Three Stooges of Democracy

An unlikely trio of nations on three different continents are all discovering that having only a little democracy can be a dangerous thing - especially for leaders who defy the will of the people.

In Iran, Peru, and Zimbabwe, the next few weeks or months will determine whether autocratic rulers in these countries can get away with using devious, often violent means to cling to power despite national votes that reveal their unpopularity.

In their short-sightedness, the three regimes have failed to realize that, in thwarting a democratic process, they only reinforce the peoples' desire for open and fair democracy. Americans discovered that under King George III - and under Richard Nixon during Watergate, too.

But such blessed irony doesn't help these countries right now. Political opponents and reformers are under siege. And behind them are great masses of the young and the poor who - now more aware of global trends toward freedom - are fed up with the heavy-handed rule of leaders who have overstayed their welcome.

The country with the most at stake is Iran. Conservative Islamic clerics are using their nondemocratic powers to blunt the results of elections that will put reformers in charge of parliament, which convenes May 27.

Hard-line clerics were shocked by the reformers' massive victory in a February election, and are trying to influence run-off elections for about 60 seats on May 5. They have used their control of the judiciary to close 16 pro-democracy newspapers and arrest activists seeking civic reform and more ties to the world. The basic struggle is led by the majority of Iranians who are under 25, don't remember the 1979 Islamic revolution, and want to relax strict social rules.

In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori, who has been in power 10 years, tried to rig an April 9 election after he also defied the Constitution and sought a third term.

Despite his electoral dirty tricks, he's been forced into a run-off on May 28 against an opponent, Alejandro Toledo, who's very popular with the majority of Peruvians with an Indian heritage. The United States has warned Mr. Fujimori of sanctions if this final election is unfair.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has been in power 20 years since he won a war against white rule. He lost a February referendum that would have allowed him to take white-owned farms, and faces a tough parliamentary race in a few weeks against a popular opposition party. He has condoned violence against white farmers and the taking of their land, a tactic designed to boost his rural popularity. His political intolerance and economic mistakes have turned him into a desperate despot.

The outside world can do little to help nations struggling to get out of a democratic halfway-house. In fact, foreign influence might hurt reformers.

But a global trend against overstaying rulers will eventually prevail.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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