Cheers for democracy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 1998, 12:00am

Democracy was once famously described as the worst form of government except for all the rest, but, despite its shortcomings nothing equals the calming effect of a genuine election at a time of political or economic turmoil.

One election has followed another in recent days, some in unstable countries. The political turnabout in Nigeria after the death of General Abacha is perhaps most remarkable. Nigerians voted on Sunday to elect local government officers in the first ballot before a promised transition to democratic government in May.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, came a landslide victory for former colonel Hugo Chavez, who gained from the ballot box what he failed to secure by a bloody coup attempt in 1992. The fact that both nations have chosen the democratic path does not mean their troubles are over. In each case, the country faces an economic disaster in a factionally divided nation.

It will take exceptional skills to unify the people and rebuild the systems, and there is no guarantee the ballot box can provide politicians capable of either.

Mr Chavez is an enigmatic character, praised as a potential saviour of the poor or vilified as a potential fascist. Little is known of Nigeria's new ruler, though he appears genuinely committed to constitutional change. But it is the system, rather than the people in power, which holds the promise of stability.

When governments are underpinned by democratic institutions there is a continuum which encourages moderation and tolerance. That was apparent in Taiwan, where voters avoided the reunification issue and stuck to the status quo for the time being. It was evident in Russia where, in elections in St Petersburg, the assassination of a determined reformer greatly increased the liberal vote.

Elections in Indonesia could clean the slate there, start to heal the wounds, and move the country beyond the years of authoritarian rule. There may be false starts, but when there is choice, and people trust the system, the prospects of progress are markedly enhanced.