In his speech in Cairo yesterday, President Obama acknowledged an important principle: “Elections alone do not make true democracy.” That principle will be tested this weekend when the Lebanese people go to the polls. Many have called for the elections to be free and fair. But few have asked whether this is even possible if Hezbollah — the radical Shiite party with a huge arsenal and a deeply anti-democratic agenda — is viewed as a legitimate participant in the process.
A similar question arose before Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. Then, as Israeli justice minister, I tried in vain to persuade the international community that to promote democracy it was not enough to focus on the technical conduct of elections, it was necessary to insist that those who sought the benefits of the democratic process accepted its underlying principles as well.
At the time, the counterargument was that the very participation in elections would act as a moderating force on extremist groups. With more accountability, such groups would be tempted to abandon their militant approach in favor of a purely political platform.
But this analysis ignored the possibility that some radical groups sought participation in the democratic process not to forsake their violent agenda but to advance it. For them, electoral participation was merely a way to gain legitimacy — not an opportunity to change. Some of these groups were better seen as “one-time democrats” determined to use the democratic system against itself.
I believe that democracy is about values before it is about voting. These values must be nurtured within society and integrated into the electoral process itself. We cannot offer international legitimacy for radical groups and then simply hope that elections and governance will take care of the rest. In fact, the capacity to influence radical groups can diminish significantly once they are viewed as indispensable coalition partners and are able to intimidate the electorate with the authority of the state behind them.
For this reason, the international community must adopt at the global level what true democracies apply at the national one — a universal code for participation in democratic elections. This would include requiring every party running for office to renounce violence, pursue its aims by peaceful means and commit to binding laws and international agreements. This code should be adopted by international institutions, like the United Nations, as well as regional bodies. It would guide elections monitors and individual nations in deciding whether to accord parties the stamp of democratic legitimacy, and signal to voters that electing an undemocratic party would have negative international consequences for their country.
The intent here is not to stifle disagreement, exclude key actors from the political process or suggest that democracy be uniform and disregard local cultures and values. The goal is to make clear that the democratic process is not a free pass — it is about responsibilities as well as rights. (This is why, for instance, Israel banned the radical Kach movement from the electoral process.)
Mr. Obama’s call to support genuine democracy has implications for the kinds of elections the international community promotes and endorses. Radical groups can become legitimate political players in the democratic process if they accept core democratic principles and abandon the use of force as a political tool. Or they can maintain armed terrorist militias in order to threaten their neighbors and intimidate their people. The international community should not allow them to do both. Unless such groups are forced to choose between these conflicting identities, their participation in elections not only risks empowering extremists, it risks debasing the values of democracy itself.
Tzipi Livni, a former vice prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Israel and the leader of the Kadima party, and head of the Israeli opposition.