by Ken Feltman
What if we elect the wrong people?
– Hungarian patriot, 1989
A mulligan is a second chance, a do-over, a penalty-free attempt to get it right. The term comes from the game of golf and is used when a player is permitted another opportunity to make a shot. The flubbed first attempt is ignored.
In 1989 I was part of a team of political consultants from Western Democracies working with a group of Hungarians who were debating how much individual freedom their new parliamentary democracy would permit its citizens. These were people who had suffered under the Soviet system. They were wary of being suppressed again. Some would have traded their subjugation by Moscow for a benevolent but home-grown subjugation.
Many feared that granting the right to assemble to protest the government would lead to bloody confrontations, repression and a new dictatorship. They wanted stability after decades of turmoil. Some saw democracy and free markets as too complex, too chancy. They called for a more restrictive society with a controlled economy. Others feared that any limits on free speech and assembly would lead eventually to another authoritarian regime.
The room was filled with excited and anxious people. A few wanted to plunge ahead with free and open elections and a market economy. The majority were apprehensive. As one man said, “What if this democracy leads to chaos? How can we control it? What if things go too far? What if we elect the wrong people?”
They faced choices that many saw as final. Some believed that whatever they decided would be in place for the indefinite future.
At that point, I explained what a mulligan is. They either knew or understood quickly when they recalled one of Hungary’s storied footballers who had often wished for a re-try when he just missed scoring.
I suggested that liberal democracy is not rigid but fluid, like the Danube flowing through Hungary. In some seasons, the Danube is deep and still, in others it ripples with foam and rages against its banks. But it always makes its way to the Black Sea.
Decisions are instruments of change
The decisions they were making, I said, would be the best that they could make now. But as times changed, they could change their decisions because decisions, boiled down, are simply instruments of change, not chains.
Regular elections make changing decisions easier. Therefore, rather than trying to anticipate every eventuality, the delegates might better serve their country’s future by establishing a strong and open electoral system.
Hungarians believe in elections with mulligans
The Hungarians took a chance on free and regular elections, not a restrictive constitution, as the best way to guarantee a free and democratic nation. In 1991, in another meeting of Hungarians who were trying to determine the boundaries of Hungary’s democratic reforms, most delegates believed that Hungary’s future was with the Western European democracies.
A vocal minority wanted to band together in an alliance with other newly independent Eastern European countries. Advocates of that view asked why the Western Europeans would want the fledging nations and their miserable economies. “Why not band together with people who have the same problems that we have?” Still others heckled those who wanted “an alliance of weaklings.”
Finally, an elderly man stood and said: “The Germans have shown the way.” Indeed, the West Germans had, with a magnanimous unification that sought to make equals of the better-off former West Germans and the struggling former East Germans. The delegates talked among themselves, heads nodding affirmatively, some delegates pointed toward the old man to underscore his words. The group decided to try to join the West. They agreed that they could always change course if that plan was not workable.
The Hungarians have not had an easy time since the Soviet Union collapsed. But they have instilled the spirit of dissent into their politics. Bickering is accepted. Disagreement is expected.
Egyptian expectations are based on Egypt’s past
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was part of a group of American political consultants meeting with excited and anxious Egyptians. The discussion centered on how important it was to get the coming elections right. “We have only this one chance,” a man said. “If we fail, we will go right back to another oppressive regime.”
“Democracy is the ultimate mulligan,” I said as I began to tell the mulligan story. They understood but said that, in Egypt, it was now or never. I responded that if you have provided more freedom than you believe people will need, if you have more liberty to speak out, to criticize the government, to gather peacefully to protest, then you will have a better chance for democracy to take root. With the strong foundation of a government that guarantees individual rights with regular elections, no single election is final. If you think an election went badly, you can come back and fight to change things in the next election.
The room murmured and heads shook negatively. “You don’t understand. There will be no more elections if one goes badly,” said an old man. “The winners will never allow it.”
No mulligans wanted
Soon, the mood of the delegates was clear: They had to field strong candidates and win their first election, or perhaps never have another chance. Whoever wins is likely to rule for years, with military backing and emergency powers as tools of extended tenure. The delegates agreed: Once in office, they could change the constitution and other governing documents to guarantee free elections in the future – and to prevent the election of anyone who might try to take dictatorial control of the government.” We want to eliminate the need for what you call mulligans,” one Yale-educated young man told me.
Sooner or later, you might wish you had just one mulligan, I suggested. “All the more reason that we don’t want to take a chance on more elections. We must win and take power,” said the young man.
Years of oppression taught one thing to the Hungarians but something very different to the Egyptians. Mulligans are not for everyone. Mulligans are a gift, a leap of faith. When mulligans are used, they do not guarantee a better result. They provide another opportunity to get it right.
Mulligans have one very importance quality: If you provide for mulligans when you design a governing system, you are less likely to need one.