18 October 2012

The fragility and strength of democracy

I've just come back from a lecture sponsored by the Electoral Reform International Services organisation (and for those of you with knowledge of the UK lobby scene, it shares only the name with the lobby pushing for proportional representation). For the last couple of years, they have sponsored a lecture on, essentiality, democracy outside the magic circle of the established and stable democracies.

This year, the lecturer was one Mohsen Marzouk. He's a democracy advocate from Tunisia, and has been for some years with a track record to prove it. Given the geographical context, Tunisia and the Middle East and North Africa, it is of supreme interest to note that the word Israel came up only once, and then in passing, and only because it has a vulnerable border with Syria. Well, it's vulnerable only if you're not a member of the IDF, a military planner with the IDF or an Israeli, of course.

As an aside, the talk was held in what I'm told used to be the Conservative Party headquarters in Smith Square, Westminster but is now the home of the European Union Commission and European Parliament in London. Still, I'm sure they'll have carried out an appropriate exorcism ceremony before moving in.

What I found intriguing about the event was less what Mr Marzouk had to say (and that was very interesting on the chances for democracy taking root and flourishing in the Arab Spring countries and elsewhere in the region), and more about the thoughts that it triggered in my mind as to what was required for a democracy to become and remain stable.

I came up with a list of about 10 factors. I'm not going to bore you with them, but among them I thought that these were quite interesting: freedom of and from religion; the rule of law (no arbitrary actions on the part of the state); and the acceptance of collective as well as individual rights. What would your list include or exclude?

As to the fragility of democracy, with at least 10 factors needing to be in place, it's astonishing that they have survived for so long, not least in the so-called Anglo-Saxon democracies of the UK and Commonwealth Dominions (and I'd include India in that list) and the USA. Perhaps there's something in the common culture, and the fact that they've avoided invasion by non-democrats (interesting that: when was the last time genuine representative democracies went to war against each other?).

Balancing that, of course, is the problem of succession for authoritarian regimes. If they can't guarantee the control of the army, they have no way of ensuring peaceful (or at least unopposed) succession. One of the most interesting comments that Mohsen Marzouk made (among a large number) was to suggest that, if you get the rules right, even a non-democrat can be constrained to act as though they were a genuine democrat. We'll all have our candidates for that role of the constrained authoritarian. I know who mine is for the UK!

That said, democracies have no problem with succession: either the electorate or the political parties sort that one out.

And I think that Israel fits in just fine with the list of democracies: 64 years and counting ain't bad in this wicked world.

By Brian Goldfarb. 


Eric-Odessit said...

Here is an example of democracies going to war against each other: World War 1. France at the time already was a democratic republic, while Germany, England and even Russia were monarhies limited by parliments. I am not sure about Austro-Hungary.
Even during World War 2 England and Finland ended up on the opposit sides in the state of war. That happened because England sent 2 Hurricane squadrons (with pilots, not just planes) to the Russian North, where their opponents were mostly Finns, rather than Germans.
Yours is a good article. I just would like to dispence with the notion that democracies don't go to war against each other. That is a nice theory, but unfortunately it is not correct.
Best regards,

Brian Goldfarb said...

Sorry, Eric, but by the time of the First World War, Britain was a parliamentary democracy (with a limited franchise - no women had the vote, but did French women have the vote?): the King was Head of State, but the Prime Minister (in the House of Commons) and his Cabinet were the ones who went to war. The King might have advised against it, but the politicians could, and did, ignore this. Further, why else would BRitain and France have been allies? The Fashoda Incident (details on demand) demonstrates exactly why this was so and why the Entente Cordiale was signed between the two states.

As for Finland and World War 2, Finland decided to side with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union was, by then, Britain's ally. Britain's actions were almost inevitable.

That said, one data point doesn't disprove my contention (it's far too vague to be dignified as a theory, although you are kind to call it such).

Any more evidence? I still think I'm far more right than wrong.

Eric-Odessit said...

But that is exactly my point: the powers on both sides of World War 1 were democracies, and yet they went to war against each other. Kaiser's Germany was parliamentary democracy, just like Britain.
The Fashoda Incident that you mention is another example of 2 democracies going to war against each other. Well, they did not actually go to war, but almost did.
In the 1970s (or 1960s, I don't remember exactly) the US almost went to war against Soviet-supported India (a democracy) on the side of Pakistan.
Best regards,

Brian Goldfarb said...

Eric, the point is that they didn't go to war: the troops sat down and decided to let their respective governments sort it out, which they did, and this led to the entente cordiale. Besides, the German system was hardly a democracy, parliamentary or otherwise. It was loaded against the high scoring Social Democrats, and the Kaiser got to choose who the Chancellor would be, even if he didn't command a majority in the Reichstag. The British King had no option but to summon the leader of the largest in the House of Commons and request that he form a government. Previous King had even, earlier, been forced to threaten to create enough peers to overrule the Lords defeat of the Budget. Because the popular vote demanded that the Budget be passed.

Re the Fashoda Incident, we both know that neither French nor British troops should have been there, colonising Africa, in the first place. But repeating the downright bleeding obvious is not what either of us are about.

Your turn!