chapter  1
22 Pages

New challenges to democratization


Readers familiar with the general discourse on contemporary democratization and on international promotion of democracy today could be forgiven for thinking that both of these are currently in crisis – or if they are not there yet, then they are heading remorselessly in that direction. For example, Larry Diamond, over the past 20 years or so one of the most prominent scholars in the US writing about democratization, has surmised that a new ‘reverse wave’ of democracy might be underway, with resistance to democratization or, even, democratic regression being particularly marked in a number of ‘swing states’ that possess significant demographic and economic size.1 In 2008, democratic progress in small countries with little importance on the world stage such as the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal have to be balanced against the negative political trends inside a resurgent power like Russia and the forceful clampdown on protestors in China that surrounded the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing. The reasons range widely, over the effects of singular decisions such as the

waging of war on Iraq to developments of a more deep-seated and structural kind. They include both recent political developments inside countries and some disturbing economic as well as political trends at the level of the international system. At the country level, the increasing concentration of power in Russia under former President Putin is a prominent example. Internationally, the consequences for democracy in the developing world of large hikes in the price of major internationally traded commodities, most notably oil, are no less troubling, notwithstanding the sharp price corrections late in 2008. The same is true of the apparent appeal for some developing country leaders of a national model that generates development without democracy, as found in China, whose dramatic economic growth helped fuel the commodity price hikes in the first place. The evidence is that neither economic liberalization nor genuine economic progress offer a guarantee of significant democratic reform. In the Middle East, the dreams of US President George Bush that freedom

and democracy would spread in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s

regime in Iraq have turned out to lack substance. Instead there is talk of the exceptionalism of the Arab world, or of the world of Islam. In Latin America and elsewhere the disappointment that has been expressed by ordinary people with democracy’s seeming inability to address their economic and social ills is palpable. And the European Union’s project of enlargement, which has been a major force for consolidating democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, appears to have run out of steam. Meanwhile the industry that has built up around the international promo-

tion of democracy seems to be facing a ‘backlash’, substantially but not wholly due to the use of external military force to remove governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mood among democracy practitioners now appears to be that their activity badly needs a new image. More hard evidence that it really can achieve favourable results, at a time when the commitment to democracy support of both government and society in the US seems to be waning, would be most welcome not just in the US but in Europe too. The enhancement of national security takes priority. At the minimum, and as a US Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2007) put it, ‘The democracy promotion ideal is now under close scrutiny.’ Various security issues all looked at through a short to medium perspective appear to be uppermost in the foreign policy deliberations of the established democracies. Of course, this miasma does not constitute a judgement on the contemporary state of democratization any more than that process of change equates to the condition of democracy itself. Nevertheless the presence of what seem to be parallel worrying trends concerning both democratization and democracy promotion does raise the possibility that there could be mutual reinforcement. Democracy is of course a much-contested concept. But in most of the dis-

course on democratization and in the understandings held by democracy promoters also there are certain widely accepted notions of electoral democracy and liberal democracy, the latter characterized in particular by a fuller set of civil liberties and freedoms for individuals and minority groups. None of the datasets claiming to describe trends in democracy around the world are without their critics. But one of the most prominent examples, the Freedom House annual survey of political rights and civil liberties in the world, appears to offer compelling evidence. The survey for 2007 indicated not just that the total number of democracies had reached a plateau (it stood at 121 in 2007) but that levels of freedom were starting to erode.2 The trend is broadly based, with examples in South Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Four times as many countries experienced a decline in freedom during 2007 as registered improvement. The signs are that, in very general terms, 2008 will tell a similar story of modest declines in freedom affecting some countries in most regions. More particularly, the task of stabilizing new democracies and preventing

democracies in transition from falling back now appears more difficult than we used to think. Meanwhile the resistance mounted by the opponents of

reform in many of the non-democracies looks as firm as ever: highly authoritarian regimes are among the most durable regimes, and semi-democratic regimes are vulnerable by comparison (Hadenius and Teorell 2007). In addition, we are all now more aware of the existence of many fragile and failing states, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example. These provide particularly hostile terrain for establishing democracy. The staging of elections has proven to be premature. The challenges in these different categories of country are all different. The fact of difference compounds the challenge facing democracy promoters, who cannot hope to alight on a single model or just one approach to promoting democracy that would suit all circumstances. Their ability to transfer lessons of experience from one country or set of countries to another is severely circumscribed, which makes their task more difficult. The aim of this book is to explore the widespread contention that new

challenges and obstacles have arisen to democratization and to the spread of democracy around the world. This means exploring what lies behind the claims that a crisis exists or is now looming, and assessing their accuracy. And it means doing it in a format that brings together the several different strands of the debate. The book makes no assumption that all the more pessimistic claims are correct. After all, while Hadenius and Teorell (2007) calculate that more than three-quarters of transitions from authoritarian rule in the years 1972-2003 produced not democracy but yet another authoritarian regime, they also claim that because multiparty regimes are now common among authoritarian regimes, this offers a hopeful sign for democracy’s future. Similarly, far from international democracy support having now been discredited and disowned in all quarters, in 2008, Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband said unequivocally in a speech entitled ‘The Democratic Imperative’, ‘I am unapologetic about a mission to help democracy spread throughout the world.’3 While less vocal on the issue than his predecessor in the White House, US President Obama in his inaugural speech on 20 January 2009 hinted more at a new approach to freedom and democracy support, not a policy of abandonment. Rather than take sides, then, this book seeks to interrogate the arguments,

to try to establish where the balance of evidence and reasoning lies. Based on the evidence and reasoning provided in the intervening chapters, the final chapter will sum up the forces and conditions where detailed knowledge can help us not to predict with certainty the future of democratization or even the future of democracy promotion but, rather, to establish the most important influences that may well have a significant bearing on the outlook for both of these. The central questions to be borne in mind throughout can be summarized

very simply: is democratization in trouble and, if so, what is the nature of the problem and how serious is it? Are viable alternatives to democracy now coming forward? Is old-style democracy promotion past its sell-by date, and, if so, are actors who are central to it developing an effective response? And

what can the new challenges facing democratization and democracy promotion tell us about the future for democratization and the global political order?4