Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Votes of no confidence

Today’s papers bring us two sceptical voices about democracy in non-Western countries, in light of the recent turmoil in Kenya and Pakistan.

First up is Simon Jenkins, who offers up another version of his standard column about how (a) we have a nasty, imperial past, (b) we are imperfect, (c) the rest of the world is none of our business, therefore (d) we should not express opinions about how other countries should run their affairs. He writes:

Students of politics are taught to tick off the qualities that award the status of democracy to a polity. Are there free and fair elections? Can the franchise turn a regime out of office? Are there supporting institutions such as an open parliament, security of public assembly, elected local government, a free media, the rule of law? No one of these is either sufficient or necessary for democracy, which is rather a sliding scale of liberties, to which constitutions and regimes ascribe varying degrees of priority.

In fact, most of these – particularly free and fair elections, and rights to expression and assembly – are necessary for democracy, if not sufficient. That said, though, Jenkins’s definition of democracy as “a sliding scale of liberties” does remove almost all normal meaning from the term.

But his concern is more with the content of Foreign Office press releases than the nature of political regimes around the world, so through sheer apathy I’ll move on. [Update: see Norm and Ophelia for more.]

Mary Dejevsky’s piece is more substantive and interesting. After praising the principle of democracy, she rightly notes:

In many parts of the world elections divide voters, not along political lines – which may foster productive debate – but along ethnic, religious or clan lines. …
Where clans, birth and names matter, the circles of power become closed. A seat in parliament, even national leadership, is inherited. And while a ruling caste may produce responsible leaders born and trained to rule, it may equally spawn an effete priviligentsia that sucks the country dry, perpetuating a cycle of penury and popular revolt.

Crudely put, the conditions for democracy working well and enduring safely are that both leaders and supporters of the different political factions should be willing to accept defeat (not trying to destabilise a government that has won re-election nor to keep out an opposition that has rightfully displaced you), and to be magnanimous in victory (not trying to rig the rules of future elections nor to persecute the losers who might one day become winners).

These depend on a sense of national unity that transcends personal or factional advantage. This is hard to come by.

Dejevsky argues:

some of today's most [economically] successful countries… are neither democracies or dynasties. Some, such as Russia, might fancy themselves to be democracies, or moving in that direction; others, most egregiously China, are nowhere near. What we supporters of democracy have to recognise, however, is that there are governments that would not qualify under any definition as democratic, that are nonetheless doing well by the vast majority of their citizens. And they are doing so by virtue of an essentially technocratic, apolitical approach to nation-management.

There’s a lot to digest here. Certainly, China’s GDP growth is a remarkable phenomenon, and millions of Chinese have benefited from this. But millions of poor rural Chinese have been forgotten, or in many cases displaced to make way for dams and other industrial projects. Pollution from these is more of a concern to those who breathe the local air or fish in the local rivers than it is to Western eco-warriors. HIV rates are shooting up. China is run for the benefit of the state, not of ‘the people’. Enriching some of those people is in the state’s interests, but those who are non-middle class, non-Party member are primarily treated as resources to be used or ignored as appropriate. Demands for democratic reform in China are growing, and go well beyond “intellectuals who set more store by spiritual than material things”, as Dejevsky dismissively puts it.

Russia’s recovery from its 1990s collapse is impressive as well, although less so once we recall that much of it has been driven by oil and gas exports, with profits going to companies owned by post-Soviet tycoons or the state. Russia has been excellent at creating billionaires, but not so good at “doing well by the vast majority of [its] citizens”. Putin’s popularity owes more to his populist hard-man act than to the living standards of the masses. The retreat to authoritarian ‘managed democracy’ – not just a sensible correction to Yeltsin’s mis-steps – was quite unwarranted, and has not been the cause of Russia’s recent growth.

And neither country’s government is taking an “apolitical approach”. China’s approach could more appropriately be called ‘anti-political’, with people prevented from organising against the Party. And Putin has fed his people nationalistic politics while centralising power.

Dejevsky continues:

If there is an ostensibly competent ruling group that renews itself as and when, while producing rapid growth rates and rising living standards across the board, then what? If there is not Western-style freedom, but enough to satisfy most people, then what? …
Should we then allow perhaps that a stage of benevolent authoritarianism, with a selected – rather than elected – meritocracy at the head, might provide an answer, especially if it kept internecine rivalries at bay?

Setting aside the size of those ‘if’s (and whatever ‘non-Western-style freedom’ might be), she is making a huge category mistake here. She’s confusing a system of government (autocracy) with the nature of a regime (benevolence).

Of course not all unelected rulers are monsters or even decadent rogues. But championing autocracy in the hope of responsible leadership is deeply misguided. Who will do the ‘selection’ of leaders? Who decides what counts as ‘merit’ to rule? Absent accountability, power will reside in the hands of those best able to seize and hold it. These are not ideal criteria for identifying those who will promote national wellbeing.

Buying a winning lottery ticket is an excellent way to enrich yourself. But it’s more likely that you won’t understand your loss until it’s too late.

Dejevsky adds the caveat that “benevolent authoritarianism” would only be temporary:

The get-out clause would be that such a stage would last only so long as economic well-being were regarded as the chief determinant of contentment. In time, surely, more personal freedom would be granted from above, or successfully demanded from below.

“Regarded” by whom, exactly? Comfortable elites do not tend to spontaneously grant personal freedoms that may undermine their rule. And this nimbly skirts around what it is that determines whether demands from below are successful (and what happens if not). It is the persuasiveness of the argument? Or the column of tanks in Tiananmen Square?

Electoral politics can indeed be dangerous in countries where elite factions have blood feuds against each other, or where demographic divisions overpower national unity. But autocratic rule is rarely a good way to smooth things over.


Chris said...

Since I was a bit rude to you below I thought it polite to blance that by saying that this post is very good. Especially 'buying a winning lottery ticket is a good way to get rich.' Lovely, I'll be passing that off as one of my own down the club.

Tom Freeman said...

Cheers - got to take the rough with the smooth! (Apologies for cliche.)