Democratization in the Developing World: Backsliding to Reality – Panama Red – May 11

When mortals make plans and predictions, the gods laugh. In 1974, a number of previously authoritarian states had dalliances with democracy, prompting political scientists to declare a new “wave” of democratization across the globe. A series of forecasts soon followed, with some saying the wave would diminish while others claimed it would continue to surge along, well into the successive century. What has occurred instead is that many of these countries have either slid back into authoritarianism or become stagnant in their evolutions, becoming “hybrid” regimes – seemingly liberalized, but factually still autocratic. In examining why this has happened, it is worthwhile to look at the progressive movement of democratization endorsed by sanguine observers of democratization and then the factors that have contributed to the frustration of this movement. Ultimately, it may be necessary to reassess whether these “democracies with adjectives” are truly stuck in a rut or merely the product of the actual world in which we live.

It is incorrect, albeit tempting, to see democratization from a teleological perspective, in which liberal democracy emerges naturally from the liberalization of authoritarian regimes. According to this view, democratic constructs – such as elections – will naturally breed a behavioral inclination toward democracy, regardless of how authentic and effective such elections are. It has been argued, for instance, that exclusive constitutions from the colonial era as well as contemporary uncompetitive elections in African states foster “institutional learning”, leading to “acquired behavior” which lays the groundwork for genuine democracy at some later point (van de Walle, pp. 282-283, 2009). This evolutionary approach is steeped in optimism yet contradicted by reality. An analysis citing Freedom House measurements of democracy from 2001 to 2002 noted that African countries that underwent democratic transitions in the 1990s tended to be ranked as more “Free” than those countries in the region where autocratic incumbents had remained in power. This prompted the conclusion that, while “full” democracy had yet to be realized, shifts toward democracy were meaningful advancements toward that objective (van de Walle, pp. 279-280, 2009). In its most recent Freedom in the World report, however, Freedom House indicates that the “most significant setback” for democratization in Africa occurred in Ethiopia, which in the 1990s underwent several democratic reforms, including the adoption of a new constitution and the country’s first multiparty elections. Yet these steps toward liberalization have largely been undone in recent years, with last year’s repression of opposition groups in national elections the latest example. Similar backsliding, according to the report, also took place in Burundi and Rwanda (Puddington, pp. 8-9, 2011). This trend of reversion is not limited to sub-Saharan Africa. Countries throughout the developing world, once thought to be on the cusp of embracing the liberal democratic model, have either idled in their conversions or relapsed to dictatorial systems and methods. The dawn of worldwide liberal democracy, the apparent “end of history”, seems trapped in the twilight of hybrid regimes. How can this phenomenon be explained?

Rather than laying down and admitting defeat to the “end of history” narrative that emerged at the onset of two decades prior, authoritarian leaders have proven remarkably adept at creating institutions that appear ostensibly representative and manipulating them through myriad strategies. Such leaders may splinter, restrict or even outright ignore the behavior of these institutions, which may range from national legislatures to local governments (Schedler, pp. 71-76, 2010). There certainly seems to be less cost associated with controlling these institutions to serve one’s own purposes, at least in comparison to preventing their organic development through suppressive means. Indeed, it could even be argued that authoritarian leaders have taken their cues from governments in established democracies. While it is difficult to draw direct comparisons between spin-doctors and political consultants in the U.S. with “political technologists” in Russia, even authors seeking to avoid this equation have to acknowledge the obvious parallels (Krastev, pp. 56-57, 2006). While it is true that Russia’s “technologists” have the advantage of state-run media in engineering legitimization of the state, it may be going too far to suggest that the media in countries widely recognized as liberal democracies is wholly independent. Media outlets may be free to (and often do) criticize the ruling administrations, but they are still beholden to the agendas set by their owners. The operators of the Fourth Estate in their respective countries are not likely to be predisposed to undermine the overall system that supports and reinforces them. While their interests may conflict with the government of the day in regards to some (or even most) of the latter’s policies, they are just as likely to engage in the same sort of propaganda and “necessary fiction” witnessed in authoritarian states when the generation of public approval is necessary. For example, it is exceedingly rare in the U.S. mainstream media to see or hear radical criticisms of U.S. policy, be it past or present, as conventional wisdom is traditionally repeated between two commercial breaks; severe departures from established norms are discouraged because they would require elaborate explanation and the challenging of assumed truths (Achbar and Wintonick, 1992). Manipulation of the masses via institutions is therefore hardly a feature unique to countries commonly regarded as authoritarian.

