WASHINGTON -- Real democracy has many prerequisites to the ballot - a free press, multiple centers of legitimate power (religious institutions, labor unions, local councils, regional governments), an informed electorate and societal tolerance of dissenting views are but a few of the most important.
The Bush administration, unfortunately, has had a tendency to characterize every country or entity that holds a vote a "democracy" and anything that results from balloting "democratic." We are beginning to see the problem this position engenders.
The chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly has gone to Egypt to discuss postponing the Jan. 25 Palestinian legislative elections. While claiming the problem is Israel's decision not to let East Jerusalem Arabs vote, the real reason appears to be the likelihood of victory in the election by the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction.
Mr. Abbas' ruling Fatah party is corrupt, unpopular among Palestinians and internally fractured and thus likely to lose. Hamas, which has won elections in several West Bank cities this year, has been listed by the United States and Europe as a terrorist organization.
There is irony in the sight of a semi-reformed terrorist meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a dictator for life, to air his fears that non-semi-reformed terrorists will depose him and carry out the terrorist agenda more efficiently.
Egypt's autumn parliamentary election was marginally more open than previous referenda. Opposition candidates were permitted to run, but without enough time to organize or present their views to voters, with little access to TV or radio in the state-run system and little coverage in the newspapers. The only nongovernment party with any organizational or vote-getting capability was the Muslim Brotherhood.
And since Mr. Mubarak likes to threaten the United States that the only alternative to his continued rule would be Islamic extremists of the worst sort, the election appears to have involved a tacit understanding between the Egyptian leader and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While it was clear that the Islamists would gain a number of seats by running as non-party candidates - perhaps enough to frighten the United States with the tide of the rising Muslim Brotherhood - Mr. Mubarak never was in danger of losing his parliamentary majority. In fact, when the brotherhood appeared to be making gains beyond Mr. Mubarak's expectations, he called out the army to beat and harass voters and candidates.
In the Palestinian case, it is unclear why the United States ever accepted Mr. Abbas as a legitimate interlocutor since Mr. Bush had previously, and rightly, called for the Palestinians to elect "new leadership untainted by terror." Mr. Abbas, a founding member of Fatah and a deputy to Yasser Arafat, is anything but untainted by terror.
Worse is how the United States accepted Hamas as a legitimate participant in the elections while insisting it will not deal with a Hamas government if it wins the elections. Hamas is an open, avowed terrorist organization, dedicated to the destruction of a U.S. ally and member of the United Nations.
The United States should not have divorced itself from determining what constitutes a legitimate political party in the Palestinian elections.
Washington has been involved in everything about Palestinian self-rule, from internal politics to negotiations with Israel and finances. Why not the elections?
Given the current candidates and their platforms, the United States had the option of not certifying the election as meeting U.S. standards and withholding aid and recognition in advance.
At this point, those with any hope of seeing democracy take hold among the Palestinians should be rooting for Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mubarak to agree on postponing the sham vote scheduled for Jan. 25. Hamas would be denied power and the United States would be spared the immediate consequences of its indiscriminate approbation of nondemocratic elections. All concerned might use the time to reflect on better models.
Such as Iraq.
In Iraq, it has become clear that most of the voters chose the parties of people most like themselves to represent their interests in Baghdad - Shiites voted Shiite and Sunnis voted Sunni. That non-religious, non-ethnic-based parties fared less well has been called a failure of democracy. But all of the parties are at least nominally committed to the political settlement of differences - a huge step toward consensual government that might, in time, with proper nurturing, lead to real democracy.
Less can be said of the others.
Shoshana Bryen is director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Her e-mail is email@example.com.