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Western Democracy Loses Ground To Autocrats

June 15, 2008

June 11, 2008

Part 1: Western Democracy Loses Ground to Autocrats

It's the best of all bad forms of government, but for many it's no
longer good enough. Today democracy leaves lots of people cold, and
in Asia and Africa, many prefer autocratic systems. Damaged by bush,
Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, few are interested in the model of
democracy exported by the United States.

Once upon a time, there was a king who was called the "Precious Ruler
of the Dragon People." The monarch loved his people and his people
loved him in return. One day he announced that he was going to
descend from the throne and voluntarily give up his position of
absolute power. He said the time had come for his people to govern
themselves and that this would make the country's people better able
to realize their philosophy of "Gross National Happiness."

The people were unsure. They thought everything in their little
kingdom had been just fine the way it was. On the other hand, they
didn't want to go against the trend of the times or against the
wishes of their king. So they went ahead and founded political
parties. Despite their continued skepticism with regard to democracy,
they obediently went to the polling stations to cast their ballots.
Voter turnout was around 80 percent. An overwhelming majority of the
electorate voted for the Peace and Prosperity Party. You see, it can
be done, the king observed, delighted with the results. He said he
was looking forward to his own disempowerment and to taking part in
parliamentary debates.

This may sound like a fairy tale or a story based on a figure in
ancient history, but it actually happened, and not all that long ago.
On March 24, Bhutan - a small country high in the Himalayas, nestled
between India, China, and Tibet - was transformed by order of its
king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, from an absolute monarchy into
a democratically legitimated constitutional monarchy. Nine years ago
television was legalized in this remote kingdom with its majestic
mountain peaks, Buddhist monasteries and population of 680,000. Now
democracy has been introduced through what has been a carefully
planned, top-down procedure - like almost everything here in the
"Land of the Thunder Dragon," perched atop the world's tallest mountain range.

Chalk one up for Democracy. At Freedom House, a Washington-based
organization that compiles and regularly updates surveys on the
status of freedom in the world, staff members pinned a green flag
indicating "free" to a map of the world. It was high time there was
something positive to report.

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union
the West declared that liberal democracy had triumphed. Given the
fall of Slobodan Milosovic in the wake of non-violent student
demonstrations in Belgrade in 2000, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in
2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Cedar
Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, the trend seemed to be towards the
spread of democracy. Belarus looked like it would be the next domino
to fall, followed by Azerbaijan and perhaps Burma. Authoritarian
regimes throughout the world seemed to be on their way out, or at
least this was what the young "Democracy-makers" were e-mailing back
and forth to each other at the time, along with recipes for
organizing the next civil disobedience coup and "Revolution Inc."

However, it soon became evident that authoritarian regimes could be
removed by means of non-violent demonstrations only if they had
already been weakened and some sort of oppositional movement already
existed. It did not work against very repressive regimes. Police
brutally beat down demonstrators in Minsk, Baku, Rangoon, and
Tashkent. The same thing happened in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on
orders from the Chinese communist leadership in Beijing in response
to demonstrations held by Buddhist monks this March.

After nearly two decades of hopeful developments the world suffered
painful setbacks in 2006 and 2007 -- at least in the eyes of experts
at Freedom House, a watchdog organization that is largely financed by
the United States government but also gets some private donations.
The organization reported a global decline of political rights and
civil liberties. Democracy is on the wane, a model in crisis. In
Germany democracy continues to be unchallenged as a form of
government, but it doesn't elicit a great deal of enthusiasm anymore
either. In terms of the levels of public support and interest it
requires to be successful it is seen as being under threat here as well.

Voter turnout in German state elections has been in decline for
years. At the local government level there are no longer enough
candidates to ensure that every mayoral election is an exercise in
democracy. The country's traditional major parties - the conservative
Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the center-left Social Democratic
Party (SPD) -- are experiencing an enormous loss of membership. Among
young people there has been a dramatic decline in those who regularly
follow political happenings. If things continue this way Germany will
end up being a democracy without a demos. At any rate, a clear
majority of the people in the eastern German states are no longer
satisfied with the way their form of government works.

