Commentary Magazine


Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now in Venezuela, the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, who has already been in power since 1999, has won reelection to yet another term in office, taking 55 percent of the vote over his more moderate leftist challenger. Considering that Chavez has worked to develop alliances with unsavory states such as Iran and Cuba, and with unsavory movements such as Hezbollah and FARC, and that he has done great damage to the Venezuelan economy with his nationalizations of industry, imposition of price controls, and other socialist measures–well this is certainly not the outcome that U.S. officials would have preferred.

For neither the first nor the last time, the outcomes in Georgia and Venezuela show that democratic systems are hardly perfect–at least from the standpoint of U.S. policy interests. But they also show that the best cure for a “bad” election outcome is to have another election.

That is something that Chavez allowed to occur–even if he did use the full resources of his government, which controls the radio and television broadcasts, to turn out of the vote for his candidacy. Still, this was Chavez’s lowest winning margin, and it suggests that he could conceivably lose a future election, should he live that long–or if not, at least upon his demise there is a good chance of Venezuela returning to more competitive elections.

As for Georgia, the loss suffered by Saakashvili’s party (the president himself remains in office) could actually be a blessing in disguise: Although Saakashvili has been an effective reformer, he has also been in office since 2004, and it is always healthy in any democracy to see a change of power. Indeed, that is the very test of whether a country is truly a democracy or an autocracy with fixed elections. The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.

If I had a vote in some cosmic election, I would vote for the democratic systems of Venezuela and Georgia, imperfect though they are (especially in the case of Venezuela), over the faux stability of countries such as Saudi Arabia where dissent is impossible to express in public and the only way to change the government is to overthrow it. As we have learned in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt (and as we previously learned in South Korea, the Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, and other once-authoritarian countries), the stability imposed by dictatorships comes with high costs. And in any case, it is a faux stability that only lasts until the coming of the revolution.

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