The Washington Times

Would-be tyrants and freedom fighters alike take note: The essence of democracy is not simply an election. It’s an election held in the expectation that there will be a subsequent election.

In a mature democracy during election season, each side campaigns as hard as it can. But each side does so in the knowledge that, win or lose, victory or defeat is subject to reversal at the polls in the next election. You win some, you lose some.

The profound implication of this is that the stakes of the political game are diminished for the players. Conduct a thought experiment by imagining a contrary scenario: one final election, in which we would settle once and for all who makes political decisions.

If you are looking for a way to return politics to its status as literally a matter of life and death for participants, this is surely how. If everything is at stake, then “fighting” is no longer merely a metaphor for political conflict.

Such a contest would decide who rules and who is ruled. The prospect of being ruled, subjected, repressed, is, I think, something people would believe worth fighting to prevent. In our final-election world of rule-or-be-ruled, the unwillingness to be ruled is indistinguishable from the will to rule. One final election unleashes politics as a struggle to the death.

The expectation of a subsequent election, and yet another after it, makes all the difference. It becomes possible to view politics as a matter of limited stakes: The winners don’t win everything once and for all, and neither do the losers lose everything. The possibility of a future loss has a moderating effect on the conduct of the winner, who can imagine himself all too clearly in the position of a loser. A kind of unwritten contract of self-restraint can then emerge among the political contenders. A political constitution is the written version of the terms of self-restraint.

But why not cheat, if it is potentially to your advantage to do so and you think you can get away with it? You may not go so far as to poison your rivals – although Ukraine reminds us that some will. Nor, perhaps, will you jail them – though in Belarus or Russia you might. But even in a mature democracy, the temptation to try to bend the rules in your favor, given the full power of the state at your disposal, must arise from time to time.

Finally, however, that is where the people come in. It is in the interest of people who want to remain free and to govern themselves to respond vigorously to any attempt on the part of the politically ambitious to turn the next election into something resembling a final election. Such political ambition has to be resisted at the polls, otherwise there won’t be any more polls, not in the “free and fair” sense. And in the event that an election fails to be free and fair because of the way those in power conduct it, the people have to be willing to take their case to the street, as in the example of Ukraine.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin was elected democratically, but he has since clamped down on democracy. He remains popular – a sign of the immaturity of democratic habits among Russians. But he will succeed only to the extent he retains his popularity and that of the successor he will no doubt wish to designate and then have ratified in a bogus election. If Russians at that point feel cheated of their choice or any choice, those who would rule them had better be prepared for, first, a peaceful demand for fairness – and if necessary, a fight. The biggest fear of the stealth authoritarians – those who try to conceal their ambition with the facade of democracy – is that their armies and police forces will decide they are with the people.

And so, as important and revolutionary as the recent elections in Afghanistan and Palestine were, and as important as the one coming up in Iraq will be, still more important is an emerging consciousness among the people in each of these places that there will be another and yet another election – that they themselves must insist upon no less.

In the case of Iraq, it is abundantly clear that insurgents hope to wreck the scheduled election. First, they seek its postponement, preferably indefinitely. Second, they hope to terrorize Iraqis into staying home out of fear for their lives. Third, no doubt, they will kill as many people who turn out to vote as they can.

This election has to go ahead, but let us not fetishize it, as insurgents do in thinking they win if they wreck it, nor as some of its promoters do if they think it represents the turning point in the struggle. This election is important because people need to understand that it is the first in a series that will constitute democracy in Iraq.