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Deficit in democracy

Print edition : May 20, 2005 T+T-

The fine line of corruption runs across North American political culture, where pre-emptive electoral fraud has become almost normal, even as the West projects to the world Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine as the new symbols of American-made democracy.

ON March 2, United States President George W. Bush visited Anne Arundel Community College in the small eastern coast State of Maryland. In the midst of a discussion on workforce development, Bush reflected on his vision for West Asia: "I look forward to continuing to work with friends and allies to advance freedom, not America's freedom, but universal freedom, freedom granted by a Higher Being." Bush has recently reprised many of the themes from his famous 2003 speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). At the AEI, surrounded by like-minded people, Bush declared: "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region." At Maryland, he has extended that promise to the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and elsewhere are the new symbols of American-made democracy. This is Bush's American lesson.

Meanwhile, the score-card on democracy in the home continent is not looking very good. There is no question of a suspension of the formal accoutrement of democracy. Everyone in North America, from the conservatives of Canada to the socialists of Mexico, is committed to democratic institutions and to the regular enactment of elections. On that there is a widespread consensus. If elections are conducted honestly, they are unpredictable. The 1988 Mexican election is an example of this. Despite its attempt to maintain power, the Mexican establishment (represented by the Party of the Institutionalised Revolution, or PRI) could not elect its chosen candidate, Carlos Salinas. Instead, by the accounts of many impartial observers, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) won the election. Stunned by the result, PRI's apparatus quickly shut down the process and declared their man the President. When PRI finally lost its hold on the presidency to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in 2000, Cardenas won the post of Mayor of Mexico City. PAN's money enabled it to take advantage of popular sentiment against the PRI, whereas Cardenas could only rely upon his populist agenda for votes.

In Mexico, Canada and the U.S., the people will not countenance the suspension of elections, nor will they accept any curtailment of their right to vote. Nevertheless, established political interests are crafty, and they do not need to assault democracy frontally.

To circumvent the popular prejudice toward democracy and elections, politicians from Hudson Bay to Chiapas rely upon at least two strategies. They first raise vast amounts of money from corporate donors, and use this cash to build enormous campaign infrastructures. Money is spent on television advertisements and on crowd production, all to build up a buzz on behalf of the candidate and to create as much negative publicity for the opponents. The politicians, secondly, use all manner of subterfuge to undermine the political rights of the populace, either through the malevolent creation of electoral districts that benefit certain parties or else through the legal system to disenfranchise voters or popular candidates. All these strategies have been on display in recent months in North America as scandals erupt in Mexico City, Austin, and Montreal.

In Canada, a judicial inquiry has revealed details of the Liberal Party's use of public funds to pay off allies and to buy services related to election campaigns. When its support base began to dwindle by the early 1990s, the Liberal Party under Jean Chretien turned to a corrupt strategy to maintain his party's power over Canadian politics. The Liberals, who have ruled Canada for eight decades out of the past century, had relied on Chretien to build up their base in Quebec and in the cities. To do so, the Prime Minister allegedly created a scheme whereby corporations that wanted the state's business had to pay the party's handlers. One man, Jean Brault, an advertising executive in Montreal, told the Court that he received $140.7 million in government business after he paid more than $818,000 to the party. This "sponsoring scandal" has shaken Canada, whose reputation for probity has been severely compromised. John Williams, a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party, made the apposite comparison, "We have seen a money-laundering system that would make Saddam Hussein look proud." If this were not enough, Williams continued, "We have seen corruption at the highest level. Democracy is being threatened here."

If elections are held in Canada, polls show that the Liberals will not get more than a quarter of the votes. This does not mean that people will be excited to vote for the Conservatives, whose own clean record is less a result of their ethical standards and more because of their distance from the seat of power. What the "sponsorship scandal" has done is to weaken the population's already dismal faith in both electoral democracy and in establishment politicians. As Lyn Cockburn put it in her column for the Edmonton Sun, "Try as I might, I can only work up mild annoyance at the thought of corruption in high places. Or perhaps what I'm feeling is surprise that anyone would be surprised that some politicians are dishonest, thieving scoundrels. Or maybe it's fatigue - a certain tiredness at the thought of another election. But no real anger."

