In New Democracies, Elected Governments May Behave Undemocractically And May Get Removed by Means Other than Elections


Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party openly intended to end Germany's democracy in the 1930s. Bringing anarchy to the streets by violence, it sought power through the ballot.

In that, it was not so different from parties in countries new to democratic practice that are making news today.

In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis did their best in a free vote, 37 percent. They were the biggest party, but in opposition. In November elections, they went down.

Amid the chaos of Germany, President Paul von Hindenburg offered Hitler the office of chancellor (prime minister), heading a mostly non-Nazi coalition designed to tame him, on Jan. 30, 1933.

Hitler immediately used the full power of government to jail enemies and intimidate opposition. He held the next election in March 1933 in a national crisis of his own contrivance. The Nazis won 44 percent of the vote and 288 deputies in a Reichstag of 647. High Nazis said it would be the last German election for 100 years.

Hitler ruled through President Hindenburg's decrees, the device previously used against him. Then, using jail and intimidation, he persuaded the Reichstag on March 24 to pass the Enabling Act, giving him dictatorial powers for four years. Needing a two-thirds vote, it carried by 441 to 94. That was all the mandate Hitler ever needed to impose the totalitarian state. By midsummer all opposition was crushed.

When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state as well as government, Fuehrer und Reichskanzler. What followed was the destruction of neighboring countries, the Holocaust against Jews and others in Europe, World War II and the defeat and dismemberment of Germany.

Clearly, the electorate gave the Nazis the leadership of government. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party transformed Britain on even smaller pluralities of 43.9 percent (1979), 42.4 percent (1983) and 42.3 percent (1987).

Just as clearly, there never was a German public mandate for totalitarianism, for the destruction of the constitution, the suppression of all opposition for all time to come.

In democratic theory, such a thing is never mandated. But even a theory that would not limit the majority would insist on a large majority for the suppression of others. Hitler never had it while people could semi-freely choose.

Anyone who had overthrown Hitler in 1933 (none did) would have repudiated democratic choice but also restored the possibility of democracy.

This is not dead history. The issue is everywhere in the world today. Democracy is on the rise in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Not always by choice. The alternatives -- communism, fascism, militarism -- are falling like flies. Democracy is what's left to try.

But in some countries, parties or leaders having contempt for democracy win power through it. Other leaders come to power (( with democratic intentions, then respond to frustration with progressive dictatorship.

Who should blow the whistle? If someone does -- an army or a conspiracy -- what authority for doing so can they claim?

These are hard, real questions. This is not to compare others to Hitler in his worst respects, only to show the analogy of coming to power through electoral freedom without necessarily tolerating such freedom for rivals.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist Catholic priest and admirer of Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro, was elected president of Haiti by 67 percent of the vote on Dec. 16, 1990.

In office, he reportedly encouraged his followers to murder opponents. He started a 600-man bodyguard force. He might have been excused for not trusting for security to the army, much of which wanted to overthrow him, but was accused of starting his own version of the Duvaliers' Tontons Macoutes thug brigade.

Did he exceed the constitution? Who was to say? Lower ranks of the army, afraid of disemployment, did say, starting the rebellion which officers took over. On Sept. 30, President Aristide was overthrown.

The army says it does not oppose democracy, it only opposes President Aristide. The terms of presidential return, under restraints the exiled leader will accept (such as a Communist prime minister known to the State Department as a moderate compared to the president), are being negotiated. But it is not unlikely that, in a new election, he would do just as well as before. No one elected the army.

If the case against President Aristide for undemocratic behavior is tenuous, that against President Zviad Gamsakhurdia of Georgia is overwhelming.

He was elected president last May by 87 percent of the electorate, virtually double the mandate that Hitler obtained when already in power. Mr. Gamsakhurdia never said he was a democrat. He is a passionate Georgian nationalist who believes in prison for enemies, closure of independent papers and ridding his country of non-Georgians.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia has been kicked out of his country by a bloody uprising of the Georgian National Guard. The crimes of which he is accused, he committed. Yet the people did not throw him out. The battle of Tblisi took many victims, but the combatants were self-appointed battalions loyal or disloyal to clashing personalities within the new elite.

The Georgian people were not asked whether they wanted Mr. Gamsakhurdia overthrown. A rough guess is that the people of Tblisi might, but that the majority of Georgians in the rugged countryside would elect him president all over again, given the opportunity.

In Algeria, the National Liberation Front overthrew French rule and governed without benefit of free popular election since 1962. President Chadli Benjedid came in as a dictator, but was making concessions to democratic ferment.

The people making enough trouble to be appeased with elections, which they won, are Muslim fundamentalists of the Islamic Salvation Front. They denounce the government as ineffective and corrupt. What they share with the FLN, philosophically, is their opposition to democracy. The FLN believes in Marx, the FIS in the Koran and neither shows sympathy to nonbelievers.

In the Dec. 26 election, with a little more than half the eligible electorate voting, the Islamic Salvation Front won 188 seats in the 430-member parliament and were leading in 138 more of 198 that to have been decided in last Thursday's run-off.

"It was the victory of Islam and the defeat of democracy, which is pure atheism," said Abdelkader Moghni, newly elected as a parliamentarian from Algiers.

"Anyone who believes a third party exists is fooling himself," said the FIS leader, Abdelkader Hachani. "There is only the party of God against the party of the devil and bitter struggle is permanent between the two camps."

Small wonder much of the Algerian population was alarmed. French-speaking intellectuals, liberated women, non-observant Muslims, wine-growers and -drinkers demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands. Military advisers to President Benjedid, who would have remained president under the constitution of his devising, counseled for negating the election. He would not, so last weekend, they did.

Presumably the people who want personal freedoms -- freedoms the Islamic Salvation Front would repeal -- say they want democracy. But the partial democracy that Algeria already enjoyed was hard-won by the FIS, as an opposition.

There is one way to limit the tyranny of the majority. It is called a constitution. Some people, who may be no wiser than subsequent governors, draw up rules by which those rulers will be restrained. If the constitution survives after its framers die, they are posthumously accorded a wisdom, even saintliness, denied to political animals in their lifetime.

It is a useful myth. Anyone who has read accounts of the debates of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 knows that the Framers did not believe it of each other.

But a constitution is no better a guarantor of liberties than the observation of it. A scrap of paper, by itself, guarantees nothing. It is sometimes said that Americans have a Constitution they poke holes in (Watergate, Iranscam and the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s), while the British, having no written constitution, abide by it as if they did.

Democracy, in the end, cannot be forced on people. If they are determined not to have it, they won't. Any strong arm preventing an elected autocrat from seizing total power can warn against another Hitler, while acting like one himself.

Would the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) once in power in Algeria ever allow itself to be overthrown by free discussion and vote? If the will of the self-appointed State Security Council prevails, we will not find out.

The FIS is probably anti-democratic, the State Security Council certainly is. The FIS has a popular mandate. The State Security Council has power. For now.

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