Democracy's Trials

Democracy itself has sometimes been oversold as a solution to humanity's problems.

Not that freedom of expression, respect for basic rights, and other democratic values aren't essential to progress. But they're often promoted with inadequate emphasis on what it takes to establish and perpetuate them.

That's the underlying theme in this year's human development report from the United Nations. It notes a slippage in the worldwide trend of the last two decades toward democratic governance. Of 81 countries that adopted such practices as free elections in the 1980s and '90s, only 47 have sustained their democratic processes, according to the report.

Sometimes the reversal is abrupt, as with Pakistan's return to military rule. Sometimes it's a slower evolution, such as Zimbabwe's steady slide into authoritarian rule. Causes include a lack of democratic infrastructures, ingrained corruption, and the determination of some leaders and parties to monopolize power.

One clear message is that elections, in themselves, aren't enough. They need to be teamed with efforts to build crucial institutions like independent courts, legislatures, and news media. Perhaps most important, a country's leaders and people must have a will to make the democratic process work.

Even a dirt-poor land like Mozambique, armed with that will, can move toward true democracy and accompanying economic progress.

The report correctly cautions, however, against making too firm a connection between democracy and economic progress. In many countries that have held elections, average people have reaped little or no economic benefit as yet. The onset of popular cynicism and apathy is a danger.

Yet the long-term economic benefits of democracy – allowing individuals, particularly women, to develop their potential – is undeniable.

Also undeniable is the value of good models of democracy. Some, observing the current struggles in the United States to break the hold of big money on electoral politics and reform business practices, may see a flawed system. But, in fact, it's a system in the perennial throes of weeding out its flaws. That, too, is democracy.

Good governance isn't self-perpetuating. It requires regular self-appraisal and a determination to set things right.

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