A time of testing for global democracy

Votes this month could mark advances in the Middle East, but history shows that democracy requires time, commitment.

The throngs of Ukrainians who braved repression and bitter cold in Kiev's Independence Square were ostensibly rejecting November's fraudulent elections.

But they stood for a truth the world is rediscovering as a new wave of democratization laps at resistant shores: Democracy is safe and solid only when it swells from the people and rests on counterbalancing institutions.

As the world has watched Ukraine, and prepares to turn its focus to the Middle East - Palestinians will elect a leader to succeed Yasser Arafat next week, and Iraqis are to hold their first open multiparty elections later this month - several larger lessons of what makes democracy take root and work are again being learned by the world, experts say. Among them:

• That democratization, unlike consumerism, can't be built on imports, but must be a home-grown process springing from fervent domestic desires.

• That people power isn't enough, but rather it is institutions - and especially a judiciary and legislative branch capable of standing up to an overpowering executive - that make a true democracy.

• That elections, while important as measuring sticks and for encouraging participation and a sense of stakeholding, do not alone make a nation democratic.

All of these points are reinforced by events in Ukraine, experts say, while they suggest that democratization in Iraq, as well as throughout the Middle East, have only just begun.

"The change in Ukraine is not coming because we or the Europeans are supporting it, but because there is a strong demand for it domestically, and that is something worth remembering as we look over our recent experience in Afghanistan or look towards Iraq," says Marina Ottaway, an expert in foreign policy and democratic processes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Countries do not become democratic because someone outside demands it."

The stakes are obviously high, since economic advancement and the prospect of greater stability often accompany the spread of freedom.

The need for stakeholders and strong institutions doesn't mean the US effort to promote democracy in Iraq is doomed, but rather that the process can be expected to take a long time - perhaps longer than many Americans are prepared for.

"Will Americans have the patience to leave our troops in Iraq long enough to provide the conditions where democracy can grow? I have my doubts about that," says David Davenport, a specialist in the global ramifications of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

President Bush, too, appears to have growing concerns that Americans are becoming impatient with democracy's slog in Iraq - a slog that he warns will only begin with January's parliamentary elections. He recently asked Americans to be patient with the democratization process.

In thinking about democratization, Mr. Davenport says three words come to mind - "conditions," "time," and "messy" - all of which are factors that he believes can make achieving democracy more difficult in the 21st century than in, say, 18th century America. "Tocqueville reminds us that democracy requires certain conditions to be planted, watered, and to grow, and while those conditions existed ideally in America, they don't exist just anywhere now," he says. "We have to be mindful of the difficulties posed by competing ideologies, a globalized economy, and intense international competition."

Steps ahead for Iraq

While Ukraine is more than a decade into the process of building a new system of governance, Iraq is not yet two years into its post-Hussein era - and trying to create something new while under foreign occupation and facing a violent insurgency.

Some observers doubt the Iraqi fervor for democracy. But with bombs blasting and attacks on civilians associated with the elections accelerating, it is often fear that keeps Iraqis from fully embracing the process. Beyond that, the process is complicated by the need to get other aspects of daily life in order. "The Iraqi population hasn't made a mass public show of enthusiasm for democracy, but that shouldn't surprise anyone," says Davenport.

Still, some experts say the beginning of one basic ingredient - an engaged civil society - is developing in Iraq. "You can't set up a mass movement for democracy for people who aren't set on getting there, but I do sense among Iraqis a tremendous determination," says Daniel Serwer, a postconflict governance expert with the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

He recently directed workshops in Iraq on building civic organizations. "Without always knowing exactly what a civil society is, Iraqis are going to great lengths to take part in it," he concludes. "When you see people traveling 11 hours to get through an untold number of checkpoints and danger spots to attend a seminar on conflict management, you realize the desire is there."

Yet even if "elections do not a democracy make," most experts concede they have become increasingly important as signposts in a world tilting towards democratic rule. For the first time, for example, more than half of the world's population can be said to be living under some semblance of democratic governance - with elections a key determining factor.

Elections versus broader freedom

One problem is that, as elections have become essential to establishing international legitimacy, regimes have become adept at using them to their advantage.

"Certainly one of the lessons of the recent wave of democratization is that you need to have elections, even when they spring from institutions that are less than independent or aren't able to stand up to the ruling powers," says Nicolas Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington. It's a sign of progress, he says, when open elections are broadly recognized as "necessary for leadership to be valid."

More problematic is that many regimes - notably in the Middle East - are turning to elections as a way to legitimize power, rather than as an element in a more general expansion of freedoms. That pattern may be followed in Saudi Arabia, for example, where upcoming local elections won't necessarily mean an expansion of democratic rights or represent any real check on the power of the regime. But it may be broken by the Palestinian Authority, some experts say, where already next month's presidential election is showing signs of breaking down some of the underpinnings of an authoritative regime.

"Over all in the Middle East we'll see a willingness to play with reforms, largely out of necessity, but which will stop when it becomes a challenge to the prerogatives" of the ruling elites, Gvosdev says.

A key question then becomes consolidation of what has begun - and that is where such elements as time, grass-roots fervor, and institutional development, come in. Finding that "we've become pretty good at democratic breakthroughs, our challenge now is consolidation," Gvosdev says he sees Mexico and its 2006 presidential election as one of the next tests.

In Iraq key tests will come as an elected parliament deals with writing a national constitution and sharing power among ethnic and sectarian groups. "A lot of places aren't out of the woods yet," Serwer says. "But the trends we see in the world tell us it is possible to get there."

Four months, four big votes

Afghan presidential elections Oct. 9, 2004

Ukrainian presidential election (repeat runoff) Dec. 26, 2004

Palestinian Authority presidential election Jan. 9, 2005

IraqI elections Jan. 30, 2005

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