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The Limits of Democracy

The election of the militant and hitherto extra-parliamentary group Hamas in the Palestinian territories reminds us of what democracy cannot achieve. No one in a more established democratic state is surprised if one’s own side does not win. Democracy is about competing parties, and, unless they form a “grand coalition,” they cannot all win. But what if an election’s winners have no intention of abiding by the rules that are part and parcel of the democratic process?

One remembers Hitler, who, while his own party did not quite get 50% of the vote, could base his “seizure of power” on a parliamentary majority. More recently, elections in the post-communist countries of Europe have brought groups to power whose democratic credentials are dubious, to say the least.

This is not to compare Hamas to any of these political forces. Nevertheless, one must wonder about a winning movement with quite a few elected members in Israeli prisons and others who are not likely to get permission to enter the country in which they were elected, so that the new parliament cannot function properly.

All of this tells us three things about democracy.