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Elections are Not Enough

There can be no liberal order without political democracy, but today we are frequently reminded that political democracy alone does not guarantee a liberal order. Free and fair elections may lead to the ascendancy of a president of Iran who wants to “wipe Israel off the map of the Middle East.” Or to a president of Venezuela whose intolerance of the business class causes jubilation in the streets, but emigration by those whose initiative is crucial for the welfare of the people. Less damaging, yet problematic, is the election – as in Poland – of a minority government that ruthlessly pursues its members’ personal interests and breaks all promises of cooperation made before the polls.

In other words, elections are not enough if one wants to bring democracy to the world. Elections can lead to illiberal democracies and worse. They must be embedded in a much more complex institutional framework, which I would describe as the liberal order.

The first feature of the liberal order is that democracies must not tolerate those who set out to destroy democracy. Some countries, like Germany, have laws that make it possible to ban political parties whose programs are recognizably anti-democratic. In the past, the law has been used to curb parties of both the extreme left and the extreme right. This has clearly contributed to preventing any sign of a possible return to the totalitarian ways of the twentieth century.

However, it is not always evident when people and parties stand for election what they are going to do if they win. This is where rules that impose term limits on officeholders, such as the Twenty-Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, have their place. Many constitutions contain such a rule, and even President Vladimir Putin of Russia has stated that he will abide by it.