“My mother always said, democracy is the best revenge.” — Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the late Benazir Bhutto
Washington — Of all the understandings of the democratic idea, none could be more wrong than this one. Democracy at its very core is an antidote to the kind of dynastic revenge young Bhutto was suggesting.
For the Bhuttos, elections are a means for the family to regain power. Benazir was always avenging the death of her father, the former prime minister hanged two years after a coup. Bilawal is now pledged to do the same for his mother’s martyrdom. The Pakistan People’s Party has always been a wholly owned family subsidiary. Hence the almost unseemly haste with which Bhutto’s husband and son were given immediate control upon Benazir’s death.
Democracy was meant to be the antithesis of feudalism. Popular sovereignty was to supplant divine right; free elections to supplant dynastic succession (a progression Americans have not completely mastered either). It is clear that Bilawal meant to put the best gloss on his mother’s dictum. He, like she, would avenge the political murder of a parent not with violence but through the ballot box. Nonetheless, his unmistakable assumption of aristocratic entitlement clangs against his professed fealty to democratic means.
His mother was the same. In more than one journalistic profile, she was characterized as “a democrat who appeals to feudal loyalties.” Part of the reason for the precariousness of Pakistan’s democracy is precisely that it remains a largely feudal society practicing democratic forms.
But Pakistan is hardly alone. The very same week Pakistan nearly imploded, a close and disputed election sent Kenya, heretofore one of the more stable democracies in Africa, into a convulsion of tribal violence. These bloody eruptions come against a background of less dramatic but equally important defeats for the democratic idea. Russia acquiesces cravenly as its nascent democracy is systematically dismantled in return for a bit of great-power posturing and a measure of oil-fueled pottage doled out by Czar Vladimir. China even more apathetically continues to concede stewardship of its market economy and modernizing society to a Leninist dictatorship. How many decades will it take before we acknowledge that the axiom that economic liberalization leads to political liberalization may not be axiomatic?
This comes after the Palestinians, in their first post-Arafat parliamentary election, give the mandate to a terrorist group. And as Lebanon, the leader of the Arab Spring of 2005, watches Syrian proxies systematically kill one member of parliament after another to deny the democrats the quorum they need to elect a like-minded president.
These defeats, marking the cresting of the 30-year democratic wave that had swept through Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia, and even parts of Africa, raise more than theoretical questions. They challenge the core Bush notion that American foreign policy should be predicated on trying to spread democracy. Six years after 9/11 there still is no remotely plausible alternative to the Bush Doctrine for ultimately changing the culture from which jihadism arises. But while spreading democracy may be necessary, can it, in fact, be done?
We know that it can, of course, as demonstrated by our success in turning Germany, Japan, and South Korea into important democratic allies. But there we had the rare advantage of the near total control that came with uncontested postwar occupation.
What is required in conditions of far less control? A healthy respect for the enduring power of local political primitivism and a willingness to adapt to it.
In Afghanistan, that means accepting radical decentralization and the power of warlords. In Iraq, that means letting centralized top-down governance give way, at least temporarily, to provincial and tribal autonomy as the best means of producing effective representative institutions.
And in Pakistan, that means accepting both the enduring presence of feudal politics and the preeminent role of the military, Pakistan’s one functioning national institution, as a guarantor of the state — even (as in another secular Islamic country, Turkey) at the cost of giving it extra-constitutional authority. It also means accepting the reality that Pervez Musharraf, however dubious his democratic credentials, is not to be abandoned because his fall would unleash the deluge.
These are hard days for democracy. That is not a reason for giving up on it. It is a reason for the prudent acceptance and nurturing of local variants, however imperfect.
The Roman Church learned that spreading the creed required tolerance for the incorporation of certain pre-Christian practices as a way of strengthening the new faith and giving it local roots. For the spread of democracy today, we need to practice our own brand of syncretism and learn not to abandon the field when forced to settle for regional adaptations that fall short of the Jeffersonian ideal.
© 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group