Democracy Catches On 

For proof that colonialism has an afterlife, look no further than the coverage given in the Anglo-Saxon world to two recent, heavily contested elections in less-developed countries. Less-developed, that is, since “underdeveloped” or “Third World” seems inappropriate, at least in the case of Mexico. Indeed, judging by the several weeks’ worth of front-page treatment that the Mexican presidential race and the victory of newcomer Vicente Fox has received in the United States (not only in the Washington Post and the New York Times but also in the shabby copy of USA Today I found lying around a Warsaw cafe) the condition of Mexican democracy is of deep and abiding interest to Mexico’s highly developed northern neighbors. On the other hand, while you will be lucky to find even short mentions of Mexican events in the British press, the Daily Telegraph put the Zimbabwean elections on its front page on the day the results were announced and has been carrying regular, prominent bulletins from the country formerly known as Rhodesia ever since.

More interesting, however, is what the two elections tell us about the mechanisms by which democracy spreads and how it is possible to encourage the process. Having spent a good chunk of last week listening to assorted foreign ministers rattle on, mostly inconsequentially, about precisely this, I don’t want to be equally guilty of making vast generalizations or iron-clad prescriptions based on the experiences of two countries: Workable democracies take many forms (sometimes it is actually difficult to see what the political systems of Britain and the United States have in common), every country has to find its own road, and yes, I know that Zimbabwe and Mexico are separated by many thousands of miles of ocean, desert, and jungle.

Nevertheless, the comparison is interesting for what it reveals about the influence that the “mature” democracies have on the would-be democratic—and about the vast superiority of osmosis over all other methods of democracy export.  In fact, the most puzzling question, whenever autocratic parties give up power, is not why the voters want the change—that is usually fairly obvious—but why the old regime allows it to take place. And in the case of the corrupt PRI, which has ruled Mexico for nearly three-quarters of a century, it seems clear that the example of a large, successful, rich, democratic neighbor  helped, at least, to weaken its autocratic instincts. In some of the reporting from Mexico, you could hear Mexican commentators using American political rhetoric (there was talk, for example, of “throwing the bums out”), and you could see Mexican journalists using aggressive American methods, filming instances of fraud, for example. The Web sites of the two leading candidates (click here for the PRI’s Francisco Labastida and here for Fox, both full of links and audio and other gimmicks, also have something professional, and American, about them. Forced onto the defensive in part by the American example, the PRI, in an attempt to look “modern,” this year held competitive primaries, just like in America. Most of all, the pre-election polling showed that Fox’s electorate was younger, more urban, and more educated than Labastida’s. It was, in other words, that part of the population more attuned to ways of life—and ways of electing politicians—in the north. And if the PRI ever wants to capture their money and support, let alone their votes, it knows it has to look and act more like a pluralistic, democratic party.

By contrast, Zimbabwe has no such neighbor, either to the north or to the south: While South Africa is democratic, it is hardly rich and successful. Rather than osmosis, the most important foreign influence in Zimbabwe’s political system has been donor pressure: Periodically, the group of wealthier nations that help to pay President Mugabe’s bills lecture him on the need for change. As a result, it is hardly an exaggeration to call him a reluctant democrat: Not only have the supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change been beaten, harassed, intimidated, and even murdered, Mugabe himself announced, a few days before last week’s poll, that he had no intention of giving up his job, let alone of allowing the democratic rabble to actually rule the country. Worse, far from modifying his views, the finger-wagging outsiders seem to spark more outpourings of Mugabe invective: For a few choice examples, see the Zimbabwean government’s Web page, which instead of bells and lights and audio clips features a large, solemn photograph of the Leader and excerpts from his speeches. Change may come despite Mugabe—57 opposition politicians did win seats in the Zimbabwean parliament, as opposed to the ruling party’s 62. But somehow one doesn’t see Zimbabwe’s president giving up without a fight, and possibly an extremely bloody and brutal one: Attacks on white farmers have already started up again, and the intimidation of MDC supporters continues.

This isn’t to say that foreigners can’t do anything to bring about change in an autocracy. Clearly, Zimbabwe’s opposition has been bucked up and supported by the money and good will of outsiders—support for grass-roots democracy is always crucial—and the attention paid to Zimbabwe in the world’s press (or at least in the British press) as well as the donor community may well account for the fact that the elections took place at all. But it is worth noting, for those who would organize their foreign policies around these issues, that there are limits to what money and active persuasion can achieve. In 1989, a dozen-odd East European countries opted for democracy, but not because the International Monetary Fund told them to: They did it because next-door Western Europe was democratic, rich, and successful, and they wanted to be that way too. I suspect the earlier wave of democratic change in Latin America had similar roots. Put bluntly, telling nasty politicians how to behave doesn’t always work: Perhaps we in the West do the most good by, simply, being ourselves.