In New Democracies, Elected Governments May Behave Undemocractically And May Get Removed by Means Other than Elections

January 19, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party openly intended to end Germany's democracy in the 1930s. Bringing anarchy to the streets by violence, it sought power through the ballot.

In that, it was not so different from parties in countries new to democratic practice that are making news today.

In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis did their best in a free vote, 37 percent. They were the biggest party, but in opposition. In November elections, they went down.

Amid the chaos of Germany, President Paul von Hindenburg offered Hitler the office of chancellor (prime minister), heading a mostly non-Nazi coalition designed to tame him, on Jan. 30, 1933.

Hitler immediately used the full power of government to jail enemies and intimidate opposition. He held the next election in March 1933 in a national crisis of his own contrivance. The Nazis won 44 percent of the vote and 288 deputies in a Reichstag of 647. High Nazis said it would be the last German election for 100 years.

Hitler ruled through President Hindenburg's decrees, the device previously used against him. Then, using jail and intimidation, he persuaded the Reichstag on March 24 to pass the Enabling Act, giving him dictatorial powers for four years. Needing a two-thirds vote, it carried by 441 to 94. That was all the mandate Hitler ever needed to impose the totalitarian state. By midsummer all opposition was crushed.

When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state as well as government, Fuehrer und Reichskanzler. What followed was the destruction of neighboring countries, the Holocaust against Jews and others in Europe, World War II and the defeat and dismemberment of Germany.

Clearly, the electorate gave the Nazis the leadership of government. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party transformed Britain on even smaller pluralities of 43.9 percent (1979), 42.4 percent (1983) and 42.3 percent (1987).

Just as clearly, there never was a German public mandate for totalitarianism, for the destruction of the constitution, the suppression of all opposition for all time to come.

In democratic theory, such a thing is never mandated. But even a theory that would not limit the majority would insist on a large majority for the suppression of others. Hitler never had it while people could semi-freely choose.

Anyone who had overthrown Hitler in 1933 (none did) would have repudiated democratic choice but also restored the possibility of democracy.

This is not dead history. The issue is everywhere in the world today. Democracy is on the rise in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Not always by choice. The alternatives -- communism, fascism, militarism -- are falling like flies. Democracy is what's left to try.

But in some countries, parties or leaders having contempt for democracy win power through it. Other leaders come to power (( with democratic intentions, then respond to frustration with progressive dictatorship.

Who should blow the whistle? If someone does -- an army or a conspiracy -- what authority for doing so can they claim?

These are hard, real questions. This is not to compare others to Hitler in his worst respects, only to show the analogy of coming to power through electoral freedom without necessarily tolerating such freedom for rivals.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist Catholic priest and admirer of Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro, was elected president of Haiti by 67 percent of the vote on Dec. 16, 1990.

In office, he reportedly encouraged his followers to murder opponents. He started a 600-man bodyguard force. He might have been excused for not trusting for security to the army, much of which wanted to overthrow him, but was accused of starting his own version of the Duvaliers' Tontons Macoutes thug brigade.

Did he exceed the constitution? Who was to say? Lower ranks of the army, afraid of disemployment, did say, starting the rebellion which officers took over. On Sept. 30, President Aristide was overthrown.

The army says it does not oppose democracy, it only opposes President Aristide. The terms of presidential return, under restraints the exiled leader will accept (such as a Communist prime minister known to the State Department as a moderate compared to the president), are being negotiated. But it is not unlikely that, in a new election, he would do just as well as before. No one elected the army.

If the case against President Aristide for undemocratic behavior is tenuous, that against President Zviad Gamsakhurdia of Georgia is overwhelming.

He was elected president last May by 87 percent of the electorate, virtually double the mandate that Hitler obtained when already in power. Mr. Gamsakhurdia never said he was a democrat. He is a passionate Georgian nationalist who believes in prison for enemies, closure of independent papers and ridding his country of non-Georgians.

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