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Friday, 9 November 2007

9 November 2007

What’s the best way, do you think, to get Washington off your back if your democratic credentials are beginning to look a bit frayed? Easy: tell the White House you’ll have an election.

Like, for example, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, key ally of Washington but now roundly criticised from all sides for having declared a state of emergency. Or like, for another example, President Mikheil Saakashvili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, another key Washington ally, who’s also now being roundly criticised from all sides … you get the picture.

There are far more differences than similarities between Georgia (population less than five million, and overwhelmingly Christian), in the permanently unstable but strategically vital Caucasus, and Pakistan (population 165 million, which is more than Russia’s, and overwhelmingly Muslim), a nuclear power which neighbours Afghanistan and which is widely believed to be the current home of Osama bin Laden. But within the past week, both Musharraf of Pakistan and Saakashvili of Georgia have declared a state of emergency to try to gain some leverage against their domestic opponents – and under heavy international pressure, both have promised that elections will be held within the next couple of months.

But of course holding an election does not necessarily mean that you’re running a healthy liberal democracy. (“An election is not the same as democracy,” a Ugandan MP once told me, “just as a wedding is not the same as a marriage.”) Yet, an election, if fair, is, I think, usually better than no election, if only for the simple reason that it should give people a chance to get rid of an unpopular government if they think there’s a better one on offer.

As a basic rule of thumb, it’s generally thought to be the case that if you want to be considered part of Team Washington, you need to have in place some sort of presentable electoral system. Unless you’re Egypt. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Pakistan. I recalled on my blog a couple of days ago what the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said after President Bush’s re-election three years ago. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy . . . and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

But what happens when you have an election, as in the West Bank and Gaza, for example, and the voters choose someone like Hamas, whom you regard as a dangerous Islamist terrorist movement? Or as in Egypt, where if there were to be a free and fair election, something similar might well be the outcome? Do you go for elections, or stability?

In the case of Pakistan, General Musharraf’s colleagues reckon they know full well what their Washington allies’ priorities are. According to information minister Tariq Azim Khan: “They would rather have a stable Pakistan — albeit with some restrictive norms — than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists.”

When I made a series of documentaries about democracy a couple of years ago, I concluded that genuine democracy means not only having the freedom to be governed by whom you choose, but also, and equally importantly, to say what you want, and to hold your leaders to account under a fair and open judicial system. Even if elections are held in Georgia and Pakistan, in neither of those two countries would all those conditions necessarily be met. (As I write these words, I learn that the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been put under house arrest.)

Ah yes, I mentioned my blog: if you’ve missed my on-air announcements over the past 10 days, here’s the written version … I’ve started blogging. In other words, if you go to www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight, you’ll find my thoughts about what’s going on in the world, some suggestions about articles online that you might find interesting, and occasionally a link to an item from a programme that you might have missed. Most important of all, there’s an opportunity for you to respond, both to what I write, and to what other listeners and readers have said. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think.

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