Worse yet, business leaders and politicians are expressing enthusiasm
about the can-do spirit of the authoritarian camp and are doing so
with increasing openness. Seeing stagnation for the most part in
their own countries, they look to the economic booms taking place
elsewhere and often express uncritical admiration for them. New
centers of economic strength such as Moscow, Shanghai, Dubai, and
Singapore constantly impress them with new superlatives, the tallest
and most beautiful "cathedrals" of globalization. They have a desire
to be part of this economic growth and, indeed, they need to if they
don't want to lose access to future growth markets.

In today's global competition many companies are all too willing to
kowtow to authoritarian regimes for the sake of gaining new orders
for business. Paying lip service to values such as human rights is
considered bothersome and counter-productive. Success is measured by
the fact that a German technology like the Transrapid magnetic
levitation train can be built in a city like Shanghai. The
circumstances under which that came about are of secondary
importance. Heinrich von Pierer, a China fan and former CEO of German
engineering and electronics giant Siemens, once said, "We simply
can't afford to ignore the Chinese."

And so the obvious is pushed aside. Whatever it is that links the
Putinists, the Communist Party capitalists, the authoritarian sheikhs
and the repressive clingers-on-to-power, it is anything but the brand
of democracy that is still so highly touted and praised by our
politicians. Even the Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry,
normally so proud to be living in "the world's biggest democracy,"
recently groaned that he sometimes wished for the kind of fast and
uncomplicated decision-making processes the Chinese have.

Are assumptions that have been near and dear to us for decades no
longer correct? Things like the famous comment by Winston Churchill
that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all those
others that have been tried"? Are separation of powers and human
rights in actual fact not universally valid concepts for success?
Could it be that repressive systems may actually work better? Short
deliberation periods instead of long discussions, issuing orders
instead of hammering out compromises? Is it racist or simply true
when former Secretary of State Colin Powell says: "There are some
places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so
attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it, they
are not historically ready for it and they don't have the needed institutions."

When it comes to the overall state of democracy, bad news has
dominated lately. When genuinely free elections are actually held in
the Third World, as happened in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and most
recently in Nepal, it is the radicals who win. This, in turn,
confronts the West with the dilemma of whether to recognize a
terrorist organization, if it has been legitimized in a democratic
election. Important countries such as China, Egypt, Nigeria and
Venezuela are examples of the advance of authoritarianism. And
there's a danger it could spread like wildfire. What we have here is
not the "end of history" as professor Francis Fukuyama believed in
1992 -- i.e. the resolution of all problems in a blissful and
democratic environment -- but rather a "return to the past" with
fragmented and aggressive failed states.

PART 2: Bush Damaged American Democracy, But It Is Healing

Just take the example of Zimbabwe. People are allowed to vote there,
but if the results aren't to despot Robert Mugabe's liking, he has
his opponents beaten and tortured and the election results
manipulated. Sadly, the only thing that counts is who does the
counting. Vladimir Putin, in cooperation with his successor and in
all likelihood junior partner, is moving Russia's "managed" democracy
ever faster in the direction of a "demotatorship" with arbitrary rule
instead of genuine elections and rule of law. Should we make it just
a little more than 70 percent, Medvedev, one can imagine them saying
behind the Kremlin walls.

There are instruments of repression that everyone in the West
condemns, governments and the general public alike. Not so in China
or Russia. When 300,000 people are killed in Darfur as a result of
the policies being pursued by the Sudanese government, and when the
military junta in Burma has peacefully demonstrating monks beaten to
death, the men at the helm in Moscow and Beijing remain silent and
stand together shoulder to shoulder. The German lyrics to the famous
socialist song "The Internationale" encourage adherents to "fight for
human rights," but this new alliance of autocrats are either united
against or turn a blind eye to them. Strategic interests - first and
foremost access to the raw materials that are distributed so unevenly
around the world - rule. These interests make political systems
susceptible to dictatorships. Of the 23 countries with the world's
largest reserves of natural resources, only Norway has democratic
institutions. The trend is clearly in the opposite direction.

We are not hearing calls from Asia and Africa for a Western-style
separation of powers in government or for press freedom. People there
have grown cynical. There have not been improvements in the standard
of living in places where democracy is loudly propagated, such as the
Philippines. Rising food prices (dictated by global markets),
incompetent governments and rampant corruption have made a farce of
the institutions that are allegedly working for the people.

