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Exceptional Democracy

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Americans, in general, like to believe in the concept of "American Exceptionalism." This doctrine can be summed up as: "We're the best damn country on the planet, wouldn't the rest of you lesser countries agree?" But to me, what is telling is that whenever nascent democratic forms of government develop in other places in the world (born through the ravages of war, popular revolt, simple modernization, or any of a number of other reasons) and the people affected have the opportunity to select what form their new democracies shall take; they almost without exception (pun intended) choose some form of the British parliamentary system, rather than American-style representative democracy.

The reasons most fledgling democratic governments choose parliamentary systems rather than our presidential/congressional system are likely as varied as the countries in which they develop. But I'm guessing there are two differences in the British system that are more attractive to new countries than what the American system has to offer. Both of these, in a tangential way, have recently been in the news.

The first comes from Britain itself -- the announcement that national elections are about to take place. Now, for Americans, this announcement is unusual in and of itself, because our elections take place on a very rigid calendar-based schedule. Every House member is elected once every two years, every Senate member is elected every six years, and presidential elections happen, like clockwork, every four years. These happen on the first Tuesday in November, (which is really a holdover from when America was largely a rural nation, and the fastest form of transportation was a good horse). Anyone elected in early November has a leisurely few months to get to Washington to start their new job.

But knowing the date when the election will be means that while the end of the election season is set in stone, the beginning is flexible. And, election cycle after election cycle, it keeps getting pushed back further and further, until it will (in the near future) become almost mandatory for presidential hopefuls to move to Iowa (to prepare for their run) about one week after a new president is sworn in. Even in Congress, honest politicians decry the "permanent election" mentality which causes them to spend more time raising money for the next go-round than actually doing the job they've been sent to Washington to do.

Which brings us back to Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown just announced that a national election will be held April 6 -- less than one month from now. The entire election season for a national election (the equivalent here would be a presidential election year) will be, as usual, exactly one month long. Which is a big difference from the American system, as anyone will tell you who has ever gotten tired of the flood of political television attack ads so common in America. Rather than spending over a year deciding who will run their country, the Brits get the whole thing over with inside of one month, from candidate announcements to ballot box. Prime Ministers do have a deadline (of five years) for each term in office, and within this period they must hold another election. So there is a ticking clock on them, too, but the difference is that they get to choose the timing of the election within this period. Of course, they always try to run an election when the mood of the electorate favors their party, but no matter when it is called, the whole process takes place with blinding speed (at least, as seen through American eyes).

The British can manage to do this due to a few other reasons why their system of democracy is different. The first being that they don't actually directly elect their Prime Ministers, the way Americans (kind of) directly elect our presidents. The political parties, after the election is over, decide who will be their leader (the party that wins biggest gets to lead the country is the basic idea, but more on that in a moment), and he or she becomes Prime Minister as a result. In America, this would have likely meant President Nancy Pelosi the last time around, or perhaps President Hillary Clinton (depending on which one more congressional Democrats favored). A "backbencher" (or a politician without much seniority) such as Barack Obama never would have even been considered (Hillary was somewhat of a backbencher herself, I should mention, but she had her own certain star power, due to obvious reasons). Americans, of course, like our system better, where we choose not only our local representatives in the legislature, but also our country's chief executive. But then, to be fair, we don't have the added complication of the royalty confusing the executive concept.

The second reason the British can hold elections at what seems like light speed is that they don't have the concept of a "primary" election. In Britain, the parties choose the candidates. To become a party candidate, you have to convince the party machinery and bigwigs that you are worthy -- instead of your party's voters. While this seems like a closed system and inherently less democratic than the American system, you've got to admit that it certainly does save time on the election calendar.

But even this drawback is mitigated by one other big reason a parliamentary system differs from the American system. Parliamentary elections are much friendlier to third (or fourth, or fifth) parties, meaning they can wind up (even without holding primaries) with more candidates on the ballot than we get a choice of here in America. And, as a result, more parties are represented in their parliament after the elections. The Italian Parliament, for instance, recently had more than 70 parties represented. Think about that for a minute. Now, obviously, the Italians went a bit overboard, but even in Britain (whose proportional representation system I am somewhat oversimplifying here, I admit) the main two political parties (Labour and Conservative) don't always get an outright majority in Parliament after an election, and thus have to make deals with smaller third parties in order to "form a government" (read: "make a political alliance") so that their coalition does add up to a parliamentary majority. These deals are cut with the smaller parties by offering them the chance to fill high government offices (in America, the equivalent would probably be Cabinet secretaries), so perhaps they might wind up with a Green being in charge of their equivalent of the E.P.A., or some such. But this can set up the same situation as the American Congress faces, where the ruling party can have its agenda derailed by the actions of a small faction (see: Blue Dog Democrat, for instance). This difference is pronounced in the British system, since losing a "vote of confidence" can force a national election, as well.

