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Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 00:15 GMT 01:15 UK
Still only two cheers for democracy
As international broadcasters begin a season of films about the strengths and weaknesses of democracy - Why Democracy? - the BBC's Paul Reynolds looks at what it means today.

Conscripts vote in Ukraine
The end of the Cold War saw the rapid spread of democracy
The triumph of democracy in the 20th Century was so great that it is curious that doubts have gathered around it today.

Its success can be judged by recalling the words of the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who told Western ambassadors in Moscow in 1956: "History is on our side. We will bury you." He could not have been more wrong. It was the Soviet Union itself that was buried in 1991.

All this led to the famous, infamous perhaps, statement from the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1992.

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such," he wrote.

"That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Too optimistic?

The end of the Cold War did see the rapid spread of democracy, especially into the former communist states of Eastern and Central Europe. The European Union advanced to the Russian border. Democracies managed to assert individual rights and create prosperity.

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And yet, even as he wrote, some critics felt that Fukuyama was being too optimistic - that the world would in due course resume its weary way.

Some alarms did go off. In the former Yugoslavia, majority voting in the component parts of the federation led not to a democratic agreement but to war. It was a lesson that democracy is about more than majority voting and that defining a majority is not always straightforward. The issue is currently an active one in Kosovo.

There have been disappointments: in the West, Russia is now felt to have strayed too far back to autocratic ways. Africa has not advanced as much as had been hoped - except for the shining example of South Africa. And the great prize of China remains elusive.

The recent crackdown in Burma shows that the struggle for democracy often has a high price.

And there is the threat from al-Qaeda and its followers. This goes beyond a disagreement over foreign policy. Osama Bin Laden himself called on the United States to convert to Islam to avoid continued war.

Disappointment

Resisting militant Islamists should not be that hard for democracies well-schooled during the Cold War in the need for patience and clarity of vision.

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One factor is that not everyone believes in the benevolent intentions of democratic countries.

Iraq has led to the phenomenon that the most active exponent of democracy, the US, has attracted the greatest criticism. This has made it easier for al-Qaeda to gain recruits.

Even the Bush administration has given up its hopes of a rapid transformation of Iraq into a democratic beacon in the Middle East. President Bush argued that the Middle East was really no different from anywhere else, that its people wanted the same things and that, once upon a time, other parts of the world had also been written off as hopeless.

And yet it has not worked out like that - so far, at least. Iraq has shown that you cannot simply impose outside values on a society.

The definition of modern liberal democracy is now being examined, questioned even, more closely than before.

Weaknesses

Majority voting is clearly a key element. But that is not enough.

Others factors are free media, free elections, free speech, multiple political parties, protection of minorities, equal rights, rule of (good) law, responsive public services and a free enterprise environment (though arguments remain about the form this should take).

A Hamas official during the 2006 elections
Some countries rejected the Hamas election results in 2006
Some parts of the world even question the value of democracy. And its enemies, be they theocrats or autocrats, are active.

Democracy has had its weaknesses exposed.

These include a sometimes naive assumption that it knows best. In the early 1990s, Russia was invaded by smart young men in suits. I recall watching a London business "expert" in his 20s, funded by a British government "know-how fund", telling the elderly manager of a Moscow bread factory (the son of one of Stalin's bodyguards) how to run the place, which had been functioning quite well for many years.

In the face of such arrogance, it is little wonder that there has been a backlash in Russia.

A more serious limitation is that voting can sometimes bring in an extremist, or extremists, who then cannot easily be removed.

On occasions, the outside world simply rejects what it regards as the "wrong result" or imposes conditions on the winner. This happened to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Gradualism

Governments claiming to be democratic have too often failed to create and spread wealth equitably.

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time
Winston Churchill

A democracy has a flank open to violent rebellion. Afghanistan cannot fight the Taleban by itself, lacking the necessary power, yet by calling in outsiders it increases the chances of fuelling that rebellion.

Democracy sometimes falls down by not offering stability, order and security. Some societies, in the Middle East especially, but China as well, place these values higher than the freedoms exercised in the West.

That is perhaps why gradualism is now a preferred option. Equal rights, for women for example, can be a way forward instead of wholesale change.

