A significant number of people in the world support democracy but there are some instances where democracy comes with an asterisk. By an asterisk I mean that a democratic decision made by people may be deemed illegitimate by others for a number of different factors. The purpose of this piece is to take hypothetical examples, and some real-world instances, to ascertain if the democratic decision reached in these scenarios could be regarded as legitimate. The default position of many ordinary people is that democratic decisions should be respected but I contend that in some instances there is a grey area that needs to be made more clear.
If we think of the democratic process we tend to think of elections. I’m not going to be arguing that all elections, by definition, are democratic because people could easily cheat and the subsequent result wouldn’t be democratic at all. However let’s take a hypothetical example. A territory has decided to have a vote about seceding from their current country joining another. Due to identity politics the result is a foregone conclusion in favour of secession, and when the vote takes its course the territory does choose to secede.
Nothing wrong so far, but the grey area arises in following way. What if under the same circumstances the country that the territory is wishing to join sends in some soldiers? There is no instance of coercion, as in soldiers aren’t holding people at gun point to vote in a certain way, but there are just some soldiers dotted about the place. The result of the vote is also in favour of the territory seceding. Is that result legitimate? This is what I mean by the grey area. Conceivably there could be coercion to force people to vote in favour of seceding, but in the thought experiment I just set out there is no evidence of this. Also if the result was going to be secession whether there were soldiers there or not, should the election be invalidated?
This thought experiment may sound familiar and that is because I have just described some of the factors surrounding the 2014 referendum held in Crimea to join Russia. There was other shady shit going on and there are many reports of Russian citizens who happened to be living in Crimea at the time being allowed to vote, but the question remains: if the result was always going to be in favour of Crimea leaving Ukraine, does the presence of Russian soldiers matter? Instinctively we want to say ‘yes’ because irrespective of whether or not soldiers physically intimidate voters, the atmosphere is more hostile.
However, we aren’t talking about people stuffing ballots boxes so that the result is changed, we’re talking about two scenarios where the outcome is the same. I would agree that the presence of soldiers, when we are talking about democracy, is always a bad thing because it creates an implicit bias in favour of one outcome, but if a political or ethnic identity is strong enough to get people to vote a certain way, the presence of soldiers, in the context as outlined above, wouldn’t deter them. In such a situation the existence of all soldiers should prompt a delay in any election because although there is not necessarily coercion in an immediate sense, the potential for the usage of coercive force is very real. Indeed this should extend to the soldiers of the territory’s parent country as well, because this may sway the vote against secession.
Here’s another example of a grey area. A large country invades an island and kills the indigenous population. Settlers then proceed to travel from the large country to their new colony. The international community says that this is unacceptable, and the solution the larger country offers for this problem is that there is a referendum. If the people of the island votes to leave then they will be allowed to be independent, but if they vote to remain part of the larger country then they can stay; that’s self-determination. Is that a legitimate vote? I would argue that it is not.
If you annex an island and massacre the people who already live there, the referendum result will not reflect the views of these people. Furthermore, the vote will ask whether the settlers from the larger country want their new home to be part of that larger country. In this situation it’s not self-determination, it’s using self-determination as an excuse to maintain possession of the island.
Hopefully this is quite a clear cut case of why such a vote would be illegitimate, but this is not the grey area. Let’s say that a hundred years later the larger country is still controlling this island and the international community is still not happy. The people who killed the indigenous population are long dead, along with the original settlers and the politicians who ordered the annexation in the first place. If there was another referendum should the result be respected on the grounds of self-determination? This is essentially the grey area that exists around the Falkland Islands, or as I tend to call them the Islas Malvinas (so you can probably work out which side of the dispute I’m on).
Here’s a simple analogy. I am walking down the street and I see a man with a nice watch. I go up to him, kill him, and steal this watch. I wear the watch everyday for the rest of my life. At the end of my life I pass the watch down to my son, and he wears the watch as well. If my son was asked by the children of the person I killed to return the watch and he said ‘no’ every onlooker would probably deem my son a colossal arsehole. The argument would be that it didn’t matter if you didn’t take the watch, you have benefited from an injustice which can be, in part, rectified.
When talking about difficult political situations people tend to boil things down to us vs them, but the inevitable result of this is that we make irrational decisions and/or refuse to acknowledge nuance. Democracy is often used as a trump card but I would argue, as I have done above, that having a vote on something doesn’t make a decision inherently democratic. As supporters of democracy we need to have these conversations so that we can have a stronger understanding of what values we fight for on a daily basis. Having blind spots in our thinking benefits nobody except the authoritarians that wish to undermine our autonomy and impose their will on everybody else.