Ambiguities of Democracy and Law

JONATHAN POWER

January 10, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- No one, certainly not the leaders of the West, appears to be shedding tears over the overthrow of the #i democratically elected president of Georgia. Indeed, they seem

to share the perception of the opposition, that Zviad Gamsakhurdia, for all his overwhelming plurality in the polls, had become in practice a tyrant beholden, not to constitutions and laws, but solely to his own interests. So much for the magic wand of democracy.

At the same time, the first fully open election in the Arab world in modern times looks as if it will bring to power in Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists who do not believe in the rights of the popular mass to change its leaders by the ballot. The fundamentalists see this first election as nothing more than a means to an end, to implant the political power of the clergy at the pinnacles of civic society and then call it a day. It is one man, one vote, once.

In Peru, a ferociously disciplined and ruthlessly single-minded Maoist guerrilla organization, the Shining Path, is driving democratic Peruvian society to despair. Despite the proud boast of Peru to have a parliament that represents everyone from the hard right to the Marxist left, with a press to match, Shining Path militants are successfully substituting the rule of the bullet for the ballot, persuading a growing body of opinion that the gloves-off army repression that they bring down on themselves proves that it is the state, not they, that is brutal.

We are now entering the democratic battle zone, stage II. For the last 20 years democrats and human-rights activists have fought for the right of people to choose their government by a free vote. Now, miraculously, this has almost been achieved way ahead of even the most optimistic scenario. Most of the communist dictatorships are dead and buried. Third World megalomania is in fast retreat. All we have left for the democratic ascendancy to conquer is China, the Arab world, Algeria excepted, and parts of Africa.

But -- at the very hour of celebration -- we hold the glass up to the light, and it is flawed.

Ralf Dahrendorf, the eminence grise of European education, used to like to caution, in the intense days of Jimmy Carter's democracy-activism, that we should recall the virtues of the turn-of-the-century Prussian state. It was not democratic, but it scrupulously obeyed the rule of law. The lowly were as well protected as the rich, and, for day-to-day life, this counted more with the average person than who actually was the inevitably distant ruler.

I have heard the same argument in South Africa. The black man may not have political power and has had to suffer the heavy hand of apartheid but until the relatively recent usurpation of power in the townships by armed militants, he had the rule of law on his side, at least for domestic and business disputes. Unlike his counterpart in Lagos or Nairobi, he could sleep at night without much fear of theft, embezzlement or molestation.

It is inevitable, and right, that before long there will be majority rule in South Africa. However, the challenge for President Nelson Mandela will be to preserve the rule of law, indeed to restore it where it has been undermined by the political turbulence of the ** last few years.

No continent reveals the ambiguities of democracy and law more clearly than Latin America. The Chile of the Pinochet military dictatorship was a much nicer place to be poor in than its neighbor Peru, a democracy. In Peru, you can find a copy of the constitution in every telephone book, but the middle and upper classes effectively circumvent the law, and the judges are corrupt, ill-educated and inept.

Habeus corpus is ignored. The poor are marginalized and disdained. The army has a free hand. Since Peru returned to democracy in 1980, more civilians have been killed there by the ** security forces, or ''disappeared,'' than during the whole 17 years of military rule in Chile. Chile, even in its worst days, drew on its reservoir of 150 years of elected government and fair play. People paid their taxes. The poor were protected from the shock of economic recession. Corruption, except in the high levels of the army, was not common.

Chile, it is true, is a special case. The old institutions were a buffer against military excess. Sadly, in many parts of Latin America today, supported by conservative friends in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the army continues to wield disproportionate power in numerous new democracies. The soldiers demand bloated budgets. They veto the trials of officers accused of corruption and human-rights offenses. They employ death squads to intimidate opponents. Certainly this is the case in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Colombia.

Democracy is an important step for a society to take. Yet, if the habit of authoritarianism persists, its virtues are seriously qualified. For all the famous victories of recent times there is more ''blood, sweat and tears'' to come.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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