- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

While we as Americans frequently take for granted some of the self-evident truths of a democracy, there often are very harsh reminders that human rights, respect for individual liberties and peaceful political transitions are denied to many throughout the world. There are valid reasons the U.S. is seen as a role model for democracy. Although the close vote, the recount and challenges have highlighted the U.S. presidential election both in the United States and internationally, the political succession is peaceful and will be accomplished in a framework of the rule-of-law.
The peaceful U.S. transition from one administration to another is a reminder that many don't have the freedoms we have. In many developing countries of the world, not just in Africa, the kind of hard-fought election held recently in the United States would have been a disaster. At best, the parties would be demanding a government of national unity; at worst, election results would not be recognized and power would result from a civilian or military takeover. The gun, not the ballot box, would be the deciding factor. A winner-take-all mentality would prevail.
In Africa, as in other parts of the world, the power of the state is often used in a desperate attempt to maintain control. Murder and lawlessness prevail in a number of countries. Democratic reform activists, as has been seen in Zimbabwe, are killed, beaten and disappear. Tyrants maintain control by fear. Although there are some significant exceptions (such as the recent transition in Senegal), political transitions historically in Africa have more often been the result of assassinations, military coups, civilian coups, civil war, natural death in office, or popular uprisings. There are too few elections in which there has been a peaceful transition of political power from one party to another and the defeated president can say, as did former President Nicephore Soglo in Benin in 1996, "I lost but democracy won."
Perhaps the most fundamental message from the recent presidential and legislative campaign to those in other parts of the world who are fighting for liberty, freedom, justice, democracy and good governance is that political ideas and personalities can be debated publicly and although severe differences may exist, a peaceful transition of political power is an accepted outcome of the election results.
The message from the U.S. election is once again a reaffirmation of the maturity and strength of the American political system. At no time has the military threatened to take over. Retired military officers, such as Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, campaigned vigorously for Gov. George W. Bush, but there was always a recognition that political power is controlled by civilians, not the military.
The message from the U.S. election also is that political parties and their candidates, no matter how hard-fought and close the results, will abide by the rule of law. Where there are challenges, they will be through the legal system. Neither of the major parties will threaten to pull out, no matter how distasteful the outcome. Although press bias in this election and embarrassingly eager and inaccurate reporting marked and had an impact on election day, the independent press expressed their views without fear of physical retribution.
Democracy has won the intellectual battle in Africa as the best form of government, but the message has not always gotten through to those in power. But the winds of change are blowing. Whether it be in Zimbabwe, Kenya or other African countries, people believe in democracy and they believe in freedom. Democracy is not just a concept, it is a way of life and, where it is denied, individuals are willing to fight for their rights. African countries, relatively new to independence, living constitutions, and peaceful transitions, are progressing toward political systems reflective of a government "of, by and for the people" rather than a government for the government.
The special character of a peaceful political succession is fundamental to a true democracy. Not only in spite of but because of the controversies involving the presidential election, it is a message the United States can send to emerging democracies.

Lloyd O. Pierson is Africa division director for the International Republication Institute (IRI).

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