Arguably, democratization itself can be regarded as the product of external forces massaging the developed world to integrate with a prevailing system. Scholars have identified this external pressure down to two variables: leverage, meaning the effective ability of Western countries to apply demands on a government, and linkage, the concreteness of a country’s incorporation into Western-led multinational organizations (Levitsky and Way, 2009, p. 290). If the West has a high amount of influence over a country, which in turn is also highly tied into Western spheres of influence (be it through economic interaction or geographic proximity), the more likely it is to conform to Western democracy promotion (even if it is superficially). This approach deserves attention, as it moves away from individual agents and domestic institutions and considers the international stage, which during the age of globalization is of mammoth importance. Recent constitutional reforms in Turkey, for example, can be seen not so much as evidence of a national trend toward increased appreciation for human rights and government transparency but a desire to appease particular preconditions for entrance into the European Union. Yet the exertion of leverage and linkage is not always so benevolent. The 1999 intervention on the part of the West (through NATO) in the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo was framed as a democratic victory accomplished with the goal self-determination for ethnic Albanian Kosovars. A crucial component of the Rambouillet peace agreement presented to Serbia, however, was the sale of state assets and the implementation of a “free market economy” in Kosovo, which – like the rest of what remained of Yugoslavia – had yet to be overtaken by Western capital (Clark, 2004). The promotion of liberal democracy appears attached to the simultaneous celebration of global capitalism, and it is hard to think of cases where bastions of authoritarian rule (such as Castro’s Cuba or post-1979 Iran) are not just criticized for undemocratic political practices but also the inefficiency of their traditionally closed economies. Absolute monarchies with closed societies and a history of repressing dissidents, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are generally excluded from such criticisms, presumably because they are already “linked” in to the international economic system. These rentier states are dependent on foreign patronage of their petroleum exports, but this leverage is negated by the West’s necessity that they be both stable and pro-Western in their foreign policy. Pursuing democratization in these places could, potentially, undermine the region’s political equilibrium and lead to an external affairs disposition less amicable to the West.

The perseverance of authoritarianism cannot be ascribed to the power of external actors only. As noted above, so-called “competitive authoritarian” states have taken cues from leading, well-developed liberal democracies in producing the appearance of elite accountability and popular representation. The use of political consultants, “spin” and setting narratives in the mainstream media are examples of one form of institutional manipulation regularly seen in the West. The U.S. Congress has typically been bypassed since World War II in regards to military interventions in foreign countries, despite a clear constitutional directive that such approval should be sought. In the United Kingdom, local authorities are largely dependent on funding distributed by the central government and, as such, are generally obliged to conform to guiding principles set by Whitehall. The notion that the people manage and influence their representatives seems to be turned on its head, no matter where one looks. Is liberal democracy, then, a sham at its essence? There may be value in looking past theorists like John Locke, who first advanced the supremacy of the individual as the cornerstone of the liberal state, and bringing things back to Thomas Hobbes and the supremacy of the sovereign and the state. In a Hobbesian conception of democracy, citizens invest power in the “sovereign” – the government – but are not represented by the government; instead, the government represents the state, an entity that is meaningless on its own yet at the same entirely empowers the government to act. In the Hobbesian perspective, the government does not act on the behalf of individuals (who may take exception to certain government actions), as this would lead to fragmented, inchoate behavior. The government draws authority as a representative of the state, enabling it to do things which individuals and even certain groups may find objectionable but are nevertheless necessary, according to this view (Runciman, pp. 26-28, 2009). While the government is accountable to the people for what it does under the standard of the state, the government is nevertheless not expected to act in line with the general will. The government is an administrative body and the state is merely an abstraction used to justify it, to sanction its control. This would not be such a bad state of affairs if one believed that the government only had the interests of the citizenry at heart and, like any ideal manager, worked with its subordinates for the common welfare. Even the least cynical among us, however, generally concede that not all members of the multitude are equal; some wield inordinately more influence than others. These dominant elites are thus the primary source of authorization for the government, which in turn asserts their narrows interests, while the idea of the “state” underlies and validates it all. This approach to representative democracy appeals to a largely abandoned political philosophy, but may provide some insights into the practical rather than idealized functioning of democratic government.

In spite of the bright hopes that accompanied the third wave of democratization, the Hegelian new gospel of liberal democracy spanning continent to continent has not been realized. If anything, authoritarian regimes are liberalizing just enough in order to gain the vestiges of legitimacy if not the real thing. Authoritarianism has adopted a democratic face. But we cannot think of this purely in terms of what is happening within these despotic states. We must also factor in the role of Western actors and globalization as well as the patterns they set in their own democracies and how these are taken on in the developing world.

Works Cited

Achbar, Mark and Peter Wintonick (1992). Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media [Motion Picture]. Canada: National Film Board of Canada.

Clark, Neil (2004). The Spoils of Another War. The Guardian. Retrieved from…/kosovo.comment

Krastev, Ivan (2006). Democracy’s “Doubles”. The Journal of Democracy, 17 (2).

Levitsky, Steven and Lucan A. Way (2009). International Linkage and Democratization. In L. Diamond and M. Plattner (Eds.), Democracy – A Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Puddington, Arch (2011). Freedom in the World 2011: The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy. Retrieved from…011_Booklet.pdf

Runciman, David (2009). Hobbes’s Theory of Representation. In I. Shapiro, S. Stokes, E.J. Wood and A. Kirshner (Eds.), Political Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schedler, Andreas (2010). Authoritarianism’s Last Line of Defense. The Journal of Democracy, 21 (1).

Van de Walle, Nicolas (2009). Africa’s Range of Regimes. In L. Diamond and M. Plattner (Eds.), Democracy – A Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.