Progress has been made, on the other hand, with the Chinese model.
Its increasingly open economic system and closed political system
seem attractive to many Third World countries. Personal happiness is
not defined in terms of free elections, a free press or freedom of
assembly, but rather in terms of opportunities for economic
advancement. According to recent polls taken by social scientists at
the World Values Survey, people in Moldova, a poor but formally
democratic country, are among the least happy in the world, while the
inhabitants of the People's Republic of China, a one-party state, are
among the most optimistic.

The flavor of the season is pragmatic authoritarianism a la Lee Kuan
Yew. Singapore's elder statesman has self-confidently stated that
Western democracy is not suitable for Asians and that they would go a
different route, one that is much better for them.

Something that has characterized democracy in the Western sense of
the term right from the beginning is a promise of justice and
participation in government, a prospect of progress. In the course of
history demos and kratos, people and rulers, have rarely been in
perfect harmony, and certainly were not at the time of the founding fathers.

In ancient Greece, which gave us the words that describe this form of
government, only free male citizens were allowed to participate in
decision-making. Slaves, women and people from other cities had no
voting rights. Although the Roman Empire created the foundations of
an early system of government based on laws, it was not until the
passage of the English Bill of Rights in 1689 that parliamentarianism
was institutionalized. After that the French also came into the
picture. Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire took up the fight for
freedom of thought and equality before the law. But it was not until
1789 that a genuinely democratic government was created, on the basis
of the American constitution.

Many of the idealized basic rights formulated by Thomas Jefferson
were never implemented, having been tempered by the realities of his
era, which were far from ideal. Despite assurances to the contrary,
Jefferson had no intention whatsoever of abolishing slavery. It was
much too profitable a business and as a landowner he owned slaves himself.

The United States had a long and difficult road ahead of it in the
question of slavery. In general Americans gained their constitutional
freedoms by fighting for them, and this impetus came from the people
themselves. It was not until the mid-1960s that the civil rights
movement led by Martin Luther King attained equal rights for African
Americans. Democracy involves the gradual acquisition of rights
through a laborious process that requires patience and perseverance.
Democracy does not provide automatic solutions and nor does it offer
a recipe for instant happiness.

The United States developed into a system with model character on the
basis of its democratic rights, including free elections, separation
of powers (through the executive, legislative and judicial branches
of government), freedom of expression, and protection of minorities.
But America has lost much of the attractiveness it once had for other
countries. So much so that more than 50 percent of Germans and French
now judge the policies of the leading Western power negatively. It's
highly unlikely that this has anything to do with a general sense of
skepticism with regard to democracy. There is an obvious connection
between this decline in popularity and the record of the Bush
administration. The laundry list of issues includes permission to
torture prisoners, conditions in Guantanamo, the violation of
international law by invading Iraq, provocating allies with
abductions and extraordinary renditions to CIA black sites. That's
not exactly what one could call living in accordance with democratic ideals.

Many Americans share that assessment of the Bush administration.
Gallup polls taken this spring have shown Bush with the worst
disapproval rating ever measured for an American president. More than
70 percent of the American population believe their country, long
seen as an example for the rest of the world, to be moving in the
wrong direction.

This is a radical change that could also provide an opportunity. The
simplistic view of the world taken by neocons, including their belief
that America's ability to project power abroad is absolute, has been
shattered. A nation in crisis is slowly finding its way back to its
core values. On a number of occasions independent supreme court
judges have handed down rulings that have clipped the
administration's wings. The news media are no longer holding back in
their criticism.

The self-healing powers of democracy have started to kick in. The
presidential primaries have shown how strong the tradition of
political contest is and how closely a large majority of the populace
is following the competitive effort to find the right candidate who
has the right policies. This spring has been the Obama-Clinton-McCain
show. After years in which democracy was emasculated, we are finally
seeing a living example of American pluralism.

