Government by the people - democracy - is not going to be identical in any two countries. That's because the people - their culture, traditions, and attitudes - will be different.
Yet in a world where democratization remains a major, positive trend, certain ideals have to be universally applicable. Free and fair elections, for instance. They should have strong similarities no matter where they're held.
On that score, Peru's recent election clearly fell far short. President Alberto Fujimori's victory in a final, uncontested round of voting, is hollow. His manipulation of state power to assure his election, and serious questions about the vote-counting technology, tainted the process.
Mr. Fujimori, who has accomplished much that's admirable during a long tenure in office, has failed to grasp what should have been his most enduring legacy: allowing the country to move toward genuine democracy. Though he has had the support of many Peruvians, he clearly does not really trust their ability to rule by democratic means.
Personal ambition and a taste for power can arise in any country. But in a mature democracy, one man's desire to undermine legitimate government is checked by institutional restraints. To use Peru as an example again, Fujimori himself has been able to weaken the institutions, legislative and judicial, that would check his ambitions. A similar institutional weakness, though with varying historical causes, still affects many developing democracies - from Eastern Europe to Asia to Latin America.
Independent justice systems and representative legislatures exist mainly on paper in many countries. They need leaders committed to democracy to give them life. That's happening in Mexico, now moving toward a truly competitive presidential election after 70 years with one party in power. It's happening in Chile, with a moderate socialist in power. It's starting to happen in Indonesia, where President Abdurrahman Wahid is trying to move his sprawling land away from the nepotism and cronyism of the Suharto years. In South Africa, institution-building is at work, guided by a strong, publicly supported Constitution.
Democracy will continue to be the political system of choice in the world because it appeals to profound and universal human aspirations for self-government. But its path is never easy, since the people it empowers can exhibit the worst, as well as the best, motivations. Their collective exercise of power, however, is likely to be better and fairer than any one person's accumulation of power.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society