EVENTS of the past two weeks leave little doubt about the prevailing direction of political change in many parts of the world. One-party, dictatorial rule is giving ground - sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly - to representative government. Eastern Europe has captured the headlines. Free elections are scheduled in Hungary, and they're nearly inevitable in East Germany - and who can say where else?
The ballot - democracy's crucial mechanism - is also working governmental renewal in regions far removed from the Stalinist traditions of Eastern Europe:
Brazil this week held its first free presidential elections in 29 years. The top vote-getters will meet for a runoff in December. No one has illusions about the difficulty of establishing democracy in a country long used to military rule and plagued by inflation, illiteracy, debt, and giant gaps between the wealthy and poor. The new president will have to show his people that democracy holds some promise of less corruption and greater fairness.
Namibia, long referred to as Africa's last colony, this week held United Nations-guided elections to chose an assembly that will write a constitution for the new country. Namibians flocked to the polls. People who've spent their lives fighting South Africa's colonial rule will now have to prove they can work with others of contrasting views to build a new government.
Jordan last week held parliamentary elections that moderated the dominance of King Hussein and his Cabinet. Political parties were allowed to campaign; greater press freedoms are planned. Muslim fundamentalists showed considerable strength at the polls. Can they work with secular groups to strengthen Jordan's tendency toward democracy?
Peru's municipal elections had good turnouts despite threatened violence by the Shining Path guerrillas. This is another country with profound economic problems - inflation runs annually at around 2,500 percent. But democracy has a footing, and presidential elections next April will be crucial.
Elections aren't magical. In these countries and others they indicate the possible start of better government, not its establishment. And trends toward democracy can shift abruptly, as China proved.
What can't be denied is that millions of people are getting a first chance to have a say about who leads them.