IT WAS a moving sight: hundreds of people on rows of long benches under canopies, enthusiastically waiting to register to vote. Kaliakor is a district of Bangladesh preparing for elections, elections no one is entirely certain the military government will call. Many fear a return to democracy will bring political violence. Look what elections did to Kenya - democracy is dangerous. Many query whether imposing late western systems on dirt-poor developing nations is a good idea.
David Miliband, the foreign secretary, was visiting Bangladesh and urging a safe return to democracy. "Clean and effective government," he called for here - as he had in Afghanistan two days earlier - and in Pakistan, whose imminent elections threaten yet more bloodshed.
Voting alone doesn't guarantee democracy. Political violence, feudal patronage and corruption may break out the day after hotly contested elections. Leaders of both main Bangladeshi parties - "the two ladies" - are locked up on widely believed corruption charges. Frankly, it needs the pen of an Evelyn Waugh to do justice to the personal grudge war between these two 67-year-olds, one a daughter and the other a widow of founding heroes of the war of independence, who refuse to speak or compromise despite barely a sari's thickness of policy difference between them.
Today, back in Oxford, Miliband gives a lecture with a strong message on democracy in honour of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's imprisoned leader. He reaffirms the need to back democrats wherever they are in a post-Iraq and China-influenced world growing dangerously blase about democratic values. Despite all the turmoil he has observed, he declares that a universal democratic "civilian surge" means "there are no regional or continental values that are inhospitable to democracy".
The march of democracy in the past 30 years makes an impressive list: Europeans liberated in Portugal, Spain and Greece; all of Latin America (save Cuba) now democratic; the collapse of the Soviet empire and authoritarian regimes in Asia, from Indonesia and the Philippines to South Korea and Taiwan, while Mandela's election seemed to mark new hope in Africa. Now 60% of the world's people elect their leaders. Put like that, democracy looks unstoppable - only a matter of time before the Middle East, the Gulf states and China succumb.
Yet democracy has many enemies. China's and Singapore's leaders claim rapid economic progress needs nothing of the kind, pointing to less successful poor countries struggling with elections. Meanwhile the left is increasingly suspicious of the word "freedom", hijacked by neocons. Democracy at the point of a gun can look like a fig-leaf excuse for enforcing neocolonial western interests. If democracy is such a good thing, why does the west prop up and arm autocracies such as Saudi Arabia? Why kowtow so abjectly to Chinese wealth? It was Ken Livingstone who in 1987 - back in his red-hot days - wrote a book called If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It. (He's rightly rather keen on Londoners getting out to vote now). On the right there is always a business phalanx that finds stable despotism good to do business with - no problem trading with China or the Gulf.
Democracy struggles to take root in countries so poor that the rice needed to keep a family alive is willingly traded for a vote: patronage and clans promising corrupt favours will trump political ideals every time. Political scientists observe that democratic governments rarely survive in countries with per capita incomes of less than $1,500 a year: Kenyans and Pakistanis live on under $1,000. The same research finds democracy rarely fails once per capita incomes rise to $6,000 a year.
But no rules about human life are absolute: in Bangladesh political passions run high, though pockets may be empty; and people impressed on Miliband time and again the importance of elections. Look at India, whose per capita income is still under $1,000, yet its democracy thrives with a free press and independent judiciary. Meanwhile Russia backslides on $8,000 a head.
There is another endemic problem with democracy - the chasm between rhetoric and reality, between promise and performance. Nothing again is ever as exhilarating as the moment the Berlin Wall fell or Mandela walked free. Afterwards disillusion with the drudgery of everyday governance turns things sour. The longer established a democracy, the more secure and better run it is, then the more cynical citizens become - less likely to vote, more heartily despising their relatively uncorrupt and efficient politicians. But telling jaded Europeans to value their vote is no more use than telling well-fed western children to eat crusts that would be the envy of starving Zimbabweans.
Democracy does need constant renewal. In Britain neither of the main parties - not David Miliband in this speech - are yet willing to reform the profound dysfunctions of a system that lets the next election revolve around the super-votes of just 8,000 swing citizens in key marginals. Though in a previous job Miliband was forward-thinking in reviving the power and pride of Britain's great cities, electoral reform is still out of bounds for Labour.
China's People's Daily was quick to gloat over the Kenyan fallout: "Western-style democracy simply isn't suited to African conditions, but rather carries the roots of disaster." Miliband's Oxford lecture will be a resounding refutation of this, and a restatement of universal values. But he avoids Blairite hubris and triumphalism. Although he is "unapologetic about a mission to help democracy spread", he also stresses the "need to be cautious about our capacity to change the world", emphasising the power of international institutions - the international criminal court, the World Trade Organisation, the EU, the UN - to build the culture of democracy. "Democracy can and will take root in all societies".
In the end, this argument always falls back on Churchill: democracy is the least bad system yet devised, which is hardly a ringing endorsement with which to confront China or Saudi Arabia, the left or the right. Waiting with trepidation for what elections may unleash in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or next year in Afghanistan, can make orderly military rule look a better option than Kenyan-style slaughter. But then ask why were so many very poor, mostly illiterate, people queuing under those canopies in Kaliakor. They were driven by the universal desire to chose their own rulers, however difficult and dangerous the road to democracy. #
First published in The Gaurdian, London, Britain, February 12 2008
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist and president of the Social Policy Association. She was formerly BBC social affairs editor, columnist and associate editor of the Independent, co-editor of the Washington Monthly and a reporter and feature writer for the Observer. She could be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org