In the post-Cold War West, let a thousand flowers bloom

Global Viewpoints

April 20, 1992|By Pierre Salinger

London -- WHEN THE Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled, it was clear that the Eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union were bound to go through trying times as they moved toward democracy and free markets. Now, the aftershocks of the end of the Cold War are reverberating through the market democracies themselves.

The recent spate of elections clearly indicates that much of the world is undergoing an upheaval of the kind not seen since the tumult of the 1960s, and it will no doubt be more profound in its effect.

Strangely enough, the Cold War provided a form of stability. The danger from abroad contained our own internal frustrations and fragmentation. There is still danger abroad, but the enemy has disappeared. And so, apparently, has the relative consensus of the democratic body politic.

The prediction that the breakdown of the communist bloc would also have a detrimental affect on the left-wing parties in other countries, particularly in Western Europe, has come to pass. In the recent elections in France, the Socialist Party, whose leader, Francois Mitterrand, has been president of the country since 1981, got its lowest share of the vote in 25 years.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the end of the traditional post-war left came two weeks ago in Great Britain. Despite an enduring recession, with unemployment close to 3 million and still rising and with the homeless population growing rapidly, the Conservative Party nonetheless beat the Labor Party, which under Neil Kinnock ran the best campaign in its history. The majority just said no to a return of socialism.

But it is not only the left that is under assault. Growing frustration and anger in the Western democracies is lashing out across the board. The German regional elections, which saw a striking resurgence of the far right wing, as well as elections in France and Italy, have demonstrated that the majority of the voting publics are unhappy with the way their countries are being run.

The anger and frustration of Europeans stems from two sources. First, they are fed up with the complacency and corruption of long-governing parties which seem incapable of responding to the daily needs of average citizens.

Second, the wave of foreigners unleashed on Western Europe as the post-communist Eastern bloc and the former Soviet Union fail to stabilize is giving rise to a significant constituency that wants to draw up the bridges. The resurgence of far-right and fascist movements in France under Jean-Marie Le Pen and in Germany and Austria are particular examples.

In the United States, particularly on the Democratic Party side, voters are unhappy with the powers that be. Even after months of electoral primaries that have reduced the candidate list from five to two, 50 percent of Democratic voters prefer "none of the above." And, despite his popularity in the immediate aftermath of the gulf war, which nearly 50 percent of the American public opposed and a majority now question in the wake of the growing Islamic fundamentalism it fostered, President George Bush suffers his all-time low rating.

As a consequence, the American presidential election next November -- the first to be held in the absence of the Soviet threat -- is entirely up for grabs.

The post-Cold War aftershocks can also be felt among Third World nations, whose status was largely defined by the East-West conflict, as they struggle to establish new identities by democratic means. In South Korea, Roh Tae Woo's ruling Democratic Liberal Party was cast aside by voters in the first truly democratic elections since the end of the anti-communist authoritarianism that reigned since the end of the Korean War. In Algeria, after almost 30 years of dictatorial rule by the National Liberation Front, the democratic process was aborted when Islamic fundamentalists came within a hair's breadth of gaining control of the government.

In Latin America, the difficult triumph of democracy may now be unraveling as that region faces the dislocations and widening inequalities that accompany the transition to free markets. President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, where democracy has governed since 1955, narrowly escaped death in a coup attempt. Peru's Alberto Fujimori has called on the army barracks instead of the national assembly to put his troubled society in order.

It is always risky to link such widespread events to a single cause. But there is surely a common summons in all the political turmoil sweeping the globe: Democracies can no longer be stabilized by a defining external threat, but only by broadening participation in the system.

Frustration and protest politics will turn dangerously ugly and violent if the roots of popular alienation aren't addressed by opening up the system to those whose needs and interests have been excluded.

Paradoxically, the end of the Cold War has not only meant democracy for those who didn't have it. If the new order is to absorb the aftershocks of the collapsing old order, it must also mean more democracy for those who do have it.

Pierre Salinger is the chief foreign correspondent for ABC News and is based in London.

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