Given the events of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa, there is reason for optimism, as well as skepticism, about how the democratic process may unfold in MENA, and elsewhere. No realist would have honestly imagined that cookie-cutter mini-Americas would sprout up across the landscape, but by the same token, the evolution of extremist Islamist states was also not broadly anticipated since the Arab Spring came to be. Formidable challenges remain. Young democracies are inherently fragile and can quickly revert to chaos or dictatorship. Many of the world's older and more established democracies have stagnated and floundered over the last several years. And authoritarian countries -- such as China -- have delivered impressive gains to their people without resorting to the ballot box.
Convincing research shows that the longer a country is democratic, the more likely it is to stay that way. Once democratic institutions permeate a society, it is much less likely to slide back toward authoritarianism. Unfortunately, fully functional democracies usually take decades to fully materialize, and young democracies tend to be much more fragile in the early years following a democratic transition.
This is particularly true in Iraq, a country that has not yet developed the institutions necessary to buttress itself against severe internal and external threats, nearly a decade after being reborn. Indeed, there is considerable doubt that the Iraqi version of democracy will survive. While Iraq's sectarian divisions may be unique, democracy faces similar challenges in other Arab states. The principle of separation of church and state has never been as strong in the Muslim world as it has been in the West. Many fear that when the Islamists are forced to choose between the will of the people and the interpreted will of God, they will unfortunately choose the latter.
Democracy also seems to be under threat in more established young democracies, such as Hungary. Hungary's center-right party has used its super-majority in the parliament to manipulate the news media, threaten the independence of the judiciary, and pass legislation to cement its hold on power. These rash actions have drawn criticism from the US and EU. There are also concerns that other central and eastern European countries hit hard by the recent economic crises may follow suit. And, of course, Russia's democratic gains are under serious threat.
The world's older democracies are setting a poor example for their younger counterparts. The recent economic crisis has succeeded in deepening the political polarization across the West. Many wealthy democracies cannot even balance their budgets, despite broad agreement that fiscal patterns are unacceptable and unsustainable. The leaders of the US and EU seem unable to come together to safeguard their future. In the US, congressional approval ratings stand at little more than 10%, some of the lowest ratings in US history. To put this in perspective, the corrupt and war-torn Afghan government managed to secure an approval rating of over 30% in 2010.
While young democracies teeter on the brink and the old democracies stagnate, Asian authoritarianism has gained traction among many who are examining successful alternatives. Although riddled with corruption, like most governments in the world, few can deny the efficacy of China's 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' over the past 30 years. More than 600 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty since the 1970s, average Chinese lifespans have increased by six years since that time, and infant mortality has decreased by 70%. While poverty rates in China are in the single digits, America's rose to 16% last year.
Singapore, which has been ruled as a de facto one party state since 1965, is perhaps the best example of how successful Asian authoritarianism can be. Based on the "Lee Thesis" (named after Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore), it portends that developing countries do better by choosing a strongman to lead their country rather than submitting to the capricious whims of a democratic electorate.
Although sophisticated studies have found little systematic evidence to support this view, there is anecdotal evidence, especially in East Asia, that authoritarianism works. In the first half of the 20th century Japan managed to make great strides under a totalitarian government headed by its emperor. Both Taiwan and South Korea experienced their growth miracles before adopting democratic governance. Indeed, both countries made their democratic transitions rather late in the development process. Kazakhstan, Singapore, and many Gulf Arab states have also reaped impressive gains without fully embracing democratic institutions.
While democracy continues its imperfect and uncertain advance, we should remain realistic about its long-term prospects for success. Autocrats around the world will point to evidence -- as noted above -- to counter indigenous movements in favor of democracy, and to legitimize their grip on power. They may call attention to the looming civil war in democratic Iraq or to the Islamists coming to power in North Africa, emphasize how premature democratization can be easily reversed (as is happening in Russia), or point out that democracy can lead to chaos, as it did in Lebanon. They can claim that democracy leads towards polarization, stagnation, and gridlock -- particularly in Western countries with the most established democratic traditions. They can mock Western politics as being dominated by wealthy donors, narrow special interests, and uncompromising ideologues. They will point out how, in stark contrast to richer nations, the autocracies of East Asia have managed to deliver massive increases in wages and living standards to their people, in spite of being far less wealthy and powerful.
Although there are many reasons why it can be argued the world's remaining autocrats should give up power, there are plenty of reasons why they should not -- particularly given the ongoing economic crisis. The outcome of the elections that have occurred thus far in Egypt should be all the evidence anyone needs that extremists can be elected into power just as easily as moderate democrats. A brief look at recent democratic electoral history elsewhere -- such as in Palestine and Venezuela -- further supports this point. Democracy's greatest challenge is to demonstrate that what may ultimately emerge from the process of transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy is a fully functional, truly representative political system that improves living standards, raises incomes, and reduces poverty. That is a reasonable definition of success. Does it necessarily matter how it is achieved?
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (CRS), a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.
Follow Daniel Wagner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/countryriskmgmt
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.