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Democracy Under Stress

November 19, 2000|Larry Diamond | Larry Diamond, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, is author of "Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation.'

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Few things could be more humbling for an American than to watch the unprecedented wrangling over who won the presidential vote in Florida in the company of an international gathering of democratic leaders and activists. Last week, more than 400 elected officials, civic leaders, human rights activists and democratic intellectuals from some 90 countries met here for the Second Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. They gathered to share techniques for strengthening troubled democracies, controlling corruption and opening up repressive regimes. But their eyes were also glued to CNN for the latest news about the U.S. elections.

Among the global assembly of democrats, there was some smug satisfaction that the oldest and greatest democracy, which has sent teams to observe dozens of elections in emerging countries, suddenly had discovered how difficult it can be to produce an authoritative result. A French delegate said his country's paper ballots were superior to those used in Florida. More than a few delegates joked that maybe the United States could have used some election observers from Latin America. But the democrats cared about what happens in our process, and they did not find the vote-counting controversy in Florida funny or pathetic.

The emerging democracies no longer look exclusively to the U.S. as a model when designing their institutions. The new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as several in Asia, such as Thailand and Taiwan, have adopted parliamentary and semi-parliamentary forms of government, and they use proportional representation to elect at least part of their parliaments. In the way they conduct their elections, organize parties, finance campaigns and divide power, the emerging democracies, even in Latin America, now look to Europe at least as much as to the United States.

Yet, for inspiration and a model of democratic vitality and commitment, the United States remains the essential country. That is why no serious democrat around the world is laughing right now. And it is also why no one is panicking.

The most powerful office in the world hung by an impossibly thin thread in Florida, a margin of less than one one-hundredth of 1%. Many of the democratic activists gathered in Sao Paulo knew that an election that close in their own countries would bring cries of fraud, huge street demonstrations and maybe rumblings from the military. Others--from China, Burma, Congo, the Arab world--only wished they could have the luxury of freely contested elections.

Globally, fascination, amusement and concern mix with bewilderment over the U.S. electoral system. Much more than the quirky "butterfly" ballot in Palm Beach, foreign democrats are baffled by the electoral college, and by the possibility that the winner of the popular vote could lose the election. Like many Americans, most foreigners think the electoral college is a bizarre relic that should have been abandoned long ago. It has no real parallel anywhere in the world.

Yet, what these democrats did not find strange or mysterious was the resort to the courts to resolve the Florida recount dispute. If there is one aspect of U.S. democracy that inspires hope and admiration, it is the supremacy of the law and the Constitution, and of the authority of the courts to interpret and enforce the rules. In crucial conflicts in U.S. democracy, it has been the judiciary that ultimately interprets what the law means--or, by declining to rule, lets the existing authority stand.

Ironically, many emerging democracies have a clearer, more efficient system for administering elections and resolving electoral disputes than does the United States. Even in large federal systems, a national body administers elections throughout the country and announces results. For example, disputes over national elections are handled in Mexico by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, an autonomous body under the supervision of the country's Supreme Court. Globally, it is not unusual, and certainly not undemocratic, for the regular courts--and if necessary, ultimately, the highest court--to hear and settle electoral disputes. For example, the most successful post-communist democracies--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--all provide by law for their supreme courts to rule on disputes over the validity of election results. An equivalent provision in the U.S. federal system would explicitly empower state supreme courts to resolve disputes. (Currently, the procedures are unclear and ad hoc.) An even better system, however, would be for each state to create a nonpartisan, standing tribunal, as in Mexico, to be the final arbiter of all electoral disputes.

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