Friday, December 28, 2007

The Road to Democracy: Bhutto, Yeltsin and Violence

It is not a good topic for a blog-post before New Year Eve: Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on the 27th.

Even though I don't follow Pakistani politics and don't feel emotionally attached to that country as much as to Russia, the sheer bloodiness of the assassination was more than shocking.

This tragedy instantly brought me to one theme that I have been thinking for a while. "Is there a democratic way to democracy?" Karl Polanyi has famously put forward his answer to a similar question: "There is no market road to market." Both democracy and market, in an idealistic sense, function as a conflict resolution mechanism. For the former, as I recently learned from my friend Tianyang's blog, a functioning democracy would ensure that "somebody will win, somebody will lose; but nobody will die." For the latter, "market" in an econ-textbook would (usually implicitly) assume the dominance of transactions based on mutual consensus, hence the inherent conflict-free features of a market economy.

Unfortunately, these desirable end-points do not provide a road map by themselves. Just as what Marx implied in his "capitalist primitive accumulation" thesis, the more I read different stories of the so-called democratic transition, the more I tend to believe that the road to democracy itself tends to rely on a certain stalemate between different groups who control means of coercion, since the ultimate "bargaining power" depends on one's control of means of coercion/violence. Therefore, the road to democracy can't be be "democratic" if by that one means peaceful negotiation. Even for those few cases of peaceful transitions to democracy, I doubt that without a certain military backup, that kind of peaceful transition was possible.

The most dramatic event in post-Soviet Russia is probably the 1993 constitutional crisis, where Boris Yeltsin, the "liberal-democrat" then championed by all western powers, forced the capitulation of a conservative parliament by bombing the Russian "White House". Those so-called hardliners who controlled the parliament building had harshly criticized the ultra-legal dismissal of parliament by Yeltsin and insisted that what they did at that time was for a genuine people's democracy. For better or worse, it was the guns, cannons, and tanks that finally solved the confrontation (one may say for the time being). The costs are a casualty of more than 200, a Moscow on the verge of civil war, and most important of all, a long shadow of illegitimacy over the resulting 1993 Constitution. To those who do not want to rely on violence at all, this case illustrates quite well the dilemma in initiating a democratic system.

In Bhutto's case, since the murders didn't even care about their own life, let only others' life , and were willing to die for their cause, how much can we expect from a peaceful negotiation, be it about democracy or market? (Potential) losers who are not afraid of bloodshed can always count on violence/coercion to totally rock the game. Then, forget about the good manner on the negotiation table.

This is a rather pessimistic view, I know.

The following are some pictures that I took early this year at the site of barricade of White House. They were set up in memory of those who died in the 1993 crisis.

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