26 January 2005
We can many of us remember how South Africa accomplished it in 1994 - in uplifting and heartwarming style. We know how Ukraine managed it, at the second time of asking, late last year; how the Palestinians produced a decent approximation earlier this month, and how, after the embarrassing débâcle of 2000, the Americans managed not to botch it this time around. The Afghans came close when they turned out in unexpectedly large numbers in October. And on Sunday it is the turn of Iraq - embattled, brutalised, divided Iraq - to try its hand at a democratic election.
My bet is that more Iraqis may defy the risks to vote than has been forecast. Such an outcome would be the first positive turn of events in Iraq since the disastrous US and British invasion of 2003. Regrettably, it would also allow the US and British governments to claim vindication for their project to bring democracy to Iraq, while passing over the death and destruction their enterprise has caused. Worse, it could encourage George Bush to pursue his democratising mission elsewhere. The illusion would be propagated that, if Iraq in its present state can hold a plausible election, then pretty much every country can proceed on the high road to democracy too: they have only to accept how eminently superior democracy is to all other forms of government.
Yet even a relatively successful election in Iraq could also illustrate something quite different. For what happens next could call into question the whole assumption - long-cherished across the Western world - that universal suffrage - one person, one vote - is the single, immutable, measure of democracy.
It is already apparent that one person, one vote in Iraq will produce an assembly with a large Shia majority. The voting will be across ethnic and religious lines - just as it is in so many states where religious or ethnic identity takes precedence over national or party identity. Small wonder that the Sunni minority, favoured under Saddam Hussein, is threatening a boycott or that the Kurds want, at very least, regional self-government. Even if the country were entirely peaceful, no minority would have a chance of winning, or even sharing, power. There can be as many checks and balances, as many proportional adjustments and safeguards, as many concessions to federalism as anyone likes. The reality remains that in divided countries, one person, one vote produces a political majority for other sorts of majority - and may, without strong and enforceable constitutional guarantees, threaten the representation and rights of everyone else.
This is not an argument about how far democracy can be imposed and how far it must have home-grown roots. Nor is it about democracy which - as is often said - is the worst form of government bar all the rest. It is rather an argument about whether, in the long-term, universal suffrage will produce the desired, representational, effect.
Nor is it just at the level of "beginners" - Iraq or Afghanistan - that the shortcomings of one person, one vote are apparent. In the Western world, too, the flaws of the system are becoming increasingly clear. One is apathy. Should anyone, but especially a national leader, be elected on the votes of less than half the registered voters? Perhaps voting should be compulsory, as in Australia. Or perhaps we should interpret apathy as simply a vote by other means: a mark of mild approval of the status quo, rather than a personal boycott or a sign of disillusionment.
Another is the principle of universal participation. In this age of mobility, is it right that one person, one vote generally means one citizen, one vote? In 19th century Britain, de-coupling the right to vote from financial status and the obligation to pay taxes was hailed as progress. But is that de-coupling still valid? The strength of opposition to Mrs Thatcher's poll tax suggested that a groundswell of opinion believed it was. Yet in any country where the disparity between high and very low earners is growing, a time can be seen when the rich minority will resent policy being determined by those who pay almost nothing in taxes and ask if justice and democracy are really the same.
Such an eventuality has been neatly circumvented in the United States by the primacy of money in politics, which speaks through the myriad lobbyists, and by shameless gerrymandering. Every citizen may have a vote, but the value of that vote is reduced by the power of money in the system and the number of constituencies whose boundaries have been manipulated - by the democratically elected majority, of course - to guarantee Republican or Democrat victories in perpetuity. Even when the voting machines work impeccably, how far does such a system justify its claim to be the acme of representational democracy?
All these strands are now in play in an impassioned debate on both sides of the Atlantic, largely outside the party political arena. The question is whether democracy is as universally applicable as so many of us believed. Iraq may yet illustrate something more complicated: we recognise democracy when we see it, but universal suffrage as the defining standard may be doomed.