COMMONPLACE MIRACLES: IN DEMOCRACIES, THE PROCESS TOO OFTEN IS TAKEN FOR GRANTED
By GIL TROY
MONTREAL GAZETTE, Comment, 5 February 2001, B3
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||Today, halfway across the world, a
commonplace miracle will occur. Despite four violent
months, despite decades of war, millions of Israelis will
go to the polls peacefully and choose their next prime
minister. Over the last few weeks, the news media
which increasingly focuses on divining what might happen
next rather than reporting the _news_ that just occurred
has been predicting a victory for Ariel Sharon. As
the campaign closes, when no one knows what Israel will
decide, let us focus on what actually is happening
Israelis are once again freely exercising their
democratic rights to choose a leader.
This election is, on one hand, commonplace. Israel has already held 15 elections in 52 years, although this will be the first special election solely for prime minister. Yet the election is a miracle, not only because it occurs amid the tensions of the last few months, but because it occurs at all. To update Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihans insight from a few election cycles ago: there have been 16 free national elections in history in the Middle East -- all 16 of them in Israel. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Israeli electorate is 12.3 percent Arab. Back in 1948 amid a War of Independence with six Arab nations, Israel nevertheless extended to its Arab inhabitants what Bill Clinton recently called the title he will wear most "proudly," that of citizen.
Contemplating this democratic spectacle highlights the commonplace miracles we have witnessed recently closer to home. During the Cold War, we often emphasized the joys of democracy, to prove our superiority over Communism. Today, the magic of democracy is often taken for granted.
Down South, in the United States of America, despite the Florida fiasco, the transition from Democratic to Republican rule has been remarkably smooth. The inauguration was a grand tribute to the resilience of American democracy. It evoked the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the third American president but the first from an opposition party to take over the reigns. Two centuries ago, on March 4,1801, Jefferson, a Republican, extended his hand to John Adams disappointed Federalist partisans. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," the bard of democracy proclaimed.
In the same vein, perhaps the most moving moment in the recent inauguration came when the new President and First Lady escorted their predecessors down the rain-soaked Capitol steps, and into a waiting limousine. One can only imagine how mind readers might have filled in the thought bubbles of either the Clintons or the Bushes. Nevertheless, both couples followed the protocols of democracy, acting with a dignified courtesy that legitimized the transition and reflected well on the four individuals and their country.
Just a few weeks before, here in Canada, we experienced a peaceful renewal of a mandate, with no transition at all. In his years in office, Prime Minister Jean Chretien has been maligned in Parliament, in the press, on the street. And yet, Prime Minister "three-peat," has been elected, re-elected, and re-elected again. Ultimately, the people as a democratic collective speak more eloquently and authoritatively than the carping critics. Chretiens victory testifies to his leadership skills, and seems to have cowed the critics, albeit temporarily.
Simultaneously in Quebec, Canadian democracy worked smoothy on a provincial level. True, some grumble that Lucien Bouchard violated democratic etiquette by abandoning his post prematurely. Nevertheless, the party procedures for choosing a new leader kicked into action, and no one will challenge the legitimacy of Bouchards successor.
Clearly, democracy works for society. We democrats yell, "the King is dead, long live the king," ironically genuflecting toward our monarchical past while proudly affirming the stability of our system. In democracies legitimacy is bipartisan, legitimacy is not conditional. Ehud Barak is free to exercise power until the closing moments of his mandate; he or his successor will be leading a country that may be divided but will not be paralyzed by questioning the leaders authority.
By contrast, note the quick but not always smooth transitions that are more commonplace around the world. Just last Friday, the new leader of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, made his maiden television address. He spoke haltingly, for he is not fluent in Congos official language, French. By what right does this 29-year-old rookie rule? By the same rights that a young eye-doctor, Bashar Assad took over Syria in June -- each one inherited the country from his late father.
Of course, with the stability and legitimacy it confers on the state, democracy also blesses individuals with rights. Alas, we also take for granted our own individual power. How can we explain our insouciance to the Palestinian editor beaten because he did not run an article praising Yasser Arafat on page one? How can we justify our nonchalance to a Chinese dissident imprisoned for a decade? How can we remain apathetic when countless people throughout the world continue to be tortured or killed simply for expressing opinions, for disagreeing with dictators?
These days, it is fashionable to complain, to focus on imperfections. I will happily do that tomorrow. Today, I will risk being called a Pollyanna, and listen to the sweet sounds of democracy at work in Israel, the shuffle of shoes on the floor as people line up to vote, the rustle of paper as ballots are distributed, and the powerful silence when tanks do not roll down the street and the people wait patiently to hear what their collective voice has to say.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.
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