Around the world, revolution has been brewing, and new governments are arising. So often, though, attempts to bring democracy to nations not used to it fail. I don’t know how to solve that problem, but I think it might be possible to make these transitions a bit easier, with a bit of modern experience and technology.
What these aspiring new governments and nations could use is a ready-made, and eventually time tested set of principles, procedures, services and people to take the steps to freedom. One that comes with a history, and with the respect of the world, as well as the ability to win the support of the people. I am not the first to suggest this, and there have been projects to prepare draft constitutions for new countries. George Soros has funded one, and one of its constitutions is being considered in Egypt, or so I have heard.
Eventually, I hope that a basic interim constitution could be created which not only is well crafted, but wins the advance support of the global community. This is to say that major nations, or bodies like the U.N. say, “If you follow these principles, really follow them, then your new government will get the recognition of the world as the legitimate new government”. This is particularly important with a revolution, or a civil war as we are seeing in Libya. Big nations are coming to the aid of those under attack. But we don’t know what sort of government they will create.
Today we assume that a people should self-determine their own constitution, to match their own culture. That is a valid goal, and a constitution just have the support of the vast majority of a people. But the people must also interact with the world, and the government must gain recognition. There are many lessons to be learned from the outside world, including lessons about what not to put in a constitution, even though it matches the local culture. Most new nations still find themselves wracked with sectarian, tribal and geographic divisions, and in this situation, impartial advice and even pressure can be valuable down the road.
I believe that each new country needs first an immediate, temporary, minimalist constitution. This constitution would define a transitional government, and put strong time limits on how long it can exist. This constitution would establish the process for creation of the permanent constitution, but also put limits on what can’t go in it without a major supermajority vote. Right after a revolution, a new nation may have a huge, but temporary sense of unity and devotion to principle. That devotion will fade as various factions arise and pressure is applied.
The temporary constitution should be minimalist, as should be the government. It should have strong principles of transparency and accountability, because in turbulent times there is often rampant corruption and theft.
It should also, ideally, bring in principles and bodies of law almost word-for-word from other countries. While this is temporary, it provides an immediate body of precedent, and a large body of experts already trained in that nation’s law. It isn’t that simple of course, since some laws are not meant to be enforced if it is known they are temporary, otherwise people will exploit the expiration.
Possibly the temporary constitution would define an executive with broader power than the permanent one. There may not be the bureaucracy in place to do anything else. It could be that those who serve at the high levels of the transitional government will be barred from standing in elections for some number of years, to assure they really are just there to serve in the transition, and not become new autocrats. This may also be a useful way to make use of the services of the middle echelons of the old regime, who may be the only ones who know how to keep some things running.
Imported, sometimes remote, jurists
If there is some standardization to the system of laws, the new country can import the services of impartial foreign jurists. Some will volunteer and come. Some will come for pay, even though the payment might be deferred until the new country is on its feet. And some might serve remotely, over videoconferencing. Modern telepresence tools might encourage volunteers (or deferred payment workers) to take some time to help a new country get on its feat, providing justice, auditing and oversight.
Imported systems for fair elections
Countries that have never run a fair election may not know how to do it. This could also be something that NGOs are asked to do by the new regime. Yesterday I wrote about systems to run an election by cell phones as a way to do a cheap election that reaches the people and makes scaring voters away from polling places difficult. This is far from the only approach that turn-key democracy group might provide. I personally favour the idea of open source voting machines which are based on old donated PCs and scanners tossed aside by the 1st world because they are last year’s model.
The goal of these systems would be enfranchisement, a challenge if people have never really voted before. You want ways to bring in the rural, the illiterate, the members of unpopular groups and many more, and you need ways to assure that there is no cheating and people are not intimidated away from voting. In the long term, a nation will run its own elections, but in the short term, democracy-minded outsiders may be the most impartial.
We’ve had a revolution in communications technology. It would be moving faster if not for the legacy systems, particularly when it comes to spectrum for wireless. A new nation can get rid of a lot of that legacy. If the nation doesn’t have a good internet infrastructure, the team can help it gain one, both with new, superior wireless technology that operates on all sorts of bands in a cognitive radio approach, and permission for people to string fiber everywhere. The tech team can help set this up (wireless at first) and train people to operate it. And a free press team can work to set up the infrastructure for publishing and blogging and recruit locals into building a new and robust free press. Some NGO financing of that free press could help as well.
The permanent constitution
While I have had many ideas for new ways to constitute democracy in the modern era, some of which can be found in this New Democracy section, a new nation is not going to try something untrusted. But there is a lot to be learned from scholars of democracy about what has worked and what has failed, even in successful democracies of the 1st world. I wish there were a way to convince nations not to carve in stone the particular geographic and ethnic power groups around today. There probably isn’t an escape from this, but there might be ways to write in long-term mitigations based on clear metrics that are hard to disagree with. For example, in the USA, much power is based on who happened to be a state at the time state lines were drawn. This kept the states happy, but once it went seriously out of balance, the states that gained advantage from this have little motive to cede their advantage. On the other hand a formula like “No state may have 3 times the senators per capita of another, and extra senators should be allocated to correct this” might have been hard to argue with but would have corrected things gradually over time.
There is, as I noted, still a benefit of copying from an existing constitution, even a flawed one. You get a ready-made history of precedent. If there are well known flaws, they can be removed, but by starting from a well known basis, you can avoid the perils of a constitution written by a very large committee of special interests. In Canada, we got something more like the latter, which resulted in provinces demanding the power to override the charter of rights and freedoms. When this actually was used (to support a Quebec law which demanded English be given lesser position on public signs) it created a risk of splitting the country, in part because the rest of the country looked at it and said, “For this, they will override free speech?” Better that the legislature had no power to override the court.
Putting it together
All of this has one major catch. It is important that the people of a new country not feel their nation is being run by the outside world, especially the USA or any other superpower that comes along. Not only must the foreign role be temporary, it must be clear it is temporary. The countries and organizations that sponsor a “turn-key democracy team” must put its temporary nature into their own constitutions, allowing extension only if begged by a supermajority in the new host country.
If that can be done, it seems like a reasonable, and not tremendously expensive project for a major NGO. A set of well-drafted possible temporary constitutions and advice on permanent ones. Teams of workers ready to come in quickly and run initial elections and train the locals to run their own. Auditors tracking accountability and transparency. Media willing to help create free press, to provide all the tools locals need to be that press. Technical people and press people assuring good communication.
The payoff can be large if it means the world gets a new, free country. There will be powerful forces against it, oligarchs from the old regime, and those who seek power through corruption during a transition. The lessons of failures in this area should be near to the hearts of the team, and the people they train. The new system must be on the lookout for those failures, and the free press, including anonymous press should be reporting it.