Loving democracy is not the same thing as liking the winner

The results of elections in Russia, Tunisia and Egypt have been greeted with dismay in some quarters of the West. But that does not make them any less democratic.

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Vladimir Putin's tears of joy at his return to the Russian presidency on Sunday prompted a swift and caustic response from the US Senator John McCain. "Dear Vlad," he tweeted, "Surprise! Surprise! You won. The Russian people are crying too!" This may not come across as the most statesmanlike message from a man who once fought Barack Obama for the White House, but the two men have history. In December McCain warned Putin, again by Twitter, that the Arab Spring was "coming to a neighbourhood near you". Putin replied on Russian television: "Mr McCain was imprisoned in Vietnam. They put him in a hole for several years. Anyone would go insane."
What the senator was driving at on both occasions is not hard to decipher. He, along with Putin's numerous other critics, would argue that both December's parliamentary elections and this month's presidential polls were flawed, rigged and ultimately undemocratic. Fraud may have been denied by the Kremlin, but the accusations are widespread and have been backed up not only by verbal testimony but by videos of ballot box-stuffing. Few doubt that the margin of the Russian leader's victory was inflated, perhaps by as much as 10 per cent.
But there has to be something more to the attacks on Putin. For in the preceding months, Russia-watchers were united in predicting that, even if the vote were entirely clean, his triumph was assured. However much his approval ratings may have slipped, there was still no other contender who could come anywhere near his level of support.
The anti-Putin animus, then, derives not merely from complaints about the process but from personal dislike of the man and his rule. That may be perfectly justified. What is hard to sustain, however, is labelling as "undemocratic" the election of a man whom no one disputes is still the most popular politician in Russia. Isn't this precisely the result a democratic election is supposed to deliver?
Many in Europe and America have raised concerns in a similar vein about recent votes in Tunisia and Egypt. John R Bradley, author of After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, wrote in Britain's Spectator magazine last month that "Wahhabi proxies" had been "installed" in those two countries. It is true that the Islamist Ennahda won the largest number of seats in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly in October, and equally so that this January saw the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party emerge with 38 per cent and the Salafist Al-Nour with 29 per cent of the seats in Egypt's new parliament. But if they were "installed" by anyone, it was by the voters. These were the freest elections either country had enjoyed for decades.
Moreover, anyone with a cursory knowledge of the region could not possibly have been surprised by these results. Nearly three years ago, the Financial Times'sinternational affairs editor, David Gardner, put it thus in his book Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the West but the masses incline towards men in beards." Democracy, argued Gardner, a former Middle East editor of the FT, could "open a long period of illiberal politics" in the region.
And this, really, is the objection of those who criticise the three elections I mention above. Their calls for democracy are nowhere near as open and inclusive as they disingenuously suggest. Never was this more egregiously demonstrated than in 2006's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. President Bush pushed for the polls, and they were, according to the head of the European Parliament's monitoring team, Edward McMillan-Scott, "extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence". Unfortunately, the Palestinian people did not appear to be aware that they were expected "freely" to choose the more secular-inclined and western-friendly party of President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah. When they voted instead for the Islamist Hamas, America and the European Union decided they weren't so keen on democracy in this instance and refused to recognise the duly elected government of the Palestinian territories.
The truth is that those who urge the spread of democracy have a very specific model in mind - that of the western liberal variant. Indeed, there are those who insist that is exactly and exclusively what the word means. This is, of course, completely ahistorical. Athenian democracy was neither very inclusive - the vast majority of the population were not citizens and thus could not participate - nor was it terribly liberal; elected officials faced exile or execution if they were deemed to have performed inadequately.
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 by democratic and constitutional means, appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg after the Nazis won 37 and 32 per cent of the votes in the previous year's two elections. Those figures may not appear very high - certainly not outright majorities - but then since the Second World War not one single government in Britain has been elected with 50 per cent or more of the vote, and Tony Blair's administration of 2005 came to power with a mere 35 per cent. So much for "the will of the people".
That the last case did not cause an outcry, did not cause world leaders to declare Britain's electoral system to be flawed and undemocratic (imagine if the Russian president had won with the same tally), is explained by the fact that it still ended in a result in keeping with the assumption that democratic elections will automatically produce governments broadly committed to a liberal society of one sort or another.
This assumption is what underlies the dismay and incomprehension when parties, such as Hamas, or individuals, such as Putin, who have no great love for western values are democratically elected. The suggestion is that there must be something wrong with the system, that "democracy" is not working properly. Whereas in reality it is a refusal to accept that different peoples have different priorities - may prize a more Islamic legal system or a more stable if controlled society, for instance, over untrammelled liberty and freedom of expression.
This closed-minded attitude stems from the nature of western societies' belief in their own values, which has all the certainty of a religion. For centuries the West was Christendom and its moral convictions were founded on its biblical texts. Many of these countries, particularly in Europe, may now be largely post-Christian but the sense of possessing a revealed truth remains. As Francis Fukuyama put it: "The universalism of democratic rights can be seen as a secular form of Christian universalism." And universal values, by their very nature, are held to be correct and meant to be applied in all societies and at all times.
So when leaders in Europe and America talk about democracy and exhort its adoption around the world, what they really mean is: we want you to be like us. They do not want the Iraqi, Afghan, Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan and Palestinian versions of democracy. Self-evidently not, because to the great displeasure and disapproval of the West, the peoples of those countries have so far displayed varying degrees of preference for religiously-inclined parties. That was not the outcome the great liberators had in mind at all.
Neither do they want countries in South America to practise their interpretation of democracy, at least not when, as in the case of Venezuela, the population consistently votes for a leader the US opposes - Hugo Chavez, so detested by the Bush White House it even engineered a coup against him in 2002. No, they want them to practise liberal democracy just as the West does, and nothing else will do.
One might hope for a little more honesty in this debate, an admission that western rhetoric about democratisation cloaks a proscriptive vision of freedom in which only a political and social culture that mirrors that of its originators is acceptable. The "choice" is on the lines of that which Henry Ford famously offered customers of his Model T - "any colour so long as it's black". Such candour is unlikely, however, as it would not be long before accusations of arrogance and neo-colonialism would quite justly be raised.
In the meantime, we will have to live with the underhand misuse of terminology that leads one to conclude that a democratic election is "undemocratic" when it produces a result the West doesn't like.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and is setting up a global trends and international affairs magazine for the Gulf-based media firm Switch.