.

The supremacy of constitutional democracy is finally established only when those toppling elected governments are indicted in courts of law, even if it takes years to effect such prosecutions. And only when the long view is taken does a nation finally find out that the authoritarian makers of economic miracles are corrupt, in addition to being violators of human rights.