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From the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue
By Patrice de Beer
PARIS—After the May 6 Greek elections, which saw the routing of the two major parties that have alternated power since the end of the military dictatorship, a Greek explained, “I voted against Pasok [the Socialist party], because they failed to provide a job to my daughter who holds an engineering degree.” In this country known since ancient Athens as “The Mother of Democracy,” the sacred concept of demokratia, or rule by the people, has been profaned. The following month, another set of elections failed to give Greece the working majority it desperately needed to form a coalition of the traditional center-right and left parties and relaunch its moribund economy, too long fed with European Union subsidies. Nor has it succeeded in restoring faith in a democratic process undermined by corruption—endemic at every level of society.
The present economic and social crisis that has enveloped Greece is hardly the only evidence of the perversion of its democracy. Since regaining independence from the Turks 188 years ago and overthrowing the dictatorship of the colonels in 1974, Greece has been governed by a succession of family-run cliques selling positions and buying votes through jobs and other perks. Nepotism is widespread, and tax evasion has become a national sport in a country, which, since joining the EU in 1981, has lived on borrowed money. These are the underpinnings of Greece’s bloated bureaucracy: inflated payrolls in public corporations and the many holders of disability pensions who can walk or see as well as you and I—not to mention the avoidance wherever possible of any vestige of taxation. Ship owners and the Orthodox Church are by law exempt from paying taxes. How can democracy work when ordinary citizens refuse to pay government levies and the two wealthiest groups are exempt?
So, instead of being cherished as a historical treasure and guarantee of freedom, the most basic tenets of democracy have been distorted in the very country that gave birth to, nurtured, and even crafted the words to express them. This concept, on which the Western world has based its institutions, remains as fragile as ever. Far from its birthplace in Greece, many have lost confidence in their institutions as last year’s Arab Spring has been followed by the electoral victory of religious fundamentalists in Egypt and Tunisia. Despite being cast in bronze or engraved on marble, Greece’s Lady has grown old. Through the centuries, new generations have developed different visions of this concept to fit specific times, circumstances, and locations. In making these adjustments, governments have all too often corrupted the very concept of democracy. Yet most modern leaders, except for the basest of autocrats, continue to pay at least lip service to it. Even North Korea.
It should hardly seem strange that so many dictatorships have added to the official name of their countries the shining titles of “Democratic” or “Popular,” especially during the Communist era, from People’s Republics (like China or Hungary) to the German “Democratic” Republic (the Stasi-dominated police state of East Germany) or the infamous “Democratic” Kampuchea of the Khmer Rouge. These architects of the killing fields were themselves ousted by an undemocratic Vietnam in 1979, which established a new “People’s” Republic of Kampuchea. Vietnam, in turn, has chosen not to hide behind a hypocritical smoke screen and calls itself simply “Socialist.” The best—or the worst—example of this linguistic perversion is, of course, the Kim dynasty of North Korea, which is both a “Democratic” and “People’s” Republic. Finally, there is Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo (in contrast with its far smaller and no more democratic neighbor simply named Republic of Congo). The sad joke, of course, is that none of these “People’s” regimes are in the least democratic, and these “Democratic” republics are hardly run by the people.
PROTECT AND DEFEND
Yet, this has not stopped proud Western democracies with a glorious past of fighting to protect our freedoms from doing business with unsavory regimes, from Nazi Germany before World War II to the Soviet Union of Stalin and Brezhnev to today’s People’s Republic of China. Not only do we all trade in a globalized world, we seek to preserve at least a veneer of normal, even friendly relations among states with the aim of maintaining world peace. We mute our criticism of Communist China’s perpetual violations of human rights—from Chinese dissidents to Tibetan or Uighur nationalists—to protect a vast market for our products and our primary supplier of industrial goods, which we cannot live, or play, without.
There have always been those—like France’s late China expert and President Charles de Gaulle’s information and justice minister, Alain Peyrefitte—who pretend that democracy does not fit with Chinese and Asian traditions. It is not in their genes. They prefer living under “benevolent” dictatorships. As if democratic and un-democratic genes differ from each other. As if countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not living examples that democracy is as capable of flourishing in the East as it is in the West. Others pretend that economic development will nurture democracy. But on the Asian continent, or anywhere else, assembling computers under political supervision for foreign-owned factories is no shortcut to democracy.
