Democracies that lack liberty

Democracies that lack liberty

Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Pref. — Around the world, our generation is witnessing the three Ds: deregulation, decentralization and, ultimately, democratization. The export of democracy is no doubt one of the most important items on the Western foreign policy agenda. Nevertheless, the effort seems to bring more failures than successes. Why is that?

To the Western mind, liberty and democracy are two sides of the same coin. Without liberty, there can be no democracy, and vice versa. However, in non-Western societies, this is not always true. Just pick an Asian country at random and we find anomalies in democratic practice by the Western point of view.

News commentator Fareed Zakaria calls this phenomenon “illiberal democracy,” a mixture of authoritarian and conservative practices under the framework of electoral, democratic politics. That’s why strong guys remain powerful in some countries, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.

The Islamic world provides many examples of these illiberal practices. Go to Egypt and you’ll see how President Hosni Mubarak and his comrades put so much effort in getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Go to Indonesia and you’ll see how corruption is still rampant and how political Islam and local vigilantes work together in harmony to form the so-called unholy alliance.

From those examples, there is one common similarity: the lack or absence of some aspects of civil and political liberty. Elections and change of political leadership may take place, but the ones who take governmental positions are far from democratic in attitude. Populist autocrats use the democratic mechanism to win political positions and legitimacy from the people.

In reality, they aren’t democrats at all. Once they get into power, they abuse it, implement illiberal policies and, even worse, try to get rid of their adversaries.

This is exactly what happened after the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Extreme nationalists, filled with hatred toward one other, got elected in Serbia, which later tried to wipe out the Kosovar Albanian population. In newly democratized Indonesia, we see how Islamic fundamentalist groups misuse the principle of free speech in a democratic society, attacking dissenting opinions while trying to promote an intolerant agenda toward “the other.”

Responding to this phenomenon, we know that the existence of liberty is the necessary element for democracy. In Zakaria’s words, without constitutional liberalism, the rule of law, protection of property and respect for others, it is difficult to build a fully functioning democracy. Western policymakers often forget that to build a democratic society, we need more than an election.

Instead of fixing the economy, ensuring the rule of law and protecting minorities, they straightaway jump to organizing elections. It is true that an election is probably the most visible indicator of a democratic society, but most of us don’t want to see the electoral process end up in a “mobocracy” due to the absence of supportive cultural values for democracy.

We see the answer to this problem in the Western philosophy of Tocqueville and Machiavelli: Unregulated democracy will undermine people’s liberty. Under republican principles, citizens are free when they follow the law. If there is no law, there will be no liberty. Liberal democracy requires the active participation of law-abiding citizens in the political process. This translates not only into rule of the majority but also into respect toward minorities.

Another important aspect in sustaining democratic politics is justice. This is what Noam Chomsky means when he criticizes the gap between rich and poor citizens in the United States. In Chomskian terms, the economic structure is not democratic.

John Rawls also gives the same argument, saying that when certain rules and regulations are not in the line with the public perception of justice values, they should not be called regulations. The Chomskian and Rawlsian mantra of justice provides the solution to how democratic society should work.

When economic disparity widens, the state should be prepared to do something about it. Thus, in order to “export” and implement democracy, elections and parties alone won’t do. We need effective and efficient institutions, sound public policy, fair laws and regulations, and, above all, a culture of liberty and justice.

In the context of non-Western societies, that’s why it is important to have liberty and equality before democracy. Radical deregulation and decentralization might not be the best answer for transforming society. That does not mean the three Ds should be discouraged, but that the much wiser option is to implement a gradual-type of political reform.

Western decision makers should take this principle to heart. The failure of Western ways in the Middle East is a clear example of ill-preparation for the democratization project. Values come first, followed by structures. If we stick to the same old approach, it’s very likely that we will see another Afghanistan or Pakistan in the near future.

*Iqra Anugrah, a third-year student at the College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, sits on the advisory board for the Strategic Studies Committee of Indonesian Students’ Association in Japan. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his organization.