Friday, January 20, 2012

Democracy the dandelion: tough, resiliant, and spreading

Paul Pillar writes in The National Interest that Hungary's present government, with its allegedly undemocratic tendencies, shows how vulnerable democracy is.
This affair shows how even a country where liberal democratic principles seem to have been firmly established (and in this case a country that until now has been a member in good standing of the club of advanced democracies known as the European Union) may back away from consistent application of those principles. Democratization and liberalization are not necessarily one-way processes. To realize this goes against the tendency to think of them as a one-way process.
I see quite a bit of this concern about weakening democracy; remember Naomi Klein's 10 steps towards fascism, which she claimed George Bush's administration had well under way in 2007.

But I'm quite optimistic, because history seems to show that democratisation really has been a mostly one-way process. A century ago universal suffrage in democracies was almost unknown: only a handful of countries held elections and fewer allowed access to women. Today there are scores of such countries including billions of enfranchised people. Almost all of Europe, North America and South America have been democratised. In Asia great populous democracies like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea hold regular elections. The Economist says that between 1960 and 1991 only one African country 'witnessed any leader or ruling party being peacefully voted out of office' while, since 1991, 'no less than 30 ruling parties or leaders have been ousted by voters'.

Some of these are unstable, repressive, or rigged democracies. But perhaps the important thing here is that they are young; democracy hasn't yet had time to dominate and establish its legitimacy. When Fianna Fáil won the Irish general election in 1932, becoming the first opposition party to oust the dominant Cumann na nGaedheal, some of their members carried guns in their pockets into parliament for fear that Cumann na nGaedheal would refuse to surrender power. This was the insecurity of young Irish democracy, only a decade after the establishment of the Irish Free State.

Today such an act would seem hilarious or mad. Generations have been raised under democracy and now no alternative is discussed. Democracy in parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia (and even Eastern Europe, much of which lurched from monarchy to communism with little experience of democracy until the 1990s) is new. If it survives the first few turbulent decades then I expect it to strengthen.

There are countries like Pakistan, Turkey or Thailand that bob back and forth between democracy and dictatorship. I guess that as long as overthrowing the government with force is in people's memories it might seem a legitimate option. A few generations of continuous democracy might delegitimise other systems of government. The new democracies of North Africa are shaky and vulnerable now, but if they survive a few decades I expect them to succeed.

I can think of dozens of examples of old, long-established monarchies which changed into democracies. But old, long-established democracies which lapsed back into totalitarianism? No.

Democracy could worsen in quality, but I don't see any abandonment of elections and parliaments in established democracies. If I was a king or dictator, I would be deeply worried about the modern world with the very rapid expansion of democracy over the last century. Imagine how nervous the Chinese government must be with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and to some extent or other, Russia and Pakistan all adhering to forms of democracy. It is ascendent and in countries where it is long-established it is stable. World leaders whose power relies on unrepresentative forms of government should be nervous.

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