Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Note on the Value of Elections

Traditionally, even the greatest supporters of liberal society have been wary of the democratic value of elections. The American constitution (article 2) created a system of electors in order to ensure that the presidential elections were slightly removed from a purely popular vote. The well-known European thinker, Edmund Burke, has the following to say about the value of popular elections:
To govern according to the sense and agreeably to the interests of the people is a great and glorious object of government. This object cannot be obtained but through the medium of popular election; and popular election is a mighty evil. . . . They are the distempers of elections that have destroyed all free states. ("Speech on a Bill for Shortening the Duration of Parliament")

Despite such warnings, our contemporaries appear to have come up with the idea that democracies are constituted by and only by popular election. Thus we learn that Egypt is democratic, Iraq is democratic, and even Palestine (though it is not yet even a country) is democratic. By the way, the list of parties running in the Palestinian elections would make anarchists blush. This list I have found (source) includes five parties:
  1. Fatah

  2. Hamas

  3. People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

  4. Third Way (for people who have grown disillusioned with Fatah, but are reluctant to endorse Hamas' program)

  5. Independent Palestine (headed by Mustafa Barghouti)
Three of those parties are well known terrorist organizations. The other two appear to be made up of independent terrorists. If these are the representatives of a democracy, there may be more "distempers" to worry about than those caused by the elections.


Yehuda said...

Fixed the comment problem. Miriam, you may be right.

Sam said...

Yehuda, did you catch yesterday's Washington Post? The US has been quietly supporting Fatah's campaign. Apparently USAID spent $1.9 million dollars on public works projects to boost their popularity. Of course, if we want Fatah to win it might be better for the US to endorse somebody else!

I cannot resist pointing out that Menachem Begin led a terrorist group in Mandate Palestine. Ariel Sharon led an army raid in 1953 that killed dozens of civilians, and was found indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila. What does that say about the Israeli electorate? I'd beware making a broad generalization. Lest you think I only pick on Israel, Elie Hobeika, who was in command during the massacres, was appointed to some government positions in Lebanon in the 1990's, but I don't know if he was ever elected.

Also, who among our contemporaries thinks Egypt is a democracy?

Yehuda said...

Sam, I agree with you if you are condemming the US support of Fatah. I cannot, however, agree with your condemnation of Sharon and Begin. I am not familiar with a war in history that did not have large civilian casualties, even intended ones. Consider the US bombing of Berlin and Tokyo after the Second World War. The intention of that bombing was to ruin the lives of the civilians in those cities (and others) in order that they would be forced to rebuild. Was that terrorism? Also, beyond the fact that both the Irgun and Hamas (at least the "political wing") have been labelled as terrorist groups, I would be curious to learn of other similarities between the two groups.

Sam said...

Regarding USAID, what would a democracy be without some electoral malfeasance? Seriously, the Americans would rather work, I think, with Fatah than Hamas. Wouldn't you? Unfortunately, Fatah seems to be incompetent and corrupt! Is it a good idea to prop up such a party, interfering with another nation's elections in the process? Probably not, but on the other hand, I have the luxury of not having to make those decisions myself. At any rate, the BBC is reporting that Fatah has a seven-point lead over Hamas.

Your original post is more or less right. There is a lot more to a well-functioning government than the presence of elections.

I don't want to get lost trying to define terrorism. It is not the only crime that an army can commit nor the only reasonable bar against a political career. My point was not to equate Hamas with the Irgun, not being an expert on either. But during the 1930's, the Irgun bombed Arab marketplaces several times, sometimes killing dozens of people. Admittedly, this was before Menachem Begin was in control; but I think he was in control when the massacre at Deir Yassin took place. As for Sharon, under his command the IDF abetted in the slaughter of hundreds of civilians at Sabra and Shatila. Are you saying that war mitigated the gravity of any of this? Is it okay because the Israelis won? I don't have the stomach for this sort of thing. Neither do most Israelis, I'd guess, but they elected Sharon and Begin anyway.

I'm told that even Robert McNamara believed that the firebombing of Japanese cities was a war crime, for for which he and Curtis LeMay were responsible. The intention was to "ruin the lives of the civilians" by killing them!

Sam said...

Um, scratch the end of the first paragraph. The BBC is now leading with a "surprise" Hamas victory.