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can democracy be designed?



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- appropriating the dead
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- can democracy be designed
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Scene One: Qum, Islamic Republic of Iran

Exact Date lost in the fog of intelligence gathering

Two political but unidentified ayatollahs are discussing strategy in this intellectual and spiritual capital of Shi'ite Islam. Despite sophisticaated electronic equipment, the conversation was not picked up by the CIA and related agencies,

One asks the other 'How can we strengthen Iran by weakening our Sunni-dominated neighbours in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq?' The other replies 'We will convince the USA that they need to install Islamic democracies. Later, we will drop the bit about democracies and just keep Islamic.'

'You don't really think that the Americans would get involved so far from their home and in cultures they do not know!'

Scene Two: same place, same people contemplating the new geopolitical landscape with Iran as the strongest regional power and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in a confused and weak position. They are reading with interest a book edited by Sunil Bastian of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Robin Luckham of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex (IDS), a specialist on English-speaking Africa and military cultures.

Despite sophisticated intelligence gathering techniques, the book was not read by the CIA and related agencies, perhaps because it deals primarily with former British colonies, and the CIA was waiting for a simplified version to be supplied by their English colleagues.

The book deals with South Africa, Uganda, Ghana, Fiji and in depth with Sri Lanka - all of which were heavily influenced by the years of British colonial rule, although, to be fair, it was only late in the game that colonial administrators were interested in forming democrats rather than clerks and tax collectors. There is also a useful chapter on the constitutional puzzle of Bosnia-Herzegovina of former Yugoslavia which did not have the UK as a role model.

Constitutional issues involve questions about the balance of power between central and local government, the executive, legislative and judiciary, about the rights and duties of citizens and the military, and the role of the government in the economy.
Ultimately, all conflicts can end only when there is an agreement about the shape of government and the rules of law under which people agree to live. For such constitutional forms to last, there must be a spirit of compromise and an effort to balance interests so that no protagonist is left completely out of the final agreement.

The editors make a clear distinction between democratic institutions and democratic politics. This distinction is a reminder that democratisation is not just a process of implanting formal institutions of liberal democracy but a project of norm creation and cultural change. One must work with the deep politics of society. As M. Mamdani notes in his important study When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda 'Logically and historically, the creation of a political community must precede multi-party competition. The creation of a political community requires a minimum consensus within that community - of all not just a minority.'

There is no clear 'road map' to the creation of a democratic society. While today, many authors stress the important role of civil society, civil society often reproduces the class, gender, and ethno-racial hierarchies which make governmental structures unjust or fragile. Decentralisation, getting government decision-making closer to the people is not a cure-all, for it also may only reinforce the power of local elites. As A.M. Goetz and R.Jenkins note in a Sussex IDS study of Uganda' poorer people usually have as little influence in their local settings as they do in the national political arena, and sometimes substantially less...largely obscured from the scrutiny of either the media or public advocacy groups, local political environments frequently reduce the incentives for elites to reorient their priorities.'

Although the structure of society has an important impact on the structure of government, this does not mean that institutions are only a reflection of society. As Bastian and Luckham point out 'Institutional choices can be made in a great variety of ways, ranging from entire new constitutional settlements, to piecemeal reforms, to the accretion of small changes, to the failure to make appropriate decisions when institutions are failing.'

It is likely that in most societies, the way open will be for the accretion of small changes. The specialist of Nigerian politics R.L. Sklar has developed the concept of 'democracy in parts' to characterise democratic spaces in authoritarian systems such as semi-autonomous courts and legal system, the non-intimidated press, to parallel clanic and tribal structures. Sklar 'used the concept both to question the idea that authoritarianism was monolithic, and to initiate a discussion of how democratic politics could commence without waiting for the formal establishment of democratic institutions.'

As Sklar notes, democracy 'comes to every country in fragments and parts: each fragment becomes an incentive for addition of another.' Thus Bastian and Luckham stress that 'The design of institutions needs to be based upon a proper understanding of shifting power relations and societal transformations. For this a historical perspective is needed - both to offset democracy triumphalism and to counter pessimism over conflict and state failure.'

Creating a spirit of democratic compromise and flexible institutions in multicultural Afghanistan and Iraq will not be easy. In fact, there are a lot of 'winner takes all' people still around, both native and foreign. If democracy can not be designed on a constitutional drawing table, it cannot be left to chance either.
Rene Wadlow

Eds Sunil Bastian and Robin Luckham. Can Democracy Be Designed? The Politics of Institutional Choice in Conflict-torn Societies. Zed Books 2003.






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