T Nation

New Democracies


I'm not sure of the history of other democracies in the world, but when the U.S.A. was created, only land owning males (those with the most at stake) were allowed to vote. As time went on and the democracy matured, more and more people were allowed to vote. Even today, though, we have the electoral college to (in theory) protect us from the stupidity of the masses.

With all that in mind, is there any chance that countries like Iraq or Afghanistan could have a successful democracy if everyone is given the right to vote from day one? If not, is there any viable way that the right to vote could be phased in without an uprising from those left out?


I can tell you from first hand experience that it is very unlikely it will work. SA has only been a democracy for 10 years and things don't look good, despite what you may hear in the news.

A huge % of the population is completely uneducated and will fall for the most amaizing things (impossible campagn promises etc.). In the 1994 elections the ANC told people in the shanty towns that if they voted for them they would each get a new washing machine! So guess who they voted for!

The ANC (who is in power now) has some major problems with corruption. They basically took people with no education or experience (many of who were considered to terrorists, who did plant bombs in public places etc.) and made them ministers. These guy are lineing there own pockets with millions every year yet they are still seen as the peoples liberators, yet the people are in a worse position now than they were 10 years ago.

As an e.g. our president put out a press release stating that the HI virus does not cause AIDS so there was nothing to worry about. This in a country where 3000 people die every week of AIDS. With such a naieve population that is just a dumb thing to do.

With all these problems they still managed to get a 2/3 majority in our last election. So no, a new democracy cannot work when you just through a previousely opressed and uneducated people in at the deep end. These people are just trying to survive, they don't have the time or energy to debate politics.

My 2c.



My thoughts, in the event anyone cares:

I don't think "democracy" will work in Iraq or anywhere else. Contrary to what the media, schools and our illustrious leaders tell us, this country (USA) was never intended to be a democracy. In fact, the founding fathers considered it to be among the WORST forms of government. The following quote says it better than I ever could.

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage." (Any of this look familiar??)

OK, in my own words now, pure democracy is simply a "mob rule" formula which eventually disintegrates into sniping factions of "special interests" demanding their "rights" from an increasingly "benevolent" government which increasingly caters to the increasingly dependent, or marginalized, or personally offended, or discriminated, or economically disadvantaged, or you name it, masses. Whoever can promise the most goodies to the most people tend to become the leaders. These "rights," of course, must come from the resources of productive individuals, since government in and of itself produces nothing. It does, however, have the unique asset of the threat of force (deadly if necessary) to accomplish its goals. After all, someone has to enforce all this "equality," don't they? Democracy, thereby, disintegrates into tyranny.

Regarding Iraq, I think there is no greater crime against humanity than oppressing a population like Saddam (or Castro, or Kim Jong Il...etc. etc.) did. I hope and pray that those people are able to have a stable, free nation after all this is over. I think we are making some significant mistakes, one of the major ones being the policy of disarming the "good guys" in Iraq and thus removing their main line of defense against those who would disrupt (to put it lightly) the transition to self government. Another is using UNESCO-approved textbooks in the schools (WAY too much to go into there).

The only way a self-governing society (as opposed to a "democracy") will function is for the rights of the people to be clearly enumerated, and understood by an EDUCATED populace who can then hold their leaders accountable. If a society does not understand the consequences of the actions of its leaders, no matter how good they sound, those leaders will eventually, to one degree or another, turn on them. Politics has a way of attracting some of the most self-serving, megalomaniacal individuals the human race can produce.


Wow...I thought this might turn into one of the more interesting political threads, maybe something outside the scope of Bush vs Kerry.

Doogie, I realized I didn't consider your central question during my novella up there (I really didn't mean to go on so long). Your question of the likely success of a self-governing Iraq or Afghanistan as voting rights are established is very interesting. I wonder how much forethought has been put into that very issue.

It would seem that it needs to first be clearly decided what the basic laws are and who is and is not within them. For example, in this country, felons cannot vote. So, maybe the Saddam loyalists or whoever need to be declared outside the law and not allowed a vote (I understand they are a small minority anyway). Beyond that, I think it depends on the structure of the government system (i.e. are there checks and balances; does an voter elect a representative to be the voice of his city/state/district within the central structure?). I don't know, this one requires some thought; I just think the bottom line, as illustrated by KAS, is a populace who clearly understands the system and can hold it accountable. I think Iraq has a strong middle class (and growing stronger now), which would indicate a degree of self-governability; hopefully it's widespread enough.

Great question, man. Someone help us out here...


Thanks for the replies. Very interesting. I was very much in support of both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, but I just don't see how those countries could ever become democracies in my lifetime. I don't know what I would consider to be a successful alternative, though.



Well said.

I would add that in a confederation like Iraq, with its three distinct sub populations that don't get along terribly well, you really need a strong federal system with representation for each of the groups -- this could be accomplished via geographic designations akin to our states, as the various groups are separated fairly well geographically. I think our original system, with a legislature that is one half popularly elected and one half appointed by the states, would serve very well as a model for the legislature for Iraq, although I think perhaps a parliamentary system with a Prime Minister would be more suitable than our Presidency for the executive branch.


Very interesting thread...

