Democracy's bad rap

Yeltsin's passing and the Nigerian elections serve as reminders that young democracies are all too fragile.

This week, the media zoomed in on Moscow, where former President Boris Yeltsin was eulogized ... and on Nigeria, where the head of Africa's most populous nation will leave office after an election and two terms in office. Worlds apart, yes, but not so far in the global struggle for democracy.

Like Mr. Yeltsin, outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo can be considered a founder of democracy – or more accurately, a restorer of such rule after years of various military regimes. But also like Yeltsin, he imperiled this precious form of government through poor leadership.

Corruption, the scourge of many fledgling democracies, is unchecked in Nigeria, as it was in Yeltsin's Russia of the 1990s. Both are energy-rich nations, yet such wealth did not reach "the people" in the Yeltsin era. Neither has it under Mr. Obasanjo.

And after both leaders tasted power, they became almost addicted to it. Yeltsin dismissed his critics, firing cabinet after cabinet. Obasanjo sought to change the Constitution so he could have a third term. That generated an outcry, and instead he has presided during the past two weeks over elections marred by widespread irregularities and violence. No one was surprised by the outcome: victory for his party in most regions, and a new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, also of his party.

These examples serve as a reminder that infant democracies are fragile. They don't necessarily mature with time. Elections, constitutions, and laws are not self-implementing. These levers of representative government depend on the leaders who operate them. When leaders fail to follow through, their publics lose faith in democracy – or, rather, the poor example that they see of it. They malign its name and dream (foolishly) about the "good old days."

Disenchantment leaves an opening for new rulers such as Vladimir Putin to dismantle the legacy of freedoms unsecured by predecessors – all in the name of "restoring order." It's chilling to hear Nigerian government officials hint at a military coup should election losers organize potentially violent protests.

That countries can lose democratic ground, or have a tough time gaining it, is illustrated by the annual report put out by the nonprofit group Freedom House. The world is in a kind of "freedom stagnation," according to the report, which says the percentage of countries that rank as "free" has remained flat for nearly a decade.

The tally for last year found freedom gains in Guyana, Haiti, and Nepal. But elected leaders pushed back at political opposition and the media in countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador. The Asia-Pacific region also suffered setbacks, with an elected Thai prime minister (also tarred by corruption charges) ousted in a military coup last year.

To be sure, leaders of young democracies inherit some awful conditions: wrecked economies, trampled human rights, and religious and ethnic strife. But they can also create or perpetuate them. Ukraine's president wasn't willing to compromise enough with his "orange revolution" colleagues, and now faces a parliamentary crisis. Iraq is struggling for a national democracy that can include and yet restrain Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd identities.

It's not too late for Nigeria's new leader – and others – to restore faith in democracy.

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