My own experience as foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Monde has helped me understand the universal value of democracy. Based in Bangkok in the 1970s, I witnessed the final years of the Vietnam War and its sorry sideshows in Cambodia and Laos. As an unwilling guest of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, where I had overstayed my welcome following the evacuation of most Western media by American helicopters a few days before the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, I had the good fortune of surviving. A number of my colleagues did not. Based in Beijing in the 1980s, I witnessed China’s opening after the bloody years of the Cultural Revolution, then the first crackdown on the democratic awakening of China’s youth, followed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in the spring of 1989.
I also covered various coups, insurgencies, civil and international wars, and rigged elections across Asia, which convinced me of two realities. First, with respect to the fundamental rights of the people, there is basically no difference between dictatorships—whether from the left or the right—beyond the color of their flag, the uniforms of their leaders, the ideologies and the religions they pretend to uphold, or the resonance of their slogans. They all breed the same oppression and corruption.
It also made me realize how much of a treasure democracy can be, that it must be protected at all cost and never taken for granted. When we see millions being denied their basic rights, we know how privileged we are. When we witness voters entering polling booths for their very first democratic election, their enthusiasm and expectations are overwhelming. Even if, as in Ukraine—where I was dispatched in 2004 as an observer by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to witness the first free elections in the country’s history—citizens voted back into power the former Soviet apparatus. At least this time they seized power through the ballot box, thanks to the bitter internecine rivalry between leaders of the Orange Revolution. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s new leader, Viktor Yanukovych, following the footsteps of his Russian neighbor Vladimir Putin, has used democracy to jail representatives of democratic parties, including Ukraine’s iconic figure Yulia Tymoshenko. Still, where there are democratic processes, there is always hope.
What a difference, though, between the festive and exhilarating atmosphere of the Arab Spring or the Orange Revolution and the sorry results of the last Ukrainian elections. Not to mention the massive abstention in our own privileged nations where people have always lived in a democratic system and so often take it for granted. Rarely does participation rise above 50 percent, not only in the United States but also in Europe for many elections or referendums. France’s 2012 legislative elections, which gave an absolute majority in the National Assembly to Socialist president François Hollande, witnessed a record abstention rate of 44.6 percent.
TAKEN FOR GRANTED
Too many potential voters take democracy for granted, treating it like a habit that has hung around for ages. They don’t seem to realize the rationale behind it. It has become little more than choosing to drive on the right or left side of the road. They often fail to vote, considering it useless or a waste of time, and democracy doesn’t necessarily fare any better in the more than 20 countries where voting is compulsory—like Belgium, for one. This country has recently gone through the longest period in history without a government, between June 13, 2010 and December 6, 2011. Only when you have witnessed the birth of democracy somewhere can you understand what it really means to those who have seized the opportunity, how much effort is needed, how many sacrifices—often bloody—are necessary to win this basic right. In many nations, so many citizens and intellectuals share such blasé attitudes as “politicians all look the same,” “they are all corrupt,” and “there is no difference between left and right.”
When you fail to use a privilege won by your forebears, when you let it decay as a useless tool, it runs the risk of becoming obsolete. Politicians around the world carry a negative image, often for good reasons. Yet, if their image is so bad, we should hardly expect bright, honest, dedicated, well-trained, and idealistic youths to stand for election and risk being tainted by an image that could derail a promising career in academics, business, or international institutions.
For better or worse, politics and politicians, like the media and journalists, reflect their societies. This may help explain why disgruntled voters sometimes turn to non-politicians as leaders—actors like Ronald Reagan, Italian humorist Beppe Grillo and his Five Stars movement after Silvio Berlusconi, or the French clown Coluche in the 1980s; singers like new Haitian president Michel Martelly; or businessmen like American Mitt Romney.
In the end, the responsibility is ours. We must take elections seriously. They are a duty toward our country, not merely a right among many others, and an example for those deprived of this freedom. We owe it to them. We have to go beyond “consuming” democracy as if it were a product available on the shelves. We must become personally involved in the democratic process if we want it to thrive. Otherwise we will have only ourselves to blame for its failure.
This has been all too apparent during the last few years through the rise of populist, often right-wing parties and charismatic figures in Europe—from Finland to Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orbán, once a promising young leader who fought against the dying communist regime, now rules with an iron fist. Equally visible, and for many quite frightening, is the rise of Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Even in France, the far right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, received 18 percent of the vote in the last presidential election. And then there’s Greece, with its new extremist parties born out of crisis—the far left and the openly pro-Nazi.
