What is Democracy? (4): Conflict

Election rules institute conflict and struggle. The place of power is an empty place (says Claude Lefort). The law forbids that persons occupy or appropriate this place in a permanent way. Power is the result of a regulated struggle for this place, a struggle that is periodically restarted because power itself is periodically called into question. However, conflict is not just institutionalized, it is also channeled: potentially dangerous conflicts between groups or parties competing for power can be battled out or decided in a peaceful , formalized and reasonable way. Since there will always be a next chance for the losers – who, by the way, do not risk loosing anything more than power – there is no need to resort to more forceful means in order to win the battle. In this way, democracy supports the right to security . This is one of the many examples of the link between democracy and human rights.

It is very important to notice the connection between the two different kinds of institutionalization of conflict, namely the conflict of opinions institutionalized by freedom rights, and the power struggle institutionalized by the democratic election procedures. These two ways of institutionalizing conflict reinforce each other in a fruitful interaction or reciprocity. The legitimate existence of a continuous, open and public power struggle in which the entire people can participate, justifies and creates public conflict in general, in the society at large and in every domain of life. If conflicts of opinion are allowed in the political domain, then why should they be forbidden in other domains of life? There is no democratic power struggle without freedom of expression because this struggle requires criticism, argumentation and persuasion (in order to form majorities). In this way, democracy protects human rights.

The opposite is also true. Human rights protect democracy because they are necessary prerequisites for a real power struggle. The participants in the power struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program (that is why they need the freedom of expression); they have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice (so they need the freedom of association, the rule of law and the separation of state and society); and for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate (so they also need the freedom of assembly).

Human rights need democracy. They are safer in a democracy because a democracy needs human rights. But a democracy also needs equal human rights. If everybody does not have equal rights, there can be no equal influence, and if there is no equal influence, there can be no democracy. The creation of public opinion or of the will of the people depends on the equal influence of everybody or, in other words, on the equal ability to convince, and this equal ability requires equal human rights. Equal influence also requires respect for economic rights – because these rights limit the unequal influence of money on politics – and for the right to education for everybody – a right that limits the unequal influence of intellect or talent on politics.