Two elections and a lesson

By E. J. Dionne Jr. (THE WHASINGTON POST, 27/01/06).

In two elections this week, voters tossed incumbents out of power. One election made barely a ripple internationally. The other broke like a tsunami over the entire world. The response to each vote should teach us the danger of pretending that elections alone can make democracy happen.

In Canada’s quiet election, Stephen Harper ended more than a decade of Liberal Party rule. It was a significant achievement for the Conservative Party. The Canadian right had, until recently, been badly split. Harper reunited the right, moderated its program and took advantage of public impatience with Liberal scandals.

But Canadians, devoted as always to subtlety and prudence, refused to give Harper a majority. Diane Ablonczy, a Conservative parliamentarian from Alberta, offered a perceptive take on the voters’ verdict. She said they “want to test-drive the Conservative Party” before allowing it to govern without help. In stable democracies, voters can take test-drives.

In the elections for the Palestinian Authority, the voters also rose up against the incumbents. But in the process, they gave a majority to Hamas, a party that has embraced terrorism and would obliterate Israel.

In responding yesterday to Hamas’s victory, President Bush, a man who prides himself on clarity and disdains nuance, was, if I may coin a word, nuancing all over the place.

On the one hand, he praised democratic elections for letting voters send a message. “If they’re unhappy with the status quo,” Bush said at a news conference, “they’ll let you know.” Indeed.

But he also seemed to rule out dealing with Hamas if the militant group didn’t change itself radically — particularly its attitude toward Israel and terrorism. “I know you can’t be a partner in peace . . . if your party has got an armed wing,” he said. That’s a good point about Hamas, though it raises interesting questions about Iraqi political parties that have links to armed militias.

From this tale of two elections, it’s possible to take the wrong lesson, which would be to walk away from America’s long if inconsistent quest to promote free elections and human rights. You don’t have to agree with Bush’s decisions to believe that an important goal of American foreign policy should be to expand the number of nations that live under democratic rule.

But since the invasion of Iraq, administration spokesmen and supporters have offered a utopian and decidedly unconservative view of how American power could be used to change the world — and quickly.

It was said that the way to peace in Jerusalem passed through Baghdad. It was said that by ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein’s wretched regime, the United States would unleash a democratic revolution in the Arab world. Go back and look at the broad claims Bush’s defenders made for his policy after the election in Iraq just a year ago. Everything, it was said, was falling into place.

But the world is a complicated place. Of course free elections in Iraq are hugely better than dictatorship. But when free elections become more a census to count members of warring ethnic and religious factions than a way of settling underlying disputes, they do not necessarily pave the way for enduring democracy. They do not provide voters with ways of test-driving the various alternatives.

In the Palestinian case, Hamas’s victory was not widely predicted, but its strong showing was predictable. Every serious analyst understood the frustration of the majority of Palestinians with those who have led them. Everyone knew that Hamas had created a new civil society — a network of health and social service organizations — within the old Palestinian structure that brought a wide base of grass-roots support.

The polls suggest that Hamas did not win because a majority of Palestinians bought into its terrorist program. Hamas won, precisely as Bush said, because voters were so unhappy with the status quo. But shouldn’t Washington ask itself why it didn’t take more dramatic steps, over a much longer period, to change the Palestinian status quo? Taking action in Iraq was not going to do the job.

A working democracy north of our border requires a degree of hope for the future now lacking among Palestinians. The Bush administration once thought it could take a holiday from complexity and remake the world through a few bold strokes. But democratization is hard, complicated and frustrating. It requires the patient building of institutions and attention to detail. There are no short cuts. You wonder if the president will come to terms with the flaws in his own status quo.