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Variants of Democracy: U.S., Spain, Chile



     Elections in the US and Spain have dominated the news this week. They had one thing in common: a passionate desire to get out the vote with appeals and crowd-pleasing tricks such as the waving of little flags to the noise of applause, which in Spain the candidates led themselves. The success was limited. In the United States, The Economist (3/11/00) spoke about "a high level of apathy about conventional party politics." In Spain, the participation actually declined from 39% in the last election to 36%.
     The Spanish campaign was on a higher level than the American one: US politics have never recovered from the Jacksonian revolution, and all the candidates emerged with damaged reputations. Spain has the advantage of being a backward country, so that it preserves a sense of human dignity. All the candidates with some degree of respect for one another. Their speeches had more substance and they spoke better Spanish than the American candidates spoke English. Money plays a much smaller role in Spanish than in American elections. All money corrupts, and much money corrupts muchly.
     One disadvantage of presidential systems such as that of the US is that there is no figure above politics who symbolizes the nation and its history. In Spain, the monarchy fills that role admirably and is the most popular institution in the country. That does not lessen the disadvantages of a monarchy. A head of state with no historic symbolism, such as that of Germany and Israel, performs a rather pathetic role. My own preference would be for the had of state to be chosen from the Supreme Court, symbolizing the rule of law.
     The accession of Ricardo Lagos to the presidency of Chile recalls the evil years of the Chilean dictatorship. Much as we may condemn its human rights abuses, President Allende was, albeit well-meaning, incompetent, and his 1973 overthrow was welcomed by many Chileans. Therein lies the danger: apathy can herald disillusionment with democracy, as happened in Spain and Weimar Germany. People want above all jobs and the things that go with it.
     It is not sufficient for Americans to trumpet the merits of US democracy. World opinion is all too aware of its shortcomings. The aim of the United States was to create a more perfect union. That must always be its aim, but unfortunately few Americans make any effort to study the problem. The German constitution which was largely a US creation is widely viewed as superior to the American, and New Zealand, Australia and Canada have well respected systems. The voting system of first past the post is widely viewed as unfair. Curiously it is a mathematician at Northwestern University, Donald Saari, who has promoted what may be the best system in the journal Economic Theory. Incredibly it was proposed in 1770 by Jean-Charles de Borda as a way to elect members of the French Academy of Sciences. Australia has adopted a modified form of the system. We must realize that democracy does not come just in the American vanilla flavor.

Ronald Hilton - 3/12/00


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