The Republican candidate doesn't talk about exporting Western values
or arrogantly taking unilateral actions without consulting with the
rest of the world. He refers to himself as a multilateralist. He
knows that in the eyes of his fellow countrymen and of the world in
general America's status as a superpower has been considerably
weakened both militarily and morally by its occupation of Iraq. At
present the world isn't inclined to trust the United States as a
torchbearer for democratic values any more than it is to trust the
Chinese as torchbearers for the values associated with the Olympic Games.

The question for the West in the coming years is not so much what
countries will open up to the Western model of parliamentary
government or even to adopt this model. The immediate problem being
faced by the United States and other democracies is that of slowing
the advance of autocratic countries and limiting their attractiveness
to others. There can be no doubt that lots of things can be done more
easily in an authoritarian system. "Who wouldn't prefer to do
business in a country that doesn't have free labor unions? Who would
pass up the chance to reconstruct entire cities without the public
getting to have its say?" asks prominent author Ian Buruma, who
advises against preaching purism in matters of democracy.

With the end of the Cold War, what were once clear distinctions
between democracy and autocracy began to blur on either side of the
former Iron Curtain as well as in the US and Soviet client states in
Asia, Africa and Latin America. On closer examination and in the view
of those concerned, democracy is no longer seen in every case as
something extremely positive to be admired and worked towards (if,
indeed, it ever was viewed this way). Autocracy is no longer seen in
every instance as something terrible or something to be afraid of.
And this is perfectly understandable. Governments don't come in
distinct forms and colors but rather in many shades of gray.

If democracy continues to be a construct imposed from the outside it
will end up calling itself into question. All too often the West has
contented itself with mere compliance with some empty formulistic
criteria. In Nigeria, for instance, "parties" were created in
accordance with the Western example.

On paper, at least, it looked wonderfully democratic. These parties,
however, were not places where policies were formulated and political
decision-making was carried out. They were merely facades for the
interests of corrupt politicians and businessmen. Under circumstances
of this kind elections can be absolutely counterproductive for the
development of the countries in question, particularly if they are
divided up into tribal areas and the parties are dominated by
specific ethnic groups. Elections in Nigeria and Kenya have tended to
exacerbate ethnic conflicts instead of helping to promote national
reconciliation. Sustainable democracy is based on more than just
elections. It requires a functioning civil society that has
confidence in government institutions, is willing to work on the
basis of compromise and respects the law. Stated more simply, unless
you have rule of law and competent politicians free of corruption,
you don't have democracy.

PART 3: Democracy Can Only Come From Below

Good governance - i.e. governing in the best interests of the people
- is not possible without their participation, but it can be managed
without copying Western ideas. Although the country is governed in a
patriarchal manner, no serious observer would deny that Singapore is
governed competently. The people there benefit from the freedom they
have to shape political decisions. At the same time they benefit from
the fact that the government provides them with basic economic
security, access to education and basic health care.

These social benefits are also guaranteed in the United Arab
Emirates, at least for the country's own nationals. However, the
latter make up only about one-tenth of the overall population. Most
of the rest are underprivileged Indian and Pakistani guest workers.
With the Federal National Council ("Majlis"), which has an advisory
function in decision-making processes and also addresses critical
issues, the far-sighted rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai see themselves
following in the tradition of the prophet.

Conservative Muslims and radical Islamists perceive Western forms of
democracy to be a threat to their religion. This is not hard to
understand given that their experience with the export of democracy
from the United States or Europe has been as something imposed on
them, often with military force, as in the case of Iraq.

The most dissatisfied and pessimistic people in the world are living
in post-Soviet states and Iraq - all formally defined as democratic
countries. Professor Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan
notes that it is simply not the case that people live happily ever
after when constitutions are adopted. It is obvious that democracy in
and of itself does not automatically make people happy. Rather it is
happy people who make a democracy.

Inglehart refers in this context to South Korea and Taiwan, societies
that up until the 1980s were strictly regimented development
dictatorships that nonetheless offered their citizens opportunities
for education and career advancement. As the populations of these
societies became increasingly affluent they also succeeded in gaining
political freedoms. Today elected representatives of parties dominate
the political scene both in Seoul and in Taipeh.

Can this be seen as a general rule? When authoritarian rulers
liberalize their economies will this gradually lead to the
development of democratic institutions and political freedoms? Will
the people demand these freedoms and will the rulers accommodate
their wishes? Experts have said that the South Korean scenario is
likely to happen in China.

