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The Hard Road to Democracy

April 11, 2013

By Gerlof Homan
Originally Published: December 19, 2011

Recent developments in the Middle East have raised hopes that democracy might finally emerge in this part of the world. History teaches us, however, that the rise or emergency of democracy can be a slow and painful process. Western European countries tried for almost two centuries to create a democratic system.

France tried in 1789, and failed. After some ten years of turmoil Napoleon seized power and established a dictatorship. The French tried again with limited success in 1815, 1839, and 1848. Their revolution of 1848, which had considerable impact on the rest of Europe, also failed and gave rise to a new dictator, Napoleon III. He was overthrown in 1870. After much internal wrangling, democracy finally reemerged in the 1870s. But the new regime had many enemies. There was no national concensus! During World War II these enemies saw an opportunity to reestablish an autocratic regime. They failed, but it was not until 1958 that a stable democracy finally emerged. It took some 170 years for France to reach this point.

Other European countries experienced similar trials. In 1848 Germany was swept by a large number of revolutions in various states. All of them failed, and many revolutionaries fled to the United States. Among them was Carl Schurz, who later became prominent in American politics. The Germans tried again after World War I, but most Germans were not enamored of democracy, and allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to come to power. Only after the disastrous World War II experience did most Germans agree that democracy was the best political system for them. The same can be said of Italy, where Mussolini came to power in the 1920s. He was overthrown during World War II.

Some years ago, our son Chris Homan was in Lesotho, a small African nation, where he and others tried to help launch a democratic system. Shortly after he left there was an election, but the losers didn’t like the outcome and staged a coup. In a democracy one must learn to accept the outcome of an election, no matter how difficult and disappointing it may be. There is such a thing as political maturity.

Much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia have gone through similar experiences. For a democracy to succeed, a country must agree on a few essentials, such as respect for minority opinions and human rights, and learn the art of compromise. That can be a painful process and may take a few generations. We must remember that holding free elections does not a democracy make!

In fact, an election might result in the creation of a dictatorship if the undemocratic forces win the election. In some respects, that happened in Germany in 1933, when the Nazis came to power. There is bitter irony in that event: the Nazi Party, determined to destroy democracy, came to power through a democratic process!

Why did the United States not experience such growing pains? We inherited our political traditions from the British, who began their democracy with the drafting of the famous Magna Carta in 1215. India had the same good fortune.

Lacking such experience, we may expect a lot of instability in the Middle East. There will be failures and military coups and other serious challenges.

It will always be difficult to govern humankind. Voltaire said that even the ancient Israelites made a mess of things, and yet they had God on their side! The Bible does give us some guidelines. Among them is respect for individual dignity. That goal can best be achieved by observing basic human rights and by introducing democratic values. Yet, respect for human rights and democratic values must be learned and appreciated.

Democratization of much of the world could also advance the cause of peace. Although democracies can become belligerent, as stirred by an angry jingoistic electorate, they do not make war on each other. No democracy has ever made war on another democratic nation.

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