Below the Rio Grande, in Mexico City, another scandal erupted just when Jean Brault took his seat for his five days of testimony. The Mexican Parliament, dominated by the conservative PAN, stripped Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of immunity from prosecution. Lopez Obrador, the popular Mayor of Mexico City, and leader of the PRD (created by Cardenas in 1988), is now going to be charged with the violation of a court order. As Mayor, Lopez Obrador ignored the court to build, on private property, an access road to a hospital. This public violation, even if trivial in comparison to the general state of private corruption in the country, will be sufficient to bar Lopez Obrador from participation in the July 2006 presidential contest. In a poll taken after he lost his immunity, Lopez Obrador led with 46.4 per cent of the vote, with his rivals from PAN and PRI able to garner percentages in the mid-teens. Lopez Obrador is the clear front-runner in the next presidential election.

Rather than risk the trauma of 1988 once more, the Mexican establishment has crafted an alternative agenda: pre-electoral fraud. It is far better to use the language of transparency and institutional integrity to strike out the popular adversary before the election rather than try to steal the election as it happens. When the legislature announced the end to Lopez Obrador's end to immunity, Mexico's President Vicente Fox announced that this was "a clear sign of the fortitude of our institutions". The attack on Lopez Obrador comes in isolation. There has been little movement on the crimes of large parts of Mexico's political elite, which remains immune from prosecution for its rule in the drug trade, in extortion rackets, in the massacres of students in 1968 and of Chiapas rebels in 1997. The reaction to the pre-election fraud has been swift, with protests across the country joined with a constitutional challenge mounted by well-known intellectuals and lawyers. If the Canadian scandal has produced little anger, the impeachment of Lopez Obrador has certainly galvanised the country and even lifted his numbers in the polls.

North of Mexico, in the vast state of Texas, another long-term scandal continues to fester. At the centre of this story is the Texas Congressman Tom Delay who is also the Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. The scandal around Delay pales in comparison to the embarrassments of the fiasco during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections (in Florida and Ohio respectively). Voters came to the polls to find that their names had been "scrubbed" from the lists, that roadblocks prevented their access to polling stations in heavily Democratic areas, that machines malfunctioned to the benefit of the Republicans, and what not. Disgruntled election officials, investigative journalists and Democratic Party functionaries retold these tales at an unnoticed, unofficial hearing chaired by Congressman John Conyers. Unwilling to allow the idea of American democracy to be tarnished, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry refused to participate. In his concession speech, he had affirmed the view of the inviolability of American democracy. "In an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans."

Tom Delay did not want to leave it to chance or to sentimentality. He crafted a host of new methods to circumvent the risks of the ballot box. Delay's form of pre-electoral fraud was simple: to redraw the electoral districts so that the advantage would rest with his party for several generations. An astute student of partisan demography, Delay raised money from private corporations for his Texans for a Republican majority as he went about his task of sweeping the State of Texas for his party. That was sufficient to seal the Republican majority in Washington D.C. Currently Texas district attorney Ronnie Earle is in the midst of an investigation into whether Delay used his political organisation to launder corporate money toward the campaigns of his fellow politicians. The House Ethics Committee has already admonished Delay for his use of government resources to force the Texas redistricting plan. As public opinion shifts against Delay, his Republican colleagues have agreed to a formal investigation of his various other shenanigans. However, they will only conduct this investigation under such relaxed ethics rules that in all probability the Congressman will be only scolded.

Montreal, Mexico City, Austin: the fine line of corruption runs across North American political culture, where pre-emptive electoral fraud has become almost normal. But America continues to provide an example of democratic possibilities. Not North America, but South America. From Argentina to Venezuela, the people have ousted oligarchial parties for other visions. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez, and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are instantiations of democratic possibility. In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a long report on South American democracy. In its opening pages, the report noted that democracy is not the static condition of elections, but it is to be built by people. "Freedom did not emerge spontaneously," it notes, but "the dignity of free men and women was achieved in a long and bitter struggle. We need to be critical of our democracy because these memories require that we preserve and improve it." The report also quoted from the UNDP's 2002 Human Development Report to set up the parameters for how democracy should be preserved and improved: "True democratisation is something more than elections. Granting all people formal political equality does not create an equal desire or capacity to participate in political processes - or an equal capacity to influence outcomes. Imbalances in resources and political power often subvert the principle of `one person, one voice' and the purpose of democratic institutions."

The American lessons, contrary to Bush's speech at Maryland, do not seem to come from Washington D.C., but from Caracas and Montevideo, from Quito and Brasilia.