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The Spread of Democracy Enables Us to End the Millennium On An Upbeat Note



December 22, 1999

LONDON- The Russian parliamentary election has well and truly knocked the pessimists off their perch. Few predicted that the Communist Party in these hard economic times would receive such a setback. The Russian voter, despite the total failure of capitalism to deliver the goods, has made it crystal clear that he is still in no mood to wind back the clock.

Optimists can be forgiven for believing that democracy, like the stock market, appears to have entered an unprecedented benign era. There have been numerous setbacks, but it does seem true that this century has become, after all its failures of world war, extreme ideology and Cold War, the century of democracy. And now with Russia set to consolidate its young democracy, the 20th century is ending on an undoubted top C.

Yesterday the New York-based Freedom House published its annual survey of democratic trends and concluded that "there were major gains in liberty in 1999 and that there now exists the largest number of political free countries in the history of mankind." Contrary to popular western belief there are more people in the Third World living under democratic governance than there are in the West. What is more, thanks to transformation in Nigeria and Indonesia, the majority of the world's Muslims is now living in countries that practice democracy.

This end of century survey finds that only 36% of the peoples of the world live in countries that are not free- and the overwhelming proportion of those are in China. Two thirds of the world's countries, 120 of them, have achieved democratic rule.

Yet still the argument continues: is the glass half full or half empty? That, in fact, it's nearly full seems to be ignored by most of our active political class, who seem to believe they thrive personally if they can paint the world blacker than it is, with only the prowess of their own country able to sort it out.

The Russian election should be a salutary reminder of how the democratic pulse works: overturning the debilitating practices that accrete to any working body politic and breathing new life into those hackneyed words, "a new mandate". Maybe, after all, insiders, once given the vote, have a better feel of how to correct the course of their country than the realpolitik politicos in foreign parts.

The atmosphere HAS changed for the better. Democracy has been throughout the century a slow, uncertain but in the end steady cumulative process and now it is a hard thing for anyone to block, at least for any length of time. While one can worry, and sometimes despair, about the homogenized uniformity brought about by many aspects of globalization, one can only rejoice in this phenomenon.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were only 55 sovereign polities. (There are now 192.) Not one enjoyed fully competitive multiparty politics with universal suffrage. A mere 12.5% of mankind lived under a form of government that could be described as somewhat democratic, although suffrage was generally limited to males.

Even as recently as mid-century there were only 22 functioning democracies and a further 21 restricted democracies. They accounted for a mere 12% of the globe's population. Meanwhile, totalitarian communism had spread to govern one third of the world's people.

But the last quarter of a century in particular has seen a tremendous acceleration in democracy's spread. One doesn't have to be too gullible an optimist to imagine that first decade of the next century could well see the dawn of a near totally democratic world. To say democracy and its handmaiden liberty are now only western constructs is as foolish as saying that rice is only an Asian food. Any long view of history, with rather more time-span than the life of McDonalds, will realize that the cultures of the world have been cross-fertilizing each other for thousands of years. To take the influence of the Arab world alone, where would the West be today without the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, paper and architecture which it borrowed wholesale?

This great surge of democracy and the lessening of political tension that goes with its advance receives only cursory note in most of our media. Instead, we are presented with a perverse picture of a world ever more strife ridden and antagonistic. The truth is the advance of democratic practice has noticeably diminished violence. Democratic states do not go to war with each other and even violence within states, of which we are now all acutely aware thanks to media hype, is also on a steady decline. Indeed, if we took Africa out of the picture the number of countries racked by violence could be counted the fingers on one hand.

We should end this century on an upbeat note . We have over the last 25 years, at least, made enormous progress in the pursuit of human liberty and non-violent relationships. We should resolve to continue the effort. And our media, for its part, should make a millennium resolution to report the world as it really is, not as the fragmented and disjointed world its broken mirrors seem to suggest.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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