Democracy may have been promoted as the best of all political systems, but it has long been a rare form of actual government. It is difficult for any regime entirely to live up to the democratic ideal that the strong should treat the weak well and that any abuse of power should be genuinely and unreservedly condemned.
There are five necessary criteria: open elections; the existence of an organised, free political opposition; acceptance of the principle that power can change hands; the existence of an independent judicial system; and media freedom. Even democratic states that might claim to meet all these, such as France or Britain, for a long time denied women the right to vote and disregarded the rights of their colonial subjects.
Despite such difficulties, democracy has become almost universal, initially in the United States during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), and then widely after the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of history was proclaimed, on the grounds that there was no longer anything to prevent all nations one day attaining the twin holy grails of a market economy and representative democracy.
But those goals have turned into indisputable dogmas, allowing President George Bush to legitimise military action in Iraq and the use of torture in secret prisons on foreign soil, and to justify the illegal treatment of prisoners in GuantÃ¡namo Bay, condemned by a United Nations Commission on Human Rights report and a European parliament resolution.
Despite these serious breaches, the US has no qualms about setting itself up as the global arbiter of democratic observance. The Bush administration is in the habit of branding opponents as undemocratic, or even as rogue states and outposts of tyranny. The only way to change is to organise free elections.
But with those free elections everything depends upon the outcome. Hugo ChÃ¡vez has been elected president of Venezuela several times since 1998, under democratic criteria guaranteed by international observers, and will submit again to the ballot in December 2006. Much good may it do him. The US, which sponsored a failed coup in April 2002, continues to attack him, calling him a danger to democracy.
Iran, Palestine and Haiti demonstrate that it is no longer enough to be democratically elected. The Iranian election of June 2005 met with worldwide approval. A massive voter turnout was able to choose between candidates representing a wide range of different opinions within the framework of official Islamism. The Westâ€™s favoured candidate, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, fought a brilliant campaign and was expected to win. Nobody mentioned a nuclear threat. But everything changed abruptly after the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has made a series of unacceptable pronouncements about Israel.
Iran is being swiftly demonised. Although it has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and denies any military nuclear ambitions, Franceâ€™s foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, recently accused it of pursuing a â€œsecret military nuclear programmeâ€ (1). The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has already forgotten last yearâ€™s election and has asked Congress for $75m to promote democracy in Iran.
Much the same has happened in Palestine. The US and the European Union insisted upon genuinely democratic elections monitored by an army of foreign observers, only to reject the result on the grounds that they donâ€™t like the winners, the Islamo-nationalist Hamas movement, which has been responsible in the past for attacks on Israeli civilians.
In Haiti the international community was desperate to prevent the election of RenÃ© PrÃ©val because of his association with the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, democratically elected but overthrown in 2004. But despite their best efforts, PrÃ©val was elected president on 7 February.
Winston Churchill said that â€œdemocracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to timeâ€. What seems to upset people now is their inability to predetermine the result of an election. If only democracies could be made to measure and guaranteed to fit.
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) Le Monde, 16 February 2006.