Stemming the democratic recession

“Emerging democracies must demonstrate that they can solve governance problems and meet citizens’ expectations for freedom, justice, a better life, and a fairer society.”

If the big global story of the 1980s and 1990s was the remarkable expansion of democracy, the bad news of this decade is that democracy is slipping into recession. In the two decades following the Portuguese revolution in 1974, the number of democracies tripled (from 40 to 120) and the percentage of the world’s states that are at least electoral democracies more than doubled (to about 60 percent). Since the late 1990s however, there has been little if any net progress in democracy. To be sure, significant new transitions to democracy took place in countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. But globally, the democratic wave has been neutralized and is now at risk of being overtaken by an authoritarian undertow, which has extinguished democracy in such states as Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Kenya. In fact, two-thirds (15) of all the reversals of democracy (23) since 1974 have taken place just in the last eight years, since the October 1999 military coup in Pakistan.

Fortunately, breakdowns of democracy do not always persist for long. Pakistan held remarkably vibrant parliamentary elections in February 2008, in which the party of the autocratic, unelected president, Pervez Musharraf, was crushed. Should the legitimate parties succeed in curtailing Musharraf’s power or forcing him from office, a transition back to democracy could be completed. Thailand has made a similar cycle of return, Bangladesh figures to do so this year, and Nepal is trying to do so. The remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan has quickly gone from absolute to constitutional monarchy, and Mauritania, a desert-poor Muslim-majority country, has also made a democratic transition. But many of the new democracies of recent decades are shallow and in trouble. And freedom has been lurching backwards. By the ratings of Freedom House, last year was the worst year for freedom since the end of the Cold War, with 38 countries declining in their levels of political rights and civil liberties and only 10 improving.

Two other negative trends are important to note. One is the implosion of democratic openings in the Arab world. Under pressure from the George W. Bush administration beginning in 2003, several authoritarian Arab regimes liberalized political life and held competitive, multiparty elections. Then, Islamist political forces made dramatic gains in Egypt and Lebanon and won a majority of seats in Palestine and Iraq — and suddenly the Bush Administration got cold feet. Arab democrats who had surfaced and mobilized felt abandoned and betrayed. The liberal secular politician Ayman Nour, who had the temerity to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s first contested presidential election, languishes in prison three years later. The country’s political opening is now frozen, while more than a billion dollars in American aid continues to flow to the regime.

The second negative trend is that authoritarian states have, unfortunately, learned some of the lessons of democratic breakthroughs of the past decade, particularly the color revolutions that brought down neocommunist autocracies in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. As a result, they have closed political space, swallowed up or arrested independent media, crushed independent political opposition, sabotaged or shut down innovative uses of the Internet, and sought to block or sever external flows of democratic assistance. Vladimir Putin’s Russia (with its sinister cabal of savvy Kremlin “political technologists”) has blazed the trail in this authoritarian pushback, but China, Belarus, Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other “post” communist and Middle Eastern dictatorships have followed suit. To make matters worse, China and Russia have drawn together with the Central Asian dictatorships in a new club, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to formalize and advance their authoritarian pushback.

To renew democratic progress in the world, we must understand the reasons for the democratic recession. Authoritarian learning is one. Another has been the inconsistent and often unilateralist policies of the United States. Although President Bush has done much to put democracy promotion at the center of American foreign policy and has substantially increased funding for U.S. democracy assistance programs, he has also alienated potential allies in the effort to advance democracy globally by associating democracy promotion with the use of (largely unilateral) force, as in Iraq; by promoting democracy with a tone that was often self-righteous and a style that was too often poorly coordinated with our democratic allies; and then by failing to sustain pressure for democratic change when the going got rough in the Middle East.

Structural factors have also driven the recession of democracy. One has had to do with the global political economy. As the price of oil has gone up, the prospects for democracy have receded. Russia, Nigeria, and Venezuela have all seen their democracies slip back into authoritarianism as oil prices have skyrocketed, sending huge new infusions of discretionary revenue into the hands of autocratic leaders, which they have used to buy off opponents and strengthen their security apparatuses. In Iran and Azerbaijan, surging oil revenues have shored up authoritarian states that once seemed vulnerable.

A second and more pervasive factor has had to do with the performance of the new democracies. Some new democracies are holding their own (like Mali) and even making progress (like Brazil and Indonesia) in the face of enormous accumulated problems and challenges. But the general reality, even in these countries, is that democracy often does not work for average citizens. Rather, it is blighted by multiple forms of bad governance: abusive police and security forces, domineering local oligarchies, inept and indifferent state bureaucracies, corrupt and pliant judiciaries, and ruling elites who routinely shred the rule of law in the quest to get rich in office. As a result, citizens grow alienated from democracy and become susceptible to the patronage crumbs of corrupt political bosses and the demagogic appeals of authoritarian populists like Putin in Russia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

“If democracies do not work better to contain crime and corruption, generate economic growth, relieve economic inequality, and secure freedom and a rule of law, people will eventually lose faith and turn to authoritarian alternatives.”Before democracy can spread further, it must take deeper root where it has already sprouted. Emerging democracies must demonstrate that they can solve governance problems and meet citizens’ expectations for freedom, justice, a better life, and a fairer society. If democracies do not work better to contain crime and corruption, generate economic growth, relieve economic inequality, and secure freedom and a rule of law, people will eventually lose faith and turn to authoritarian alternatives. Struggling democracies must be consolidated, so that all levels of society become enduringly committed to democracy as the best form of government and to the country’s constitutional norms and restraints. Western governments and international aid donors can assist in this process by making most foreign aid contingent on key principles of good governance: a free press, an independent judiciary, and vigorous, independently led institutions to control corruption. International donors also need to expand their efforts to assist these institutions of horizontal accountability as well as initiatives in civil society that monitor the conduct of government and press for institutional reform.

The only way to stem the democratic recession is to show that democracy really is the best form of government — that it can not only provide political freedom but also improve social justice and human welfare.