Who Should Be Allowed to Participate in Democracy?
In a New York Times op-ed, Friday, Tzipi Livni, former Iraeli minister of foreign affairs and current leader of the Kadima party, picks up on President Obama’s speech in which he addressed the prospects that entities like Hezbollah and Hamas participate in and win democratic elections.
Livni is not merely reinterpreting Obama’s principles. She seems to be laying down conditions for electoral participation that few if any political parties could meet, either in Israel or America, let alone in Lebanon or Palestine.
In his Cairo speech, Obama spoke of what’s expected of democratically elected governments, but he did not impose strict conditions on electoral participation. First, on Hamas/Palestine:
Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
And on democracy generally, Obama sends a message to Hezbollah:
And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
In Livni’s view, the principle becomes this:
Many have called for the elections to be free and fair. But few have asked whether this is even possible if Hezbollah — the radical Shiite party with a huge arsenal and a deeply anti-democratic agenda — is viewed as a legitimate participant in the process.
A similar question arose before Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. Then, as Israeli justice minister, I tried in vain to persuade the international community that to promote democracy it was not enough to focus on the technical conduct of elections, it was necessary to insist that those who sought the benefits of the democratic process accepted its underlying principles as well. . . .
I believe that democracy is about values before it is about voting. These values must be nurtured within society and integrated into the electoral process itself. We cannot offer international legitimacy for radical groups and then simply hope that elections and governance will take care of the rest. In fact, the capacity to influence radical groups can diminish significantly once they are viewed as indispensable coalition partners and are able to intimidate the electorate with the authority of the state behind them.
For this reason, the international community must adopt at the global level what true democracies apply at the national one — a universal code for participation in democratic elections. This would include requiring every party running for office to renounce violence, pursue its aims by peaceful means and commit to binding laws and international agreements. This code should be adopted by international institutions, like the United Nations, as well as regional bodies. It would guide elections monitors and individual nations in deciding whether to accord parties the stamp of democratic legitimacy, and signal to voters that electing an undemocratic party would have negative international consequences for their country.
This seems an appealing principle, but I don’t see how this view gets applied. If we were to apply Livni’s principles uniformly, then neither of the two parties in the United States, including the current Administration, would qualify, since it’s clear that both parties and the Administration consistently support violence in the form of unilateral military action in multiple foreign countries as a legitimate element of foreign policy. No major political party or politician in the US believes the US should "renounce violence, pursue its aims by peaceful means and commit to binding laws and international agreements."
Nor would any of the major Israeli parties, including the current government, meet this condition. Most support the use of state-sanctioned violence — military intervention — in Lebanon and/or Gaza, and the use of military protection to shield settlements on the West Bank, to achieve their political goals.
Of course, all of these state actors insist the resort to violence and military force is legitimate in the name of self-defense — a principle universally recognized — so that doesn’t count. But they also insist that non-state actors — whose non-state status is often imposed by state actors using violence — do not have this recognized right of self defense.
If that’s how we define the problem, then I don’t see how Livni has advanced the conversation; instead, she’s highlighted, even exemplified, the problem that has to be solved. And it’s not just her; it’s all of us.