Fight to uphold democratic rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am

Democracy is a simple enough concept - in a nutshell, government run by the people. As straightforward as that may seem, it is a principle being too widely ignored by some nations claiming to be democratic.

Disputes over who should govern is why a political crisis is looming in Iraq, the Baltic nation of Ukraine is teetering on the brink of civil war and concerns are growing about the creation of a Palestinian state.

To say that officials could dissipate tensions by referring to the laws of the land would be to ignore the complexities of modern-day politics; personalities, external pressures and other on-the-ground realities often blur simplicity. But that does not mean ignoring the rights of those who count - the people.

Iraq's interim leaders, with the world watching their every step, should be aware of this as they steer their strife-torn nation towards what they claim will be free and fair elections. Yet, they do not appear to be willing to set the example that observers are expecting of them.

A succession of their number have resisted calls in recent days to wait for violence to subside before holding elections, which this month they set for January 30.

At least 10 major political parties and seven other groups have said that as long as instability continues, voters will be unable to safely - and therefore, freely - cast ballots. Several leading parties on Friday urged a postponement of six months.

Most interim leaders were exiles during ousted president Saddam Hussein's rule in countries now forming the backbone of the security forces fighting insurgents. The operation is expensive and despite assurances from those nations' leaders that they are committed to democracy in Iraq, they are eager to see Iraqis governing themselves sooner rather than later.

Palestinians vote on January 9 to elect a president to replace Yasser Arafat, who died on November 11. The iconic leader of the struggle for a Palestinian state did not groom a successor, so concern is high that civil conflict will erupt as disparate groups vie to take the leadership.

Arafat's replacement will determine the future of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel and its ally and main mediator, the United States, refused to deal with Arafat because of the hardline leader's failure to prevent attacks on Israel. Only a successor with moderate views would be acceptable to Israel and the US - a point they have repeatedly told Palestinians.

That aside, it cannot be said that Arafat was a staunch advocate of democracy. His election in 1996 came only because of an agreement with western peace partners. He ignored constitutional obligations to face the electorate, citing his self-called intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation.

Democracy is also at risk in the former Soviet bloc. Many feared corruption would mar polls yesterday in Romania.

Vote-rigging is claimed by foreign observers and opposition leaders to have been widespread during polls in Ukraine eight days ago to choose a successor to outgoing president Leonid Kuchma. The election commission's declaration of Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as the winner was greeted by mass protests by supporters of his challenger, Viktor Yushchenko. A Supreme Court ruling is due today on the commission's declaration.

Voting fraud is a hallmark of corrupt regimes and governments professing themselves to be part of the world community have an obligation to stamp it out. Electoral fairness must similarly be high in the minds of Iraqi and Palestinian election officials and foreign governments keenly awaiting an outcome.

If democracy is to flourish, it must be available to all people of voting age in circumstances that allow their views to be properly expressed and enacted upon.

To do otherwise is to make a mockery of what the majority of the world's people have fought so hard to attain.