Citizens of democracies often have to settle for politicians with few virtues, but it would be hard to set the bar lower than in the recent presidential campaign in Liberia. One candidate’s supporters came up with a novel chant: “Did he kill your ma? No. Did he kill your pa? No. Vote for George Weah.”
Liberians, in a show of ingratitude for Mr. Weah’s restraint, chose Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected to head a national government in Africa. She, fortunately, is also not known to have murdered anyone’s parents.
This has been a year to remember that democracy, for all its merits, sometimes offers only modest consolations. The obvious example is Iraq, which held two national elections but was wracked by an insurgency that has contributed to the deaths of some 30,000 civilians. As Brookings Institution analyst Michael O’Hanlon put it, “Iraqis have basically accepted becoming the most violent country in the Middle East as a price for becoming the most democratic.”
Both Liberia and Iraq were part of a renewed global shift toward freedom that began in the 1980s and has yet to stop. Rust never sleeps, Neil Young told us, and the democratic impulse operates similarly — eating away at authoritarian rule slowly and steadily, but often imperceptibly.
In 2005, though, results were visible. In its annual survey, the human rights organization Freedom House reports the world now has 122 democracies — 64 percent of all countries, and a new high. Democracy is not synonymous with liberty: Only 89 countries, with 46 percent of the Earth’s population, are classified as free. Eighteen percent of the world’s people live in partly free countries, with 36 percent not free.
The world’s three new democracies arrived in a region where they were once as scarce as polar bears — Africa. Besides Liberia, Burundi and the Central African Republic gave power to the people. But the continent’s senior ruler, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, ended his 38-year term only by dying. He was succeeded by his son.
One of the most unlikely positive changes this year was the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko as president of Ukraine — two months after he lost the election. Outraged by obvious fraud, millions of people massed in the streets day after day until the government held another vote. With an honest count, Mr. Yushchenko won easily.
His victory was a rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had supported the loser. In April, Mr. Putin said the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — a distinction many people would give to creation of the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan convened an elected parliament featuring a rogue’s gallery of warlords, opium merchants, communists and veterans of the Taliban. But any elected parliament represents progress in a country that over three decades has endured a Soviet invasion, civil war and theocratic despotism.
Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez survived the year while insisting the U.S. government was plotting to kill him. His party won an election that, thanks to an opposition boycott, drew only 25 percent of voters to the polls. “Silence united Venezuelans,” declared one Chavez critic.
Bolivians elected to the presidency Evo Morales, a socialist coca farmer who vowed to be “a permanent nightmare for the United States.” Both Mr. Chavez and Mr. Morales are admirers of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who after 47 years still heads a government ranked among the most repressive on Earth.
In the Middle East, Freedom House says this year there were “modest but notable increases in political rights and civil liberties.” Kuwait granted the vote to women, leaving Saudi Arabia to hold the line against female suffrage. In Lebanon, an uproar after the assassination of an opposition leader forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had dominated the country since 1976. But the region’s only democracy is Israel.
Anyone who thinks Islam is congenitally hostile to democracy, however, will have to explain Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-dominated nation, which is now categorized as free. As the Economist magazine has noted, “Over the past six years, Indonesia has undergone a remarkable transformation from near-dictatorship to vigorous democracy.”
That country has already found that after popular rule is achieved, much work is needed to make people free and prosperous. Amid a floundering economy, critics complain Indonesians cannot eat democracy. That’s true. But like people in much of the world, they can attest there is nothing nutritious about tyranny.
Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.