The Core of Democracy is not Elections – It’s Rule of Law and Civil Society
*Pundits wonder why democracy is failing — judgment based on mistaken assumptions*
It’s hard not to look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the broader collection of emerging states without disappointment at what has happened to the democratic impulse that held so much promise at the end of the last century. Whether one is assessing the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, the growth of democratic practices in Latin America, or Central Asia, the verdict is the same—why has democracy failed to grow deep and sustainable roots?The issue of the future of democracy has been addressed in several recent articles that should be required reading for anyone interested in something more than sound bites about freedom and progress. The core issues these articles address are: what are the ingredients that make democracy enduring and what are the factors that slow or inhibit its growth at a time when “people power” seems to have replaced the ballot box as a leading edge of change?
A major criticism directed at the “democracy now” crowd is their over-reliance on elections as the primary vehicle for expressing and managing change. The key question this bypasses is how to determine what people really want—is it a constitution that describes power sharing and the process of getting there, or is it a bill of rights that guarantees basic civil and human rights to the broadest possible number of citizens in a country?
In the MENA at least, where elections are an event rather than a reliable indicator of democratic values, the clear preference of the majority of Arabs, based on anecdotal and polling evidence, is to have their rights, with less concern about who can guarantee them, which goes to the longevity of the former leaders of Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria in the present, and others. Democracy/elections are perceived as a way to better determine distribution of economic benefits. This should come as no surprise, considering the lackluster progress in promoting democratic participation in governments, the weak mobilizing and educating roles of political parties, and the general sense of malaise when it comes to making institutional political reforms.
Resetting Assumptions about Democracy
In thinking through the future of democratic governance, a review of the indicators in the Freedom House Index, Freedom in the World, and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index, demonstrates the complexity and singularity of the process of effective and equitable self-government. Rankings that are high on stability do not necessarily line up with those that reflect public participation in political space. Speaking to the brief attention span of reporting on political change, Anne Applebaum wrote “the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all.”
In a similar vein, Stephen M. Walt wrote about the confusion between “a democratic government and a liberal society.” His point is that “democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions—to include the press and intelligentsia—will not be corrupted or compromised.”
Reflecting on the source of much of the conflict within today’s emerging democracies, Walt writes that “Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration…” He raises a critical question in this regard, which goes to the heart of raising a liberal democracy today: “But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions—and to impart in these citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful.”
Struggling for Clarity in the Democracy Debate
While the term democracy invokes a paradigm of responsible civic participation, it is difficult to balance the image with the reality. As Paul Pilar points out, “We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong.” In deciding how best to spend US democracy-promotion funding, it would be worthwhile to look at those countries that are growing the credibility of elections as well as focusing on capacity-building for civil society.
Morocco is a useful case in point. It not only has successfully held local and national elections that international observers have judged free and fair, it also continues to invest heavily in advancing its civil society capabilities. In the late 1990s, the late King Hassan II, sensing the shift in public sentiment towards having a greater role in governance, undertook two important reforms. He allowed the largest party in Parliament to nominate the Prime Minister, and he opened up opportunities for an empowered civil society as an antidote to bickering political parties. Over the next fifteen years, especially under his son King Mohammed VI, civil society continues to evolve as a potent force in defining political, human, economic, and social development priorities—quite separately from the political parties. More than 40,000 NGOs are currently registered in all areas of the country.
King Mohammed encouraged this activism by convening a year-long civil society dialogue under the National Committee for Dialogue on Civil Society. During the past year, the committee held 18 meetings that drew nearly 10,000 civil society activists, stakeholders, and officials who shared their perspectives on proposed legislation related to the forward status of NGOs. According to El Habib Choubani, the Minister for Parliamentary Relations, the goal of the effort is “to create a legal arsenal that can guarantee the freedom to create organizations” and ensure the “independence of civil society activity and governance.” Rather than treat civil society as adversaries or passive partners, the dialogue seeks to further the goal of the 2011 Constitution to enable civil society to play a major participatory role in the political life of the country. These efforts reflect the essence of building a liberal democracy—knowledge, access, power, and respect.