Unintended Consequences of Democracy

We in the West have great faith in elections and democracy, because they bring consensus and moderation to our societies. But we are finding that elections and democracy can have different meanings in other parts of the world.

The dismaying victory of the terrorist organization, Hamas, in the Palestinian elections on January 25, 2006, is the latest shattering rendezvous that Westerners have had with reality.

Other recent elections have placed an extremist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president of Iran, and a left-wing radical, Evo Morales, as leader in Bolivia. Afghanistan also held an election recently, but many of those chosen were warlords who control large segments of the country and are little interested in democracy. Moreover, they are threatening to turn Afghanistan into a narco-state. The country already produces the world’s largest supply of opium poppies.

In Bolivia, Morales wants to promote, not prevent, cultivation of the cocaine-source coca and to nationalize the country’s natural gas resources. Morales has received aid and comfort from another elected radical, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has emerged as an enemy of the United States and a friend of the Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

Ahmadinejad has called the Nazis' World War II slaughter of 6 million European Jews a ''myth'' and said the Jewish state should be ''wiped off the map.''

Meantime the exiled political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, said in Damascus on January 28, 2006, that the group would not disarm, nor "submit to pressure to recognize Israel, because the occupation is illegitimate and we will not abandon our rights." He insisted that "resistance is a legitimate right that we will practice and protect," and he defended attacks on Israeli civilians, which included many suicide bombings until a cease-fire nearly a year ago. Nevertheless, he said Hamas was "ready to work with Europe and even the United States if they wish."

Since Hamas’s victory, an urgent debate has erupted over whether it will modify its positions once in power, disavow violence and terrorism, and recognize the existence of the state of Israel. Israel, Europe and the United States say they will not deal with Hamas until it does so.

Many Israelis have been strangely comforted by the victory of Hamas, because it has forced the rest of the world to see the true face of the Palestinians—that their desire to drive all Israelis into the sea is not a theory but a fact. Palestinians no longer can hide behind figures like Yasser Arafat, who talked about peace but worked to undermine it until his death in November 2004. His Fatah faction now lies beaten, its monopoly on power ended. In contrast, Hamas stands quite clearly for the destruction of Israel. Now the rest of the world can see that this program is supported by most Palestinians. The situation is sobering, but far more realistic than the game of mirrors that Arafat played for years.

Though Hamas’s animosity is now the official policy of the Palestinian people, many Israelis take comfort in the belief that Hamas cannot destroy Israel and will ultimately have to follow a course to peace.

We in the West must come to accept that elections and democracy may bring about precisely the sorts of governments that we do not want. People in other lands may be far more radical than we would like to believe. For example, we have entertained for some time the idea that the Iranian people are seething under the control of an oppressive theocratic state that denies rights and freedom to everyone—yet last year these same people voted for the most extreme leader on the ticket, Ahmadinejad. Likewise, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is fast becoming a dictator who is passing around oil money to embarrass the United States, but who is so inefficient he cannot repair a road from the capital, Caracas, to its international airport. Yet Chavez was elected by the people, and still enjoys much popular support.

Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism is an extreme leftist program that espouses not only nationalizing Bolivia’s gas reserves and encouraging farmers to plant coca, but also plans land reform and state control of the economy. One reason for his victory is the Andean Indians, who are desperately poor and have been largely ignored by the government, long dominated by wealthy descendants of the original Spanish conquerors. Another is the wide dissatisfaction in the more prosperous east and among mestizos (people of mixed race) with the corruption of traditional political parties. The case of Bolivia shows that we may not fully appreciate deep divisions that can exist within societies far different from our own, and that these divisions are capable of producing democratic upheavals we cannot control, and whose ultimate resolution no one can predict.

This is especially true in the Middle East. The people there are in the throes of a violent attempt to come to grips with the abject failure of their Islamic civilization to provide jobs, incentives, adequate education, decent standards of living, and fundamental freedoms. Without the presence of oil in several of these states, the entire Middle East—with the exception of Turkey—would be poverty-stricken, because the societies there have been unable to compete with the West economically in any arena whatsoever. Turkey is the anomaly because it secularized its society and modeled its economy on the West after losing its empire in World War I.

One reaction to the failure of Islamic civilization is the attempt of religious fundamentalists—examples are al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the mullahs who rule Iran—to reconstitute a mythical theocratic paradise of complete Islamic control of all activities and behavior. Such a society would be rigid and restrictive to a most tyrannical degree, wiping out almost all individual freedom and choice. It therefore is supported by only a tiny minority, and is sustained largely by terrorism.

Beyond this small fringe, however, are many Arabs who are deeply opposed to the existence of Israel and who see this state as an example of the intrusion into the heart of Islam of the West they fear and to which they feel inferior. Thus, it is not surprising that Hamas has won the Palestinian election, nor will it be surprising that nothing approaching Jeffersonian democracy will emerge in Iraq or any other state of the Middle East in the foreseeable future.

In the end, the greatest danger we face in the Middle East is not from elections per se, but from the absence of a democratic tradition and from the presence of nondemocratic groups that seek power. There is great danger that these groups will adhere to an old and cynical practice in the region of “one man, one vote, one time.” Since there is also no established rule of law in the Middle East, extremist factions may exploit the willingness of Arabs to elect them, and, once in power, consolidate their control and suppress all opposing voices, turning subsequent elections into farces. Among other leaders, this is what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq and what Hosni Mubarak has been doing in Egypt since he succeeded Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

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