Democratization and the dilemmas of violence

05 de Octubre de 2016 a las 11:15

Ángel Alvarez

By: Ángel E. Alvarez, PhD

Toronto. - Democracy and the rule of law are not the same, but in the current Western political theory, we can’t have one without the other. Ideally, a full democracy is inconceivable if the government does not base itself on the rule of law. The legitimately of political power emanates from the popular vote. Public actions are limited by the constitution and subject to the law. In short, Western governments based legitimacy on two principles, with different but confluent ideological origins: the legitimacy of the norm and the legitimacy of the elected government.

In Western democracies, the relation between democracy and the rule of law is an obvious and fundamental precondition for a peaceful way of living. Some democratic theorists have argued that the most certain way to reach democracy goes primarily to build the rule of law.

In Latin American countries, this route has not been direct. Most of the time, it has been an incredibly winding road. In many cases, we have been unable to build legal institutions without popular support and equally incapable of guaranteeing free elections without legitimate institutions. Such a vicious circle has been perniciously present in the political history of some countries in Latin America. At this particular time, two dramatic processes with unpredictable consequences put two different by comparable countries in quandaries. The peace process in Colombia and the presidential recall referendum in Venezuela are examples of that constant tension between democratic fullness and state consolidation.

After more than forty years of war, the Colombian government began a controversial negotiation process with the FARC, the largest of several violent groups that have participated in this long and painful conflict. Accused of severe crimes, kidnapping, extortion, forced displacement, human trafficking, weapons and narcotics, the FARC has been one of the toughest nuts to crack for the Colombian government. The Colombian government has used different strategies to defeat guerrilla warfare—both with limited results. Thus far, the extended use of military force, targeted killing of guerrilla leaders, and negotiations (both secretly held or publicly announced) have not paid off enough. The FARC has not complied with previous agreements and have used ceasefires to regroup and rearm. The government has used legitimate methods of violent repression but also questionable violations of human rights as the so-called "false positives." In a new attempt to achieve peace, and after lengthy negotiations in Oslo Havana, President Santos has proposed a referendum that seeks democratic legitimacy for the agreements reached with the guerrillas.

Whatever the outcome of this consultation, held as of this writing, the dilemma remains open. If the "yes" had won, the crimes committed by guerrilla leaders would have gone unpunished. There would be no compensation for the millions of victims of violence. Peace, if finally reached, would be achieved at the expense of law enforcement. If "no" finally wins, as it seems to be at this moment, the outlook will be even more uncertain. The chances are that violence and human rights violations will escalate. In any case, the referendum result will leave an even more profound and dangerous political polarization of Colombians. Neither peace nor justice will be granted as a consequence of this consultation. 

In Venezuela, the authoritarian government of Maduro prevents the convening of two democratic processes (the recall referendum of the President and the election of state governors). The only reason for hampering the elections is Maduro’s certainty about his record low popularity. The Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council, both packed by the ruling party, has legalized all the autocratic acts of the government.

Venezuela's democratic opposition faces two terrible dilemmas: Can and should the opposition parties use violence to overthrow the government and democratize the country, or should peacefully submit themselves to the rule of unjust laws to attempt a peaceful transition to democracy? And, if the country democratizes, should the next government guarantee impunity for corruption, human rights violations and other crimes to ensure peace and political stability?

Defy the unjust law and prevent impunity is theoretically compatible with the constitutional principles of justice and the rule of law, but imposing democracy by force is not always possible for unarmed democratic citizens. Under any circumstance, the violent imposition of democracy, after a civil war or a coup, supposes the maximization of violence and massive violations of fundamental rights, which tarnishes the democratic legitimacy of the hypothetical new regime.

It is not easy trying to democratize in peace and, at the same time, in full compliance with the law. However, we hardly will have a real democracy if there is no impartial justice, which guarantees peace. Thus, we don’t have it easy in Colombia and Venezuela.