Erdogan and Morsy, Chávez and Putin — all are megalomaniacs who cannot or will not distinguish between “the people’s will” and their own. But this is also a disease of young democracies, where the stakes are so high that both ruler and opposition often see compromise as a betrayal of the national interest. This was true even in the first decades of the American republic. John Adams’s rivals accused him of trying to restore monarchic rule; and when Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, served as president, both his great rival, Andrew Jackson, and Vice President John C. Calhoun insisted that he was planning to subvert the Constitution and impose dictatorial rule. Adams and his allies were convinced with almost equal certainty that Jackson, if elected, would destroy the Union. The concept of legitimate difference of opinion was very slow to take hold.
Nations lucky enough to have a Nelson Mandela or a George Washington receive a lasting lesson in the democratic uses of power. And when, as in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracies emerge from a series of bargains between reformers and the ruling elite, everyone gets the chance to learn the arts of compromise. But when power must be seized through revolutionary action, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the one rule people know is that the winner takes all. How, then, do leaders learn to represent a whole people rather than just the faction that elected them?
They don’t, naturally — but voters can teach them a lesson. Serbs united in 2000 to defeat the authoritarian populist Slobodan Milosevic, who had forged a political majority out of virulent nationalism. But this requires a united and purposeful opposition, which cannot be said either of Turkey’s old-line pro-Ataturk Republican People’s Party or the deeply fragmented opposition to Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not just the ruling party, but the entire political culture, of new democracies which often enables electoral authoritarianism.
One of the first lessons on politics I learnt from history lessons was that Hitler’s NSDAP reached power in 1933 thru legal pseudo-democratic ways,… in 6 years they were again able to face the world’s powers, all this coming from the deepest economy’s catastrophical abyss… and thus earning wide popular suppoert and international admiration. Some other 6 years later everything was ashes… the country, the admiration, and the german selfsteem… not as people, but as humans. And all fruit of a deep national shame.
This process made me learn that the legality of a democracy is not only in the means, but in the behaviour of those who were elected to rule. One can’t be elected democratically to put democracy at risk.
May it be not the best of systems, but deffinitely the best we have… let’s care for it, sirs. And let’s learn from the past.