Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Futile Search for the Enlightened Despot

Upon hearing the news that Hamas had won a majority of the votes in Palestine, I just shrugged. Anybody who makes the effort in getting to know the priorities of Palestinians and their worship of Islamic martyrs with their deep hatred of Israel would predict that the terrorist party of Hamas best reflects the values of most Palestinians at the moment. It is obvious that the outcome of the vote was not the kind wished for by Israel or the Western world, in particular when the U.S. which is seen as the main broker for the peace in the Middle East. Such a vote for the fundamentalist party at first appears to be a repudiation of the policy for more democratization in the Middle East. John McIntyre at Real Clear Politics (one of the best web-based political analysis on the web) points out that the policy of democratization of a country that has been oppressed for a long period of time carries an inherent risk: that of voting for the ‘bad guys’. He explains:

Today’s Hamas victory is one of the problems in President Bush’s policy to push democracy as the answer to the problems in the Mideast. What happens when the really bad guys win? It’s just a tad bit hypocritical to push democracy and elections, and then when you get results you don’t like say we don’t recognize your government.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily arguing that we should recognize Hamas, only pointing out one of the serious flaws in preaching democracy as a cure all.

This critique of the policy of democratization is commonly held by the realists, who emphasize the value of power and stability over the promotion of philosophical ideals held by the Democratic Idealists. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I am far too mindful of the common humanity of all people to desire a stable resolution to an unsolved conflict which denies individuals to live in freedom. The will to express oneself openly and make one’s own decisions is to my own na├»ve mind a universal longing, and any measure taken to bring people towards such freedoms is therefore good.

And still, I realize that in many situations, democratization is far less preferable than enlightened despotism. I agree with many political scientists that often democracy should be an end rather than a means: that is, a society must develop solid institutions based on the rule of law, economic prosperity, and a subsequent middle class before democratic rights and practices can be achieved. An enlightened despot seems to be the answer for leading a traditional authoritarian society towards the proper path by emphasizing judicial independence and dynamic economic growth. Such has been the path of successful democracies like Chile, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s first and longest serving Prime Minister, was probably by far the most enlightened despot the world will ever know, virtually prohibiting political opposition yet ensuring the rapid rise in economic influence of what was once a British colonial backwater. The same route is hoped for with the People’s Republic of China, as its leaders look to Singapore for clues on how to maintain authoritarian political control while benefiting its citizens through the free market.

The problem with the strategy of setting up the groundwork for democracy to thrive on later is that necessary enlightened despots are sorely lacking in the world. For every Lee Kwan Yew there are thousands of Idi Amins and Saddams. From my cynical point of view, human nature is so fallible as to favor the emergence of depraved tyrants over enlightened despots. Power and influence seduce many seemingly rational people into structuring society to serve for the despot’s private gain. That was the major defect in the dominant cold war policy of supporting anti-communist dictators: it was often likely that America’s ally in a third-world country had no interest in honestly setting forth a social evolution towards a democratic civil culture. Failing to instill this kind of change will predictably lead to political and social chaos after the passing of the despot, with civil wars and the most committed (often the most extremist) factions taking control to embark on the next regime of oppressive rule.

I find that the Palestinians are in a situation that is all too familiar. After decades rule by a despot in the figure of Yasser Arafat, a man who failed to establish a deeply entrenched civic society, most Palestinian voters have little inclination towards government run by moderate values and a desire to actually live in peace with their neighbors. Arafat purposely allowed hatred to fester among his people, for order and social services to be left to groups outside the state’s capacity. Hamas’ platform at first glance seems to resemble that of Arafat’s Fatah, only that the later doesn’t openly admit its real intentions internationally and has succumbed to corruption after decades of uninterrupted rule. Yet Hamas cleverly took on the responsibilities of providing valuable social services and a code of social order through its strict practice of Shariah, and thus managed to succeed in the ballot box, much like their cohorts in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. Democratic elections taking place in a messy political void often yield undesirable results.

However undesirable such results may be, I take the view that democracy accelerates a much-needed self-appraisal of a failing society. Hamas is now put a in a position of government and will have to adjust to the responsibilities of a sovereign state. The voters who put them in power now are responsible for their own political choices. Before they absolved themselves of any responsibility as they could easily blame the supposedly unjust actions of the Israelis or the unceasing corruption of the Fatah party. Now every failure to improve the current lot of Palestinians will rest on the ruling party, and I predict that Hamas will lose its legitimacy once it becomes evident that a policy driven by the destruction of Israel is no viable substitute in restoring order and economic prosperity in Palestine. Then will the reevaluation of what actually afflicts Palestinians follow.

It is well worth noting that this recent election fulfills one of the major milestones towards a stable democracy, in the peaceful transfer of power between the incumbent party and the opposition. No coup, no evidence of obvious rigging and no bloodshed is a testament to the salient power of democracy in helping to resolve issues that could not be brought to a head by dictatorships.

This post explains the potential silver lining to the Hamas victory.

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