Democratic elections can’t do miracles

Several weeks ago, the Chinese-language Global Times drew widespread opprobrium on Chinese social media for an opinion piece arguing that the Chinese people should accept a “moderate level of corruption,” understanding that the country requires an attenuated period of gradual reform in which some corruption will be inevitable. CMP fellow Yang Hengjun (杨恒均), a former foreign ministry official, offered a rebuttal to that Global Times piece here.

Yesterday, the Global Times again stepped directly into online controversy by running a piece by Zheng Ruolin (郑若麟), the European correspondent for Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao, arguing that China is already “in the orbit of democratic nations.” Zheng argued essentially that while “a number of scholars” have completely overblown the role of elections in democracies, elevating elections to a kind of holy standard, elections are not the be all and the end all.

Fair enough?

What Zheng does not address is who exactly these “scholars” are who have simplistically cast elections as the international democratic gold standard. He sets up a fanatical straw man, which he then proceeds to knock down:

Former French Prime Minister Raffarin once said: “Elections cannot sweep away all of our problems.” Elections cannot erase France’s 1.71 trillion Euro debt. Elections cannot change France’s less than one percent annual GDP growth rate. Elections cannot lower France’s unemployment rate of close to 10 percent.

Yes, Zheng is certainly right. Elections can’t make my breakfast either. But who in the West, or anywhere I wonder, has ever argued such absurdities?


[ABOVE: Wenhui Bao correspondent Zheng Ruolin, author of yesterday's Global Times piece, appears on a French talk show.]

Global Times editorials are often a treasure trove of grade-school fallacies. But here, at any rate, is another clip for the political reform file ahead of the 18th Party Congress.

Enjoy.

China Long Ago Entered the Orbit of Democracy” (中国早已进入民主国家的范畴)
Zheng Ruolin (郑若麟)
June 20, 2012

Democracy has been broadly accepted [as an idea]. This is a fact. The core of democracy is “rule of the people, by the people” (以民执政、为民执政). But as there is no way for the people to govern directly, a system of representation become the only option. The way for representative government to emerge is then through elections. But in recent years, a number of scholars have overblown the role of “elections”. “Elections” have been dissimilated into a standard against which moral judgements are made about political legitimacy. This is absurd, and it is dangerous.

Consciously or unconsciously, the question of whether there are elections or not, particularly elections that the West has accepted as legitimate, has been applied as the only standard by which as country is judged to be democratic or not — which, moreover, constitutes a “moral” standard. Political power emerging through elections is democratic, and that which is not is autocratic (专制的). Thereupon, elections are the be all and the end all. National development owes to elections. Everything is good about a country with elections. One election erases a hundred blemishes. If social unrest occurs in a country where there are elections, this is because “elections are not sufficiently free.” If an economic crisis occurs, that is because “elections were not thorough enough.” If crimes occur [within the elected government], if corruption occurs, that is because “elections are not yet sufficiently fair.”

It seems that, beneath this absolutely correct thing that is democracy, these scholars also have an omnipotent thing called the election!

But history has already proven that elective systems are little more than a way for national leaders to emerge. As for any other problem that a country faces, elections are powerless to solve them. Presidential and parliamentary elections recently held in France offer us an enlightening example.

After these two important elections were concluded, a new president emerged in France, along with a new government and a new parliament. Everything changed hands, on both the executive and the legislative sides. These two elections were perhaps as thorough as the French Revolution. And still, aside from a number of details and limited changes — for example, a temporary 30 percent drop in remuneration for the president and his cabinet, a minimum wage increase of .46 Euros per hour, allowing 18 year olds to work, and those of age 60 working for 41 consecutive years to retire — on critical problems facing the country, the elections could not possibly give [President] Hollande a magic wand. Former French Prime Minister Raffarin once said: “Elections cannot sweep away all of our problems.”

Elections cannot erase France’s 1.71 trillion Euro debt. Elections cannot change France’s less than one percent annual GDP growth rate. Elections cannot lower France’s unemployment rate of close to 10 percent. Even less can elections fix the underlying cause of all of these problems — the fact that the “fictitious economy” that financial capital “created” hollowed out the real economy of industrial capitalism.

Nor can elections ensure that a good leader is selected. They can only ensure that a good candidate is selected. Western democracy has already been twisted into “election dissimilation.” Everything revolves around the election. The importance of election capacity far surpasses governing capacity. Hollande is a clear example of this. What makes Western scholars even more anxious is that domestic electorates are the core of elections, but what France and Western countries face are difficulties stemming from globalization. This contradiction has left a gap that is difficult to cross between elections and governing of the country. In this sense, elections have even obstructed the painful reforms that countries need in order to accommodate the global economy. Because voters are opposed [to these reforms]. Therefore, Sarkozy, who carried out some 931 different reforms, was elected out of office.

Some people believe that the most important advantage of elections is that they can keep tyrants from coming to power. Perhaps. But how should we understand the words of University of Paris philosophy professor Rang Salaimu (?), who writes in his book Elections: A Trap for Fools?: “Why would the people of Germany elect Hitler to power? Because what is the majority is not necessarily right!” [NOTE: I could not find the name of the French professor whose name directly rendered in pinyin would be Rang Salaimu (让·撒莱姆), but "Elections: A Trap for Fools" is a political essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre and published in the 1970s. More here.]

Of course, what must be criticized is not the election itself, but the fantasy that “elections are everything” or that “elections can solve everything.” Elections cannot solve the problem of corruption. They cannot solve the problem of high housing cost. They cannot solve the problem of traffic accidents on the expressway. . .

Elections can only help the ruling class find a mantle of legitimacy, and give those who are ruled the feeling of “freedom”, the idea that “my rulers were chosen by me.” This feeling is an extremely important one, and the reason why those who are ruled sometimes accept what can in some cases be extremely unfair rule or rulers. This is one of the important reasons why countries with elections are generally stable.

Therefore, the day will come when we too select our leaders through an elective process. It’s just that before that time we first need to resolve other issues that elections cannot address.

Elections are just the final attribute emerging from democracy, but they are not the principle attribute. Nor are they the ultimate goal of democracy. Once a countries leaders do not come to power by hereditary right, and once they must [as in the case of China] leave office after a set term, then this country is not only already a republic, it has entered the orbit of democratic systems. Because only under a democratic system will leaders leave their positions because their terms have expired. The lowest attribute of democracy is the way that leaders leave office. If we see how leaders come to office as the chief sign of whether or not there is democracy, well then how do we understand the fact that Mubarak [of Egypt] and Ben Ali [of Tunisia], who are continually elected and served in office, were overthrown?

And so, if that Western election standard is applied as determine whether or not [a country is democratic], then China is not a democratic country. But in fact, China already long ago entered the orbit of democratic countries.

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