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Home grown and organic: A recipe for democratic success

By Brett Bowden - posted Monday, 21 February 2005

One apple does not make a fruit salad. And simply holding an election does not constitute a democracy. The Bush administration can talk all it likes about spreading freedom and democracy around the globe - even shining the light of democracy into the darkest corners of despotism; presumably the entire Middle East - but it is much easier said than done. And thus far they have been heavy on the rhetoric and light on substance.

“What about developments in Afghanistan and Iraq?” I hear you ask. What of them. Sure, they have held elections, they might have even elected some form of representative government, but when Iraqis woke up the morning after the much lauded election they were neither free nor democratic. Not yet anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, free and fair multi-party elections are an important part of any democracy, but they are only a small part of what constitutes a fully functioning democratic society. Some speak of the importance of a “culture of democracy”; others focus on the significance of the institutions of democracy, the fundamental building blocks if you will; and for others it’s all about civil society.


While each of these factors and many more are important considerations, there is no precise recipe or single model for building (or imposing) democracy from the ground up - or more accurately, from the top down. And when democracy is imposed - almost inevitably by force, and violent force at that - regardless of the model, it is likely to be still-born or in seriously poor health from the outset.

In essence, democracy is about popular control over public decisions and decision makers, and about equality of respect and voice between citizens in the exercise of that control. This does not come about simply by holding elections. And whatever your view is of the recent elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither country is likely to approach this condition any time soon.

That said, I suspect George Bush is right about one thing - people do want “freedom”. They also want to be self-governing, possibly even have democratic self-government. But what the Bush administration is peddling is not freedom; and it’s not democracy either, it is something altogether different. Bear in mind here that freedom and democracy do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Sure, the terms are bandied about like they are two sides of the same coin but this is not necessarily so: there is potentially a darker side to democracy. The ideal of freedom isn’t entirely unproblematic either.

I suspect that among the people of most countries there is a widespread desire and willingness, diverse as they might be, to effectively govern themselves in an orderly and just manner. Just as importantly, there is no good reason to suppose that there doesn’t also exist the capacity. Imposing democracy by force or the threat of force - what some call democratic imperialism - is counterproductive; it denies and suppresses both of these virtues.

American intervention is not the only answer or last hope for that portion of the world experiencing problems of state legitimacy or shortcomings in the capacity to carry out the regular functions of a sovereign nation. For instance, there is no reason to suppose that the velvet (or more recent orange) revolutions, which have overthrown corrupt and tired governments in Eastern Europe, could not be repeated elsewhere.

The current political climate in Zimbabwe, for example, makes it a prime candidate for a people’s instigated change of regime. There is an organised opposition, the country’s economy is in virtual free-fall thanks largely to government mismanagement, and there is a widespread perception among the population that recent polls were less than free or fair. The people of Zimbabwe are more than ready and eager for real democracy in which they have a real voice, not merely the kind of farcical elections that simply serve to rubber stamp the ongoing abuses of President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies.


Mozambique provides another example. It is pulling itself out of the mire and taking tentative steps along the road to recovery after years of civil war largely because of the death of one warlord. In Nigeria it took a fatal heart attack to end the reign of one of its most despicable dictators, General Sani Abacha: soon thereafter it was holding elections to choose its first non-military leader in years. Admittedly, Nigeria is a less-than-perfect democracy with its share of problems (it is not alone here - even Australia and the United States have their shortcomings). But it is endeavouring to make changes for the better, and it is looking to encourage similar stability among its smaller West African neighbours.

In our own region Indonesia has made a relatively smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy; taking small steps at a time and reforming at its own pace. No doubt there has been lots of encouragement and more than a little bit of pressure behind the scenes, but nothing like the kind of heavy handedness seen in Afghanistan or Iraq.

These are just a few examples of what is possible; there is no telling what combination of circumstances can make for sudden and drastic changes in the fortunes of what were once collapsing or pariah quasi-states. And they are all examples of political change that is taking place under domestic momentum prompting changes for the better, not as a result of direct American-Western intervention such as military occupation in the name of democratic nation building.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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