I think that the popular definition of democracy as "one man, one vote" needs to be changed to the less-glamorous "system of checks and balances, with guaranteed rights for all." That would help greatly in understanding what it really means to become a vibrant democracy...which is ultimately defined as a perpetually changing legal structure that trys to respond to societal changes without betraying it's core values, or the guaranteed freedoms for individuals that it is founded upon.

Even today, Americans still have a basic (and healthy) distrust of gov't power, so we constantly debate the merits of any new laws and amendments. The key for us is that we can do so without fear of a coup-d'etat, or bloody unrest (not withstanding an occasional riot or political scandal).

For America, we have the Constitution that ultimately defines what it means to be a democracy, but we can't force that model upon every other society. They each need to decide on their core value systems, and then work from there to codify just what it is that they seek to establish and secure. Americans are secure today because we started with an idea that became accepted by a clear majority at our founding (well, actually after the founding), then slowly applied it to the dis-enfranchised sectors of the population, over a period of nearly 200 years. Even then, we fought a bloody civil war to maintain the American "ideals" that we now take for granted, contrary to what the South wanted at the time.

Algeria is also a perfect example: when the people had an opportuntiy to vote, the Islamicists (sp?) won the plurality, but the more secular military stepped in to subvert that choice and probably saved the country from slipping into complete hell (it's now a partial hell, thank you!). In other words, popular votes are not always what is needed to secure democracy...sometimes bloody war is, as strange and obnoxious as that must sound! But you also need a desire from within to prevail, and Iraq, I think, has that. It just needs to be fueled by reminders of what is at stake.

The alternative to any democratic system is one - or more - that just isn't as stable or humane. But, let's be clear...democracy begins as a reaction to the abuse of power, and that isn't an easy shadow to climb out from under. I doubt America would even exist if our founders were held to the same standards that now prevail here...


Boston is right on the money, IMHO. But there are still a few other factors you need to consider. If one group has a big enough majority they can still swing thing any way they want. I'll use SA again as an example. Here we have a group of people who make up about 80% of the population. Every election they (the government) relocate millions of people to parts of the country where they lack support, thus winning local and national elections. They now have, as I mentioned earlier, a two thirds majority across the board which allows them to change the constitution without too much trouble.

This is just one of many tactics they use here to maintain power. I have no boubt in my mind that simillar things will happen in Iraq.

I know it's hard to see from a 3rd world point of view if you haven't experienced it first hand, but maybe this will help put things into perspective. Consider that most 3rd world cultures have very strong beliefs and traditions that are not in line with western (1st world) law or ethics. In Iraq for instince islamic law is thought to be the only law that applies to them, as it has been for hundreds of years. Impementing new laws is going to have little effect on the way they do things. So cultural issues do play a major part in how well a new democracy will work.


P.S. Band,
You are right, they will eventually turn on the people. We (private citizens) are being disarmed next month, in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world, this dosn't make sence.

Oh, BTW felons are allowed to vote in SA! Nothing we can do about it, they (ANC) changed the constitution! So much for democracy.

Basically what I'm trying to say is no matter how good a job the US does in setting up a government in Iraq there is always a way to srew things up once they leave. Talk about a rock and a hard place, I don't envy Bush.


Very true about the culture issue. Under the original American system, it was understood that human rights are pre-existing. They are not "granted" by a government. People are free to live as they choose as long as they don't infringe on the life or property of another, and if thou dost thusly infringe, thou shalt pay the price. As they say, I'm totally down with that, yo. Our system was also characterized by strict limitations on government power. This model dates back centuries to the Magna Carta, British "Natural Law" and the Bible.

Islamic law, in the number of forms it seems to take, is a different story. From what I can tell (I'm generalizing) the dictates of Allah are strongly enforced by the government, and the government consists of Islamic clerics (or whatever they call themselves -- no offense, I'm just ignorant). It's almost as if they prevent any deviation from the laws by "pre-emptively enforcing" them with very strict rules. Here is an interesting website:


So, back to Iraq. As Jay pointed out, we cannot force a Western model on another culture and hope it holds. So I think the question becomes: What are the limitations on government? What are the pre-existing rights (no doubt they will differ across cultural beliefs)? What are the mechanisms that prevent the government from infringing on those rights?

A brief look at the interim Iraq constitution shows that Islam is the official religion and a source of legislation, but other faiths can be practiced; private property rights are respected, everyone who is mentally capable may vote, and the government respects the rights to free expression, association, political affiliation, privacy, thought, conscience, etc. (quite different than under Saddam).

Article IV describes the government as "republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic, with powers shared between the federal and regional governments, governorates, municipalities, and local administrations." If you want, you can read the whole thing here:


So it looks like they're trying to underpin a somewhat decentralized representative government with Islam as its legislative basis. So, I guess we hope the two aren't overly contradictory. As Ben Franklin answered one Mrs. Powell when she asked him what form of government they had established, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." I believe the natural state of being for people is freedom, and that there always other people seeking to undermine that freedom and control those people, so let's hope "they can keep it."


You all do understand that the United States is NOT a democracy, right? Never has been. It's a republic. Huge difference.


"You all do understand that the United States is NOT a democracy, right?"

Yes, clearly. Read the posts. I only wish more people understood it. Damn government schools.


Yes, I do understand that the Peoples Republic of the United States of America is not a democracy, Okay! JUST KIDDING, before anybody wants to string me up!