Disenchanted by the economic, social, and moral crisis, fearing unemployment and, for the first time in generations, that their children might be condemned to a future less promising than their own, an increasing number of voters are seeking comfort in the siren songs of those who make bold, unrealistic, and sometimes nasty promises they know they can never fulfill. Populists play on entrenched anxieties based on prejudices directed at strangers in their midst, religious fundamentalism, and social and economic transformations beyond the capacity of their nations. Talking of withdrawal from the Euro or the EU, closing borders to competing products from abroad, expelling foreigners, or treating those who were not born in their adopted land as second class citizens are all tendencies that must be resisted by those who truly believe in democracy.
ALIVE AND KICKING
Finally, it’s vital to point out that democracy is still alive, if not always in good health. Its seeds grow, blossoming in many colors before being replaced by new flowers. They crossbreed and sometimes degenerate only to start a new life in more hospitable soil. They adapt to new environments. Sometimes new strains appear suddenly, while others disappear. Around fundamental principles—rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, equality and justice, free and fair elections—democracy can bloom differently, adjusting to local conditions. But it cannot curtail freedoms for spurious reasons like the Chinese regime’s pathetic excuse that the Communist Party has a so-called historically paramount role. Neither is it acceptable for any aspiring democracy to assert that the first true freedoms are the right to eat and be sheltered, but at the cost of all liberty. That China and other countries with one party systems hold formal elections does not mean they are democratic. Far from it.
All the massive changes that have occurred in the world during the last decades have been presenting new challenges to our traditional, classical image of democracy inherited from ancient Greece. Questions have been raised about its usefulness to cope with these challenges in its traditional form. Different schools of thought have been debating whether the democracy of today should stick to its fundamentals, be more liberally oriented in a globalized world, or more concerned with immediate economic and social issues. The word “liberalism” may have quite different meanings in the United States and in Europe, where there remains a broad consensus that the state should provide a basic level of social protection for the less privileged. Public health care and universal state pensions are far from the taboos among Europe’s democrats that they are among American conservatives. This basic level is understood differently in the United Kingdom, where it means the bare minimum, or in the more caring France and Scandinavian countries, where it may represent cradle-to-grave social safety nets. Additionally, the financial maelstrom, which started a few years ago on Wall Street and is now shattering the EU banking system, bringing Greece to its knees, threatening Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps soon Italy or even France, has led to considerable soul-searching.
As states, and by extension their taxpayers, have doled out billions to save their own banks from going under, governments have been thinking about increasing controls on banking operations, speculation, and a host of technical gimmicks few understand, including politicians and even sometimes bankers themselves. There has always been, within the French right, a very strong interventionist stream, all but anathema to their conservative counterparts across the Atlantic. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic policies regularly shifted from ultra-liberalism to state interventionism.
So, yes, democracy is alive and kicking and probably more needed now than ever. But our deep involvement is all that can keep it working and serving today’s world, as effectively as it did at its birth in Athens 2,500 years ago. Alas, there is no Pericles, Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt, or de Gaulle around to show the way and uphold principles. Moreover, few politicians of today would dare claim to walk in their shoes. Short term-ism has fled the field of economics for politics where daily opinion polls have replaced quarterly income statements. And the anger of voters toward their leadership’s inability to cope with the crisis has increased political instability among democracies. No European government has been returned to power since the crisis started in Wall Street. Distressed by broken promises and the inability to cope with unemployment, outsourcing, and slashing of the welfare state, citizens freely switch their allegiances.
Democracy has to adjust to this new and unforeseen situation and show it can be the solution in dire times as effectively as it has been during prosperous ones. That it is not an empty word in a world where income disparities have shot up to all-time highs and social-minded employers, who feel the need to share a small part of their wealth with their workforce, have been replaced by the greed of faceless and remote boards. Otherwise, why should people bother? Why should they stick to moderation when they feel excluded and are facing renewed extremism and obscene greed? Democracy is at a watershed and depends on us to thrive again. And, for that, we all must take matters into our own hands, not wait for others to do the job for us.
Patrice de Beer is a former foreign correspondent (Bangkok, Beijing, London, and Washington) and editorial writer for the French daily Le Monde. He has published several books on China and now writes for Opendemocracy.net.
[Photo Yuli Weeks/ BOA]