Niall Ferguson: Has the democratic wave broken?

Roundup: Historians' Take

... Is the tide of political freedom now ebbing after the spectacular flow that began in 1989? Recent events on nearly every continent certainly give real cause for concern to those who dream of a world governed by the ballot box rather than the bullet. But they may also provide an overdue opportunity to think more realistically about the way the process of democratisation works.

The picture is, as usual, especially bleak in Africa, where two erstwhile democratic role-models find themselves in serious difficulty. Only five years ago, Mwai Kibaki’s election as president was supposed to mark a new dawn for Kenya after 24 long years of misrule by Daniel arap Moi. But now allegations that Kibaki in effective stole last month’s presidential election from the opposition leader Raila Odinga have unleashed bloody ethnic conflict between Kikuyus and other tribes.

The problem in South Africa is not violent (as yet) but it is equally troubling. There, the African National Congress has chosen as its new leader, and therefore the country’s most likely next president, a man who currently faces serious corruption charges involving payments of more than R4m. Already, some of Jacob Zuma’s more radical supporters are warning that there will be “blood spilt in the courtroom” if he is convicted. It is not without significance that Zuma is a Zulu, while his arch-rival Thabo Mbeki is a Xhosa.

In Asia, too, democracy is in retreat. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan on December 27, two weeks before elections were due to be held there, has significantly reduced the chances of a peaceful transition from military rule back to democracy. In Thailand, the generals are still in power 16 months after staging a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra (another democratically elected leader facing accusations of corruption). Meanwhile, a much nastier military junta continues to rule Burma with the mailed fist, having crushed last summer’s protests by political dissidents and Buddhist monks. It is scarcely worth adding that the prospects for democracy in the world’s most populous country look little brighter. The Chinese Communist party shows no sign of wanting to relinquish its monopoly on power.

To be sure, communist rule is a thing of the past in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Vladimir Putin, is making a mockery of the Russian constitution by, in effect, handing the presidency to one of his own sidekicks, who intends to appoint Putin as prime minister. Nor is Russia the only former Soviet Republic slipping back into old autocratic habits. In Kyrgyzstan, last month’s elections were condemned by international observers. Kazakhstan is little more than an Oriental despotism; the same goes for Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” seems to be withering fast.

Latin America offers some consolations, though it still remains to be seen if Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will really accept the unexpected defeat he was handed in last month’s referendum on constitutional “reform”. As for the greater Middle East, the Bush administration’s bid to spread democracy at gunpoint has proved far more costly in lives, money and time than almost anyone in Washington envisaged five years ago. Despite the success of the recent military “surge”, Iraq continues to teeter on the verge of civil war. Afghanistan is little better.

It was not supposed to be like this. Nearly 20 years ago, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published a seminal essay, “The End of History”, in which he prophesied “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

In fairness to Fukuyama, he was writing after more than a decade of sustained improvement in global governance. In the mid-1970s, roughly half the world’s states could be classified as “autocracies”. By 1989 the number had very nearly halved. And the trend continued much as Fukuyama foresaw – by 2002 it was down to fewer than 30. In its 1998 report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance was able to announce that, for the first time, a majority of the world’s population were living in democracies. There really did seem to be a democratic wave, beginning in the Iberian peninsula in the mid-1970s, spreading to Latin America and parts of Asia in the 1980s and sweeping eastwards from central Europe in 1989-91. All Fukuyama did was surf it.

The trouble with waves is that sooner or later they break....

Why does democracy flourish in some countries, but shrivel and die in others? The simplest answers on offer are economic. According to the political scientist Adam Przeworski, there is a straightforward relationship between per capita income and the likelihood that a democracy will endure. In a country where the average income is below $1,000 a year, democracy is unlikely to last a decade. Once average income exceeds $6,000 a year, it is practically indestructible. This certainly seems plausible at first sight. The countries with the maximum Freedom House scores are, with the exception of Barbados, the rich countries of north-western Europe. The countries with the lowest scores include some of Africa’s poorest....

The key to spreading democracy is clearly not just to overthrow undemocratic regimes and hold elections. Nor is it simply a matter of waiting for a country to achieving the right level of income or rate of growth. The key, as Stanford political scientist Barry Weingast has long argued, is to come up with rules that are “self-enforcing”, so that the more they are applied, the more respected they become, until at last they become inviolable.

There is no reason why that should not be possible in any of the world’s civilisations. As the British example makes clear, however, it can (and probably must) be a very protracted process. And that is precisely why it would be rash, after a few bad years, to prophesy the death of democracy – as rash as it was to predict its triumph after a few good ones.

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