November 2004
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Day November 7, 2004

Holding elections does not equal constitutional democracy

The fact that elections were held in Afghanistan last month is an important achievement. But elections alone don’t accomplish what most people think of as “bringing democracy” to a country. It’s worth considering why, because the same factors will be at play in Iraq, and are at work in many so-called “democracies” outside Europe and the United States today.

We tend to think of “democracy” as a synonym for the type of government that we have in the United States, or in the United Kingdom, and thus when we wish to expand democracy around the world, we tend to focus on holding fair and free elections. But democracy, or the popular selection of leaders and/or policies, is only one aspect of governance in our society. Arguably, it’s not the aspect of our governance that provides stability. Accordingly, over-emphasis on the role of democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t likely to lead to liberal democracy. Here’s why.

The distinctive character of American or British governance is constructed of at least two parts: liberal constitutionalism and democratic selection of leadership. Liberal constitutionalism seeks to structure and therefore limit the power of government, and is a practical way to achieve the “rule of law.” Constitutionalism formally defines the nature of government in the form of a covenant which supersedes ordinary law and executive action. Constitutionalism is “classically liberal” when protection of individual liberties are built into the legal covenant alongside the rules specifying the structure and powers of government. Democratic selection of leadership is designed to give the governed population an ongoing voice into how constitutional powers are used, a way to provide input to elected leadership on the needs and desires of the populace, and a method of redress when power is used in unpopular ways or the constitutional covenant is breached.

Having one does not imply the presence of the other; the world today is littered with “democracies” that elect leadership, but whose leadership either has no constitutional limits or is capable of ignoring them without consequence. Fareed Zakaria has used the term “illiberal democracy” to describe such countries, and it’s a good one. In addition, there are countries with constitutional limits on power but limited (or no) ability to vote for their leadership. We can term these countries “liberal autocracies.” Examples of the latter would include Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, or (partially) Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf.

Now that the Bush team has won a second term, and seem likely to continue their present course in Iraq, Afghanistan, and possibly start focusing on Iran, it’s worth dismantling the term “democracy” into its component parts and examining how each might be realized in the Middle East. After all, holding elections isn’t going to yield the results we want if the population isn’t first committed to limited government and the rule of law. Elections without popular commitment to constitutionally limited government will simply yield popularly elected autocracies, and in the Middle East today these are most likely Islamist and anti-American. Exactly what we hoped to avoid.