Prospect of fool's gold

October 27, 1994

This year the 16th congress of the International Political Science Association was held in Berlin. The congresses take place every three years with about 2,000 participants from every part of the globe. Mostly cool heads ponder hot issues, including such matters as elections, internal conflict, war, peace, corruption, party structures and party finance, the role of legislators, ministers, and now, very prominently, the place of women in politics.

Political scientists are generally surprisingly calm, rational and cool, given the sometimes inflammatory nature of the material on which they are working. They avoid some sensitivities by using words which help to defuse the situation, words such as "ethnicity", so that many of the serious divisions in the world can be subject to a certain degree of detachment. Given that many of the world's big problems are tied up with ethnic conflicts, from Bosnia to South Africa, the subject received constant attention, but it was mostly a clinical exercise.

While there were some practising politicians present, most were political scientists who would neither often dirty their hands with day-to-day politics nor have to justify their performance, except perhaps to their home universities who funded them.

The distinction between political scientists and politicians was spelt out in a session on the problems of high office. We were promised an insight into being a prime minister or president, but only one former prime minister turned up, namely, Hanna Suchocka of Poland. Two former women prime ministers from Portugal and Bolivia failed to materialise. The session turned into a diatribe about the wickedness of men in high office.

Margaret Thatcher was invited but declined. So we learned little about the problems of being a prime minister, as this session was hijacked by the association president, a woman, into a complaint that women play little part in political life.

The holding of this conference in Berlin was of special interest given that the unity of the city is so recent. When conference planning began, Berlin was still a divided city and the idea of a conference on politics, whether academic or not, was a hazardous business. In the event the German political scientists found themselves most unexpectedly in a reunified city and country. One had the impression that they were in a state of shock. The Koreans were intensely interested in the whole concept of reunification and turned up in droves to hear how it was done. Alas, the Germans said, unification is uncomfortable and full of dangers to both sides. In one unguarded moment the Germans admitted that reunification, like marriage, was to be put off if not avoided.

Korean reunification will be much more difficult than that of Germany. The Koreans will hold the next conference in Seoul in 1997, (a poignant date for Hong Kong too), but by then Korea may be one nation, albeit with two souls, (or Seouls).

Given the location, the question of Europe loomed large. If Europe is a nightmare for politicians, it is a dream for political scientists. The latter endlessly examine, analyse and pontificate about the many abstractions of European unity such as integration. Thus, on the very first day, in a session on the turnout in the 1994 European elections, a solemn debate about the statistical aspects of the European voter came to the stirring conclusion that turnout was about 30 per cent less than in national elections.

We also heard about Euronostalgia, the idea that some dreamers have of a Europe full of happy and contented folk who had found brotherhood for ever.

We also heard the realists tell us that most people saw Europe as a machine for putting in one penny and taking out one pound, mark, franc or, less enthusiastically, one lire.

The problems of Middle and Eastern Europe were covered and a whole new science was born, called "transitology". This latter refers to the study of the problems facing states as they moved from command-socialist economies to market-pluralist forms. We agreed that it was a most painful process with few gainers and many losers.

A session looked at the operation of the "purge", and at those places where the old guard had been evicted from office in contrast to those where, as in Poland, they had not. One can see the point of transitology but it has a long way to go before it can be regarded as anything like a science.

The main purpose of the 1994 conference was to consider the impact of democratisation. Briefly, the world is moving toward a greater degree of popular participation in government and politics. The old crude dictatorships have lost their hold. During the period of the Cold War a simple battle raged between two antagonistic forces. The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, and the western-style democrats could say "we've won".

That was not the end of history. The new states of eastern Europe are not perhaps democracies as would be understood in Washington. But if democracy is not the right concept, perhaps democratisation can help. The conference handbook defined it as "the infusing of elements of popular control into the structure and processes of political governance". The problem is that political democratisation may be more appropriately developed after economic well-being has been achieved.

The old dictatorships cannot easily give way to shining new democracies. So talk about "democratisation" is useful because it allows for a measure of popular involvement where none existed before.

Now, in the case of China, the old apparatus of repression still exists alongside a tolerated amount of capitalism. The Chinese will not admit that political advance and economic advance towards democracy go together. Hence, Hong Kong is seen as a useful money-making machine to be denied normal free competitive elections.

We inhabit a confused and confusing world. Some political scientists deny that something called "democracy" has taken over. The so-called "democratic" powers act as a malevolent force, the symbol being not nice clean democrats but rather the unacceptable face of MacWorld, with its cash-crazy set of symbols. The United States was portrayed as the home of a welter of contradictory messages. The rhetoric of US democracy sits uneasily alongside the horrendous problems generated in US cities. While so many places may be aching to take up the democratic challenge, the highroad may not lead to the blissful state there envisaged. Perhaps we are able only to touch a fool's gold.

One of the more realistic panels was devoted to the study of political corruption and party finance, remembering the truism that politics is essentially about favours. What is true however is that the cruder dictatorships find life more difficult, and one speaker counted the number of states that have taken the path of democratisation -- some 30 in all.

Of the millions of words poured out on the ancient idea of democracy, none have yet really beaten those of Winston Churchill: that democracy, as he understood it was the worst of all the forms of government which had been tried except for all the others. On democratisation, as they put it, the jury is still out.

Peter Harris is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong.

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