398. "Lowering Membership Bar Cheapens 'Democracy'." USA Today (July 25, 2002) p. 13A.


President Bush's recent demand that Palestinians replace Yasser Arafat with a new leader before the next steps can be taken toward peace in the Middle East raises a crucial question: Should we seek to unseat any democratically elected leader? Some Arab leaders have already weighed in on this issue. "President Arafat is a democratically elected president of the Palestinian people. He was elected in (a) free and fair election," declared Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

"Egypt strongly supports the democratically elected Palestinian leadership and refuses any attempt to outflank it," echoed Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

In response, White House officials were a bit tongue-tied. Before Palestine can be considered ready to join the free world, the Bush administration should use its claims of democracy as a golden opportunity to define democracy and its rights more sharply.

It is high time that we acknowledged that democracy entails more than regular elections. Elections, one needs reminding, are a standard feature in most, if not all, tyrannical regimes. They were regularly held in the Soviet Union and still are in Iran. Syria has them, as does North Korea and Libya. In their elections, however, there often is basically just one party and one candidate, who get some 97% of the vote as did Bashar Assad when he was elected president of Syria in 2000.

In the past, we also were too quick to designate a country as democratic. In our glee that the Cold War nightmare was ending, we led the parade to pin the label "democracy" on any country that broke away from the Communist yoke. Too many in the West, for example, were especially quick to declare Russia as having qualified as a democratic state. Soon, labels also were attached to the other former Soviet republics. After all, Americans said, they all held elections.

But instead of proving to the world that our democratic system was the superior one, we only cheapened it by lowering the threshold of membership.

Today, the old Cold War line that divided the free world from the other runs between the West and the Islamic world. So the real question of the day is whether Islamic nations can be made into liberal, free societies or are condemned as author and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington suggested to be governed by passionate, hotheaded fundamentalists or some other form of authoritarian dictatorship, such as we see in Iraq.

How should we define democracy? I suggest:

For elections to be free, there must be a free press that provides the electorate with elementary facts and educates the public about the issues of the day.

There have to be two or more competing parties and candidates to provide the country's people with a true choice, rather than an occasion to rubber stamp the one party and its leader.

Elections must be free, fair, honest and open. We best keep sending delegations, often the indefatigable Jimmy Carter, to far-flung places from Haiti to Bangladesh to observe the affairs at the ballot box and not be too quick to declare them free and fair that is, democratic.

There must be a modicum of civic education (rather than religious indoctrination) to enable the citizens to command a basic understanding of the matters at hand and to protect themselves from demagogues.

Each of these features (all of them in very short supply among the Palestinians) is important, but most vital is the rich fabric of rights our citizens have that are essential for a free society.

These rights, including minority rights, are what is most missing in many of the so-called "new democracies." They are the kinds of freedoms American high school kids learn about, but that we forget to mention when labeling a country a democracy, maybe because we consider them so basic. But in other nations, the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion, as well as the freedom from arbitrary detention and search, the right to due process if charged with a crime, and so on, are often absent. Without these, democracy is but an empty shell.

President Bush correctly refuses to deal with a Palestinian leadership deeply tainted by involvement in terrorism. When we deal with Palestine and many of the other hot spots around the world, however, we cannot wait until leaders are elected in a truly democratic fashion and all the other elements essential for a true democracy are in place. We should continue our quest for new leaders to join us at the negotiation table but we should not cheapen what democracy means in the process.

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