The enigmatic march of democracy

It succeeds in the most obscure places and fails in the most promising ones.

seth frantzman 88 (photo credit: )
seth frantzman 88
(photo credit: )
Reports of a peaceful election in Guinea were met with surprise and relief around the world. After 50 years of dictatorship, since independence in 1958, the small African nation’s 4.2 million registered voters chose a president from among 24 candidates. On the other side of Africa, the people of Somaliland, a breakaway province in Somalia, are voting for the third time in free elections. But one thing stands out in both elections; they were not brought about by Western democratization efforts, but rather by locals. This is one of the enigmas of democratization, it succeeds in the most obscure places and fails in the most promising ones, but has a track record that is generally positive.
In Guinea a 2008 coup led, after a series of upheavals, to democratic elections that have been judged free and fair. In Somaliland things have moved along differently. While it is has not been recognized by the international community since 1991, when it declared independence, it has printed its own money and controls its own borders with an army.
Jeffrey Gettlemen of The New York Times, who has been covering the election, notes that the province’s attachment to democracy partly stems from its colonization by the British and not the Italians, who controlled the rest of Somalia. Somaliland made the unfortunate choice of forming a union with Somalia when it was granted independence in 1960.
Why is democracy sprouting in small countries in Africa that the West doesn’t care about, while Western-sponsored efforts at democratization through influencing institutions and values have failed in numerous places? Why have long-time democracies such as Venezuela and Turkey seemingly begun a process of backsliding into heavy-handed chauvinism? It is a mixed bag. Democracy advocates are willing to die for their beliefs in Teheran. However, in Thailand democracy has resulted in a half decade of mass street protests, resulting in a coup and endless government deadlock.
The question of democracy’s success or failure in the Middle East has resulted in more wasted ink than there is spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico. George W. Bush and the unique group of ideologues he gathered around him believed in democracy for the Middle East as a way to thwart Islamism and bring about new American alliances in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Joshua Muravchik argues in The Next Founders that a fresh breeze is blowing from Riyadh to Ramallah that will result in an outbreak of democracy.
BUT IT hasn’t. Despite the fantasies of academics like Avi Shlaim, a Baghdad-born Jewish resident in the UK, Lebanon is a faulty confessional democracy, and Palestinian democracy has only resulted in the election of anti-democratic Islamists. Democracy advocates in Egypt and Jordan are similar; they are the same green-red alliance of radical Islamists and progressives who brought the mullahs to power in Iran in 1980.
Let’s look further afield. Those, like myself, who were optimistic about the spread of democracy in the Middle East pointed to the successful democratization of the Latin Catholic West. There was a time when Latin Catholic countries were seen, correctly, to be anathema to democracy.
Portugal and Spain only became democracies in the 1970s. Italian democracy was riddled with problems until the 1990s. Latin America only became democratized in the same period; with the exception of Costa Rica, it was mired in coups and military strongmen for much of the 20th century. Yet Latin America, Spain and Italy all had long traditions of democracy dating back to the 19th century.
Democracy successfully emerged in places like Mexico, with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, or Chile in 1988 with Augusto Pinochet’s decision to call for a referendum.
The former Soviet bloc has mostly transitioned successfully. But Russia has slid backward and Central Asia, as witnessed by the rioting in Kyrgyzstan, has serious problems.
Democracies that have emerged, such as Ukraine, remained chained to the past with political parties representing certain ethnic, linguistic or religious groups. That model of democracy is not one that has proven successful, as illustrated by the 1,500 deaths from tribal violence that followed Kenya’s 2008 election.
How do we understand the mixed bag? Western efforts to impose democracy have proven problematic in places as diverse as Kosovo, Haiti and East Timor. Some have unfortunately learned that democracy’s guarantee of freedom of assembly means the loudest and most violent mobs can dictate terms to parliaments, as in Thailand.
Some democracies have not transitioned to multiparty rule, a problem in South Africa. Those that have overly strong twoparty systems find themselves teetering on the brink of civil war.
PEOPLE LIKE to argue whether the West’s involvement has brought democracy or hindered it. Some wonder why the US historically allied itself with friendly dictatorships against communism and now prefers the same in the war against Islamism. Others question why the US under Barack Obama has attempted to “reset” relations with seeming dictatorships in Russia, Venezuela and Iran.
But what the successful turnouts in Guinea and Somaliland may show is that the spread of democracy has two sides. It is glorious because it has successfully spread around the world without external meddling, and most people now desire it, even those who hate it like Hamas. It is also a failure because those countries where democracy was successful retain intractable conflicts and find themselves often deadlocked and teetering on the brink.
The rise of the freedoms so cherished in places like the US has produced such disparate characters as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler and Sayyid Qutb.
Athenian democracy was defeated by Spartan oligarchy partly due to internal dissension.
More Americans died in the Civil War than ever died defending the US against outside forces. Those are glorious histories.
They are also the same shadows that stalk those that will go the polls across the world in decades to come.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.