Does democracy carry too much risk for some countries?

Given that recent record – and the longer-term record of ex-democratic disappointments such as Russia – it might seem that elections are the worst thing you could possibly advocate. Some argue that multiparty democracy delivered to China would splinter the state into ethnic and regional Bantustans, or that bringing the vote to repressive autocracies such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates would simply cause them to follow Egypt’s or Syria’s descent. Aren’t they better off without the enormous risk that democracy might bring?

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It’s tempting, at moments like this, to say that. But there are two flaws in this reasoning. First, it is to abandon people to their fate prematurely, simply because we forget human history: Democracy became the shovel we Westerners used to dig ourselves out of destitution only after we had spent decades using it to batter one another over the head. It took generations before the Robespierres and Cromwells were worked out of the system.

Second, we are applying an emaciated version of the word “democracy.” It is a cliché to say that democracy means more than elections, but the need to build institutions and freedoms, to challenge traditional structures and end the myth that popular sovereignty is a Western import – these challenges are too often neglected.

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