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Letting the people decide

THE TROUBLE WITH elections as a system of democratic choice is that people don't vote right. This is vexing to rulers.

Nonetheless, elections are fashionable, in either form or substance, in more and more countries. This has reached epidemic proportions.

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Elections are supposed to reward governments for good economic performance and punish them for bad, even if their policies had little to do with it.

Not always. On the strength of economic performance, the British Conservative government of John Major and the Irish coalition government of John Bruton were the best their countries had seen and deserved perpetuation.

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On May 1, however, British voters threw out Mr. Major after 18 years of Conservative Party rule for reasons of public and private morals and a powerful faith in the virtue of changing governments.

The Irish had never put Mr. Bruton in, his government having arisen from coalition realignment in 1994 following a scandal. So the voting yesterday was a close and confusing affair, in which Mr. Bruton was not favored.

Parliamentary systems giving the head of government discretion on timing the election have traditionally been used for advantage by governing parties. No more.

President Jacques Chirac of France and Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada called elections early when polls said their parties would do well.

This was high statesmanship, since each planned to use a new mandate to enact politically courageous and unpopular things. The scheme boomeranged in both countries.

President Chirac's center-right coalition lost Sunday. He has had to appoint his nemesis, the Socialist Lionel Jospin, prime minister of a cabinet including two Reds (Communists) and a Green (environmentalist).

In Canada the next day, Mr. Chretien took it on the chin with a reduced majority. He was allowed to creep back into power for want of a credible alternative.

Mr. Chirac's motive had been to make France's economy more " austere to qualify for the "euro" currency by 1999. But the result has convinced financial markets that the day of the euro is postponed.

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Mr. Chretien's idea was to knit Canada closer together in unity. Instead, the parties are more regional and the sectional bitterness worse than ever.

Three countries -- Islamic societies with wildly disparate political realities -- held elections that were neither free nor unfree but somewhere between. Voters were offered real choices, within limits.

In Indonesia, May 29, despite cries of fraud and a regional re-election showing how seriously opponents took it, the great victory for the ruling party was not found credible by foreign observers.

What Iranians did

In Iran, May 23, the presidential candidate favoring relaxation of moral policing by the state was a surprise and overwhelming victor.

Never mind that he had been a pillar of the regime and was approved onto the ballot by the Council of Guardians.

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The outside world wants to see his victory as an opinion poll repudiating the Islamic regime. The president-elect does not.

In Algeria, Thursday, the military-socialist regime, which annulled a victory for the main Islamic party five years ago, allowed a more moderate Islamic party onto the ballot. The winners of five years ago boycotted, and more militant Islamists slit throats of citizens to discourage voting.

Nonetheless, parties of clashing viewpoint vigorously contested the first multi-party election in Algeria since independence in 1962. And the military-socialist-secular president was given a real parliament in which two parties favoring his policies form a majority.

Does that make it legitimate? Will the killing stop?

Sometimes, elections clear up problems. Sometimes, not.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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Pub Date: 6/07/97


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