In 1951, the novelist E M Forster summed it up in this way:

"So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three."

Winston Churchill's remark to the House of Commons in November 1947 (having been booted out by the voters even before the war ended) still stands:

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

Newsnight will be asking Why Democracy? on BBC Two at 2230 BST, while Storyville on BBC Four will be looking at democracy in Japan and Russia at 2000 and 2200 BST respectively.

Your comments:

The USA is more than ready to project its foreign policies onto other countries, with force if necessary. The choice of US president often has a bigger effect on many people around the world than the choice of their own government. Yet only Americans get to vote the president. This undermines pro democracy arguements.
Philip, Southampton UK

Just because Bush and Blair messed up does not mean domocarcy is not right for the Middle East. As long as we do not go on imposing democracy by violent force (quite undemocratic) I guess it still works - in the West as in the East. India is an example where democracy, even if not perfect, has absolutely no other replacement.
Raj , Abingdon

Democracy has the unfortunate result of imposing minority wishes on the majority, leading to the redefining of social values where the abnormal can become the norm purely through the voice allowed by democracy. Social values are eroded to the point of no return and the "democratic" society becomes a quagmire of no right and no wrong. Surely a recipe for ultimate collapse or the severe redefinition of societies relationships with "government". Des Currie
Des Currie, Umdloti ,South Africa

The main flaw I see in this article is that it projects the view that Al-Qaeda is some sort of mighty evil empire capable of subjugating nations and disrupting the entire world. I have seen no evidence that this is the case. Islamic fundamentalism as a whole may be powerful, but Al-Qaeda's impact on the world at large revolves mainly around responses to its comparatively rare (albeit sometimes devastating) attacks.
Keith, Oxford, UK

Whilst we continue to hear from the BBC accepted myths as facts such as "the most active exponent of democracy, the US" this investigation into democracy will be the usual tired retread of the fantasy. The U.S. is the most active exponent of destroying democracy. Look at Chile, Guatemala, Palestine, Nicaragua, Venezuela etc, etc.
daniel, brighton, england

No government can be successful in the long run, because of the inherent weakness of man to be corrupted.Power does corrupt as is quite apparent in our society.The whole world is heading towards socialism.The democrats are really socialists and the republicans are headed in that direction.The United Nations, EU, etc are fine examples of world socialism.
Fred Best, Valley Center,Ca. U.S.A.

The writer is wrong when he says it is the role of democracy to create wealth and spread it equitably. It simply cannot be done in a true democracy.
William G. Smith, Holmes Beach, FL USA

The most important facet of a working democracy is that it allows the non-violent removal of leaders who are past their sell by date.

I understand that the German system was designed to prevent extremists from gaining power and the American system was designed to prevent the oppression of its own people.

I think one thing that is sometimes forgotten is the timeframe over which Western (European)Democracies formed. In most cases it took hundreds of years to move from single heads of state to multi-party voting (including at least one civil war in each case). Yet we naively expect other countries to make a seemless transition into fully developed mature democracies in a few years!
Ben, High Wycombe, UK

You keep using the word "Democracy", when you are really talking about "Capitalism". Everybody loves Democracy; everybody wants Democracy, but lots of folks hate Capitalism and that is where you make your mistake; by using the incorrect word.
James Wilder, Bradenton, Florida, USA

I would also add that it is not enough to have multiple party democracy, but that if you look at history, it is wise to ensure that parties are not based around race or religion.
Andrew, Tolworth, UK.

This article is very poorly researched. Francis Fukuyama was not referring to democracy when he called for the "End of History", he was speaking of the neo-liberal economic agenda, also known as the Washington Consensus or as Thatcher said 'TINA' ("There is no Alternative").

And only the most naive still believe the US line that they conquered Iraq to "spread democracy". Naomi Klein, and other researchers, have shown that the US actually canceled and delayed elections until they could arrange for their preferred candidate, while also contriving to defang the economic power of the new 'democratic' Iraq by stripping it of control over its own resources.

We forget too quickly that even the Soviet Union had elections, and that elections alone do not a democracy make!
Mark Sugrue, Ireland



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