In 1900, not a single nation existed where all adults (men and women) enjoyed the right to vote.

ByEliana Cardoso

Today, 62% of the world’s countries classify themselves as democracies and choose their governments through relatively free elections. How did such a radical change come to pass?

Well, as democracy has become synonymous with legitimacy, even dictators – like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or Hosni Murbarak in Egypt – have expended efforts and resources in the organization of national elections. The electoral democracy is in ascension, but the same cannot be said for liberty and civil rights.

Reducing democracy to elections has its consequences. Pan Wei (a rising star at the Peking University) says that China, under an autocratic regime, is showing itself to be more open and liberal than many countries classified as democracies. In China, progress in the protection of individual rights is more visible than in Russia or Venezuela, countries considered to be democratic.

Wei argues that adopting elections as a means to choose the Chinese government would not solve the problems currently plaguing the country – corruption of the political elite and the growing chasm between the rich and the poor. And it would be difficult to disagree when he states that the benefits of democracy are not to be confused with the results of observing just and efficient laws. Electoral democracy and the protection of civil liberties are not the same phenomenon. Liberty demands more than merely elections, because it requires respect for institutions that defend the dignity of the individual and protect them against violence by the State, the Church or even society itself.

Consider Egypt. If free elections were held and placed a theocratic fundamentalist government in charge, the population would suffer far graver coercions of liberty than under the Murbarak regime. Furthermore, there are no shortage of governing leaders elected by the majority of the population that go on to ignore the freedom of the press and the constitutional limits on mandates. Hugo Chávez is an example that immediately springs to mind.

But Pan Wei goes further, arguing that developing countries are wrong to adopt electoral democracy without first having in place institutions capable of ensuring that the powerful are still subject to the law. His deconstruction of the democratic myth is aimed at demonstrating that, without a legal regime capable of imposing de facto limits on power and corruption, elections merely serve to promote the populists. Therefore, the model preferred by the Chinese government is that adopted by the Singaporean one, which places Asian virtues – order, discipline, responsibility, and work ethic – in counterpart to Western sins – self indulgence, laziness, disrespect for authority, inferior education and consumerism.

The path chosen by Singapore and Hong Kong was to create a system of laws and then put them into practice. Their economic growth lead to higher GDP and an increase in well being, which then opened the way for reforms, competitive markets and greater transparency in the government. Thus, Asian growth, allied with changes in public governance and the guaranteeing of individual rights, seems to show that industrial modernization facilitates the combining of oriental and western values.

On the other hand, countries that embrace electoral democracy without first creating a legal foundation and the guarantees required for its proper functioning, end up falling into the hands of autocrats. Russia provides us with an example of this. Social indicators plummeted after the looting of what remained of the old regime, through the mass liquidation of state companies. The country then, albeit as a democracy, enthroned a State that violates human rights and perpetuates Putin’s power.

So, what of the Brazilian democratic system? Although far from perfect, it seem to at least guarantee that no evil is allowed to remain for ever, because the mandate for all governing leaders, regardless of who they might be, runs for a limited number of years. This guarantee of a turnover of power protects us, though it hardly prevents us from questioning what else may be lacking.

The observation that short term electoral issues dominate the economic policies of Presidents of the State, whilst Central Banks need to consider long term economic merits in questions of monetary policy, serves as a basis in favor of the argument for Central Bank autonomy. The same argument can be applied to areas of the government where decisions have long lasting consequences and require technical consideration. An example of the evils caused by the lack of autonomy as regards regulatory agencies in Brazil is the Varig case, which seems to indicate instances of criminal interference.

It is also worth considering that the Brazilian tax system has been turned into an intricate and tangled mess as a consequence of the democratic policy. It could be argued that an agency, if kept apart from immediate political interests, could create a simpler and more transparent system. Pie in the sky. This sweet dream is simply inconceivable in a country where, whilst still in full term, the President of the Central Bank undertakes political projects – something he is allowed to do because he is also a Minister. Such a shameless lack of modesty simply reinforces the argument for a Central Bank with no explicit political ties and with a mandate that does not coincide with that of the President of the Republic.