The limits of democracy

In his second inaugural address President Bush proclaimed: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Like most Americans we cherish democratic values and believe deeply in our system. But it’s increasingly clear that Bush’s vision for transforming world politics – particularly in the Middle East – has rammed into an enormous roadblock.

The essence of democracy is not majority rule, but tolerance of dissent and respect for minority rights. What happens when elections bring to power intolerant forces that impose their will on others? What happens when ethnic or religious factions feel abused and assert their right to self-rule?

Both issues are highlighted by the current political crisis in Turkey, a firm American ally in a dangerous neighborhood that shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. As a result, the president’s commitment to “democratic movements and institutions” is being put to a severe test.

Turkey is a Muslim country with a long history of secular politics dating back to the inspirational leadership of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. But today, Turkey is ruled by an Islamist party that wants to install one of its own leaders, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, as the nation’s president (who is now chosen by Parliament).

This prospect deeply alarms the country’s secular elite, which fears the imposition of Islamic laws and traditions. Gul’s wife, they note, wears a religious headscarf – exactly the sort of backward, old-world custom Ataturk tried so hard to eradicate from Turkish culture.

Demonstrations against Gul have choked the streets of major cities. Opposition parties blocked his election by boycotting the vote in Parliament, and the courts upheld their maneuver. Turkey’s large and powerful army, which sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, has threatened to intervene.

Meanwhile, Gul’s Justice and Development Party is trying to change the law and create a directly elected president, and the foreign minister confidently predicts he’d get 70 percent of the popular vote. “That’s why we have decided to go to the people,” he told the Turkish Press.

So what’s the pro-democratic position here? It’s not at all clear. The Islamist majority certainly has a point when it says “the people” should elect the president. And the army, which threatens to oust a popularly chosen government, is not exactly waving the banner of liberty.

But what if the new president does not respect national tradition? Or wants to impose religious standards and practices on the secularists? And how democratic is it to change the election law, virtually overnight, just because the current system has thwarted your ambitions?

Turkey’s democratic values are also threatened in the country’s southeast region, home to a restless Kurdish minority. The central government in Ankara has refused to recognize Kurdish aspirations for independence and insisted on national unity. A Kurdish guerilla movement, based in northern Iraq, periodically crosses the border to raid Turkish government outposts.

Again, what’s the democratic position? The government insists that the Kurds should accept majority rule, stay loyal to the nation and end their military campaign. The Kurds insist that they have a right to self-determination. It is an accident of history and geography, they say, that Kurds are scattered across at least three countries (Turkey, Iran and Iraq). They should enjoy the same independence as Armenians or Uzbeks or any other national group in the area.

Turkey is only one example of the limits of democracy. Elections in Iraq produced a Shia-dominated government that has failed to grant sufficient power to the Sunni minority, or to control militias organized by fellow religionists. The Kurds have established a largely autonomous state in the north, outside the writ and rule of Baghdad.

In Lebanon, elections created a parliamentary base for Hezbollah, a heavily armed terrorist organization, which is now demanding veto power over the government in Beirut. In the Palestinian territories, voters chose a ruling coalition dominated by Hamas, a party that refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence. If fair elections were ever held in Egypt, a fundamentalist and anti-Western group, the Muslim Brotherhood, would certainly command considerable support.

Is democracy still the best governing system? Of course it is. Are democracies less likely to make war on each other, as President Bush insists? Absolutely. But democracy can also be a very messy process, producing governments that don’t believe in democratic values, and don’t share America’s view of the world.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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