Democracy is more than a ballot box

Democracy is more than a ballot box

You would think that small-d democrats would be pleased by recent events in Venezuela and Russia. Both countries held elections. Voters in those countries expressed the popular will — in Venezuela, by rejecting Hugo Chavez”s bid to get himself elected president for life, and in Russia, by handing a robust victory to the party of President Vladimir Putin, whom the people would like to elect for life. So what”s not to celebrate?

Plenty. Venezuela and Russia offer more reasons to worry than to applaud, just as do the supposedly democratic elections that have benefited Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The problem is not just how some of those elections turned out, but that the mere act of voting does not create a democracy. The challenge in such places goes beyond ink, paper and ballot boxes.

As diplomat and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott observed when he was in town recently, a functioning democracy requires an infrastructure — things like independent courts, traditions of respect for opponents, checks and balances in government structure, free and unfettered media, and so on. It is not enough to enforce a brief cease-fire on Election Day.

In Russia, people were appalled by the economic privations and other indignities that followed the collapse of the Soviet state. They are more susceptible than they should be to the appeal of Putin, who has improved conditions for ordinary people while bringing back totalitarianism — and making the people believe the trade was worth it. The ex-KGB man has risen to a position more powerful than any that has existed since 1991, but it is hard to see how he represents a triumph of democracy.

In Venezuela, the popular Chavez similarly has undermined the free institutions that could give him legitimacy. Remember his recent nationalization of oil holdings and his seizures of private property. What”s worse, his oil puts him in a position to cause no small amount of financial havoc; Venezuela is among the biggest suppliers of oil to the United States, a country he regularly denounces. The narrow defeat of his proposed constitutional reform — which would have done away with the term limits of his office — drew a quick promise from Chavez that he will try again and again. Like Putin, he seems determined to concentrate state power in himself.

The answer to both of these problems, and to others around the globe, is to help people build their democracies from the ground up. That”s a huge diplomatic undertaking, but it”s the best way to accomplish America”s avowed goal of promoting democracy around the world. It would be folly to suppose that the challenges to U.S. strategic interests begin and end in the Middle East; meeting those challenges requires that the United States be smart, as well as strong.