The free elections trap

Leslie H. Gelb

May 31, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

LAST SUNDAY, 87 percent of Georgian voters cast their ballots for Zviad Gamsakhurdia and independence from Moscow. On the same day, Saudi fundamentalists petitioned their king to broaden participation in government.

The proliferating number of American Savonarolas who preach democracy as the salvation for U.S. foreign policy surely will rejoice at the news. The general sentiment is terrific, but its application at this time in the Soviet Union and the Middle East is highly questionable.

The danger is that the Savonarolas often reduce democracy to "free elections," and free elections can be a trap. They can legitimize would-be dictators as well as democrats.

The U.S. does not want to be trapped into blanket endorsement of democratic means that can and will be used in many countries for undemocratic ends. Policy should focus not on free elections but on what makes free elections genuinely free -- namely a nation's political culture, leadership and economic base.

Hitler, of course, is the classic example of exploiting free elections and coalition-building to destroy democracy. Others in more recent memory gained or legitimized power through elections to the same end: Indira Gandhi in India, Sukarno in Indonesia, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. India and the Philippines rebounded, but how well and for how long?

We have the case now of Gamsakhurdia and perhaps others like him in the crumbling Soviet Union. He may well turn out to be a democrat, but there are troubling signs.

His only commitment, it seems, is to establish Georgian independence from the Soviet Union. Two weeks ago Georgian police under his control burst into the headquarters of an opposition candidate. Only a week before the election, the Georgian parliament banned any statements that would injure Gamsakhurdia's "honor and dignity" and set a six-year prison term for violators. And of a Radio Liberty reporter who charged that soldiers had been used to intimidate voters, Gamsakhurdia said: "He deserves to be arrested."

The American Savonarolas of democracy are quiet about these shortcomings. They think that self-determination and independence for the various Soviet republics is good for them and good for America. They think free elections are the proof of the people's will, and of democracy.

A glance at Gamsakhurdia's slim record, however, suggests that his election may lead not to the birth of democracy in Georgia but to its prenatal demise. Georgians might well enjoy more freedoms under a reformist Gorbachev regime -- even without elections.

Similar concerns should attend the new interest of Islamic fundamentalists in democracy. They have pressed for free elections in several Arab countries. Presenting themselves as protectors of the oppressed, they have done well in these elections, as they knew they would. But it is questionable that their real aim is to promote democracy.

In Saudi Arabia, religious scholars and Muslim clergy asked King Fahd for a wider representation in government, protection of human rights and an end to corruption. Noble goals all. But the same petition calls for revising Saudi laws to make them conform with Islamic teachings.

Islam draws no line between religion and politics. As undemocratic as the present Saudi regime is, a total Islamic one -- even with broader political participation -- would be less free. It would leave no neutral public space where people's views are treated as opinions, not as truth. Elections would become trivial in that environment.

It is more important for democratizing societies to have a free press than free elections. Today in most Islamic countries, free elections would produce fundamentalist victories and validate the imposition of theocracy. Today in most Soviet republics, free elections would result in nationalist control and may legitimize secular tyranny.

That is why the mullahs and many Soviet republic nationalists want elections, and why they equate elections and democracy. That is why the United States has to watch these new democrats very carefully. Otherwise we shall find ourselves outmaneuvered in our own noble enterprise.

Leslie Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times

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