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the second story in the news recently about democracy. Iraqi militant leader Muqtada Al-Sadr (or, perhaps, optimistically, "former militant leader," assuming he won't return to his past violent ways) just did a stunning thing, and few in America even took notice -- even those that should have (to bolster their arguments about the possible future of Iraq).

Iraq just had a national election. Once again, when deciding what type of democracy to have in their country, Iraq chose the parliamentary system (this happened years ago, I should mention). In the national election they just held, their two biggest parties came very close to each other -- Bush/Gore close. The party led by the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki lost by a sliver, giving them 89 seats in the new Parliament, to 91 seats for the challengers. But the Iraqi Parliament has a whopping 325 seats. Meaning, to hold a majority, you need a minimum of 163 seats -- far more than each of the biggest two parties actually got.

Which means these two parties are now scrambling to put together a winning coalition with all of the various smaller Iraqi political parties. Whichever major party can do so first, wins control and the Prime Ministership. One of the key smaller parties is the Kurds, who likely will be bought off with a deal which settles their claims on Kirkuk. But the real news is that one of the biggest third parties in Iraq is run by Muqtada Al-Sadr, and his faction (likely because he explicitly told them, just prior to the election, not to boycott it this time around) just gained ten more seats, for a total of 39 seats -- quite a big bloc of votes.

And Al-Sadr, who was once the most feared militia leader in the country not so long ago, faced with the choice of which major party to back, did an extraordinary thing: he called his own "election" among his supporters. They all, last weekend, got to vote on what Al-Sadr's party should do. Faced with a choice, the hopefully-ex-militia leader chose more democracy to show him the way.

As I said, this is truly stunning, and I wonder why it didn't get more media play. Because the only way any civil war or guerrilla war can transition to a lasting peace is when the leaders of the armed groups realize that politics is a more productive way to solve their differences than killing each other. Al-Sadr seems to have taken a giant step in this direction, not only by encouraging his followers to participate in the national election, but by holding a sort of "primary election" among his party afterwards, to decide what direction to take. He says that he retains the right to actually decide what to do (the poll isn't "binding" on him in any way, in other words), but even the fact that he would give his followers a say in the decision is certainly a positive sign for the future of democracy in Iraq.

I'm not trying to make too much chowder out of one oyster here, I should mention. Iraq is still in a very fragile state, and it has been suggested that this whole "poll" was a face-saving sham. From a Washington Post article today:

Al-Sadr's spokesman Salah al-Obeidi announced the results of the poll but left open whether al-Sadr would follow the guidance of his supporters in the course of future negotiations, which are expected to take months, saying that "each event has its own way."

The poll of al-Sadr's supporters was widely viewed as a way for the cleric to give himself the opportunity to back someone other than al-Maliki, under the guise of following the people's will.

In other words, the whole thing may have been a public relations stunt. But, even so, isn't that a rather positive sign in and of itself? One might even say that, although Iraq chose a more British-style parliamentary system rather than the American system for their new governmental structure, their system still retains a definite flavor of American-style hucksterism within it.

Iraq still has a long way to go before it can truly be a democracy that endures. The threat of widespread violence is still very near at hand. But I still wonder at times why countries like Iraq, who get to set up a new democratic form of government from scratch, almost invariably -- even when they do so as a direct result of an American invasion -- choose the parliamentary system. If America is truly supposed to be exceptional in all things, why do other countries -- almost without exception -- decide our governmental structure isn't really for them, when it comes time to choose?

Again, not to over-generalize, but I would venture to guess that a large part of such decisions are made because the parliamentary system is inherently much more open to minority parties getting much better representation than third parties do in the American system. And, while doubtlessly a lesser reason than minority representation, the choice between the absolute spectacle of American election season versus a single month spent campaigning seems like it also might have a degree of influence in such a decision.

The sincerest form of flattery, it has been said, is imitation. But what could be considered "unflattering" (by the same reasoning) is the fact that if our American system of government is so gosh-darned exceptional, why do newborn democracies almost always reject it in favor of the system we ourselves rejected over two centuries ago?

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
ChrisWeigant.com

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