So far there is no evidence that would prove the assumption that
authoritarianism and economic growth go hand in hand. The majority of
Chinese seem to be satisfied with the opportunities they have for
economic advancement and attach very little importance to
participation in political decision-making processes. Beijing is at
most taking baby steps in the direction of democracy. It now offers
elections at the local village level, for example, but not beyond
that. There is a constitutional guarantee for private ownership and a
right to freedom of speech, at least in theory. On the other hand,
when a minority like the Tibetans voice the slightest protest this is
seen as an attempt to destabilize the country and their voices are
silenced with brute force.

The Chinese Communist Party talks a lot about democracy. President Hu
Jintao calls it "the common goal of mankind." But the party refuses
to give up its monopoly on political power and has no intention
whatsoever of allowing the other attributes of a pluralistic system
such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a genuinely
independent judicial system. Serious human rights violations abound
in China. Human rights activists are subject to arbitrary arrest and
often sentenced to long prison sentences. Excessive use is made of
the death sentence and condemned prisoners are executed by the
thousands. Communist Party assurances as to its pursuit of democratic
policies seem to be mere mockery.

There is one thing the Chinese leadership can rightly take credit
for: "We have implemented the biggest human right there is. We are
able to feed our 1.3 billion citizens," the Communist Party's
mouthpice, People's Daily, wrote. Never before in history have so
many people been able to lift themselves out of abject poverty and
build a normal existence for themselves in such a short period of
time, i.e. in the three decades since Deng Xiaoping's economic
reforms were introduced. Most Chinese are still willing to tolerate
the growing divide between the rich and the poor. Most migrant
workers are still willing to see the poorly paid jobs they do in
China's major cities as an opportunity and not as a humiliation.

Yet the numerous spontaneous demonstrations against arbitrary actions
on the part of administrative authorities, cronyism and scandalous
working conditions in coal mines and sweatshops show that something
of vital importance is missing in the Chinese system, despite the
continued impressive levels of economic growth and record foreign
exchange reserves. There is no outlet for channeling anger at the
authorities and using it to help counteract negative social trends
and political decisions. China's major competitor, India, clearly has
such an outlet for the expression of worker discontent: a critical
press and free elections.

The People's Republic of China and democratic India, the two most
populous countries in the world, are among its most successful
economic powers, the Chinese dragon currently a little more than the
Indian elephant. There are a number of factors that would seem to
indicate that India's democracy could have a chance of winning out
over China's dictatorship in the long run.

Indians vote incompetent governments out of office. They don't
tolerate restrictions on their civil liberties. They insist on legal
security. Amartya Sen, a professor of economics and Nobel laureate
from West Bengal who is no stranger to criticism of Indian government
policies, noted that it is not autocracy but rather democratic forms
of government that help prevent extremely negative economic trends.
He cited as an example the fact that there has never been a major
famine in a democracy. Politicians seeking re-election cannot afford
to allow major social disasters to occur.

Sen, who teaches at Harvard, added that democracy contributes towards
national unity, pointing out that India is ethnically much less
homogeneous than China while the latter has significantly greater
trouble dealing with its minorities. He suggested that Delhi, which
leads in the area of elite training, and Beijing, which has an
outstanding record in satisfying material and knowledge-related
needs, could learn from each other.

Optimists say that democratic societies have proven to be more
stable, also economically, than their authoritarian counterparts.
They are still better at achieving a more equal society. As a result,
there is no long-term reason to feel discouraged. Democracy is
perhaps only in a temporary downturn, a transitory crisis. We would
doubtless have more success in exporting democracy if this were to be
done more carefully and without insisting that it always is the right model.

The decisive trend in the direction of pluralism and separation of
powers can only come from below, from the grassroots level of a
country. It must be connected with hope for improvement in living
conditions and personal freedoms. It is only in this way that we can
break away from the "self-inflicted dependence" Immanuel Kant spoke of.

"Democracy is the only form of government that allows for the
peaceful correction of errors committed and, as such, continues to be
the most attractive political model around," assesses German
historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler. There's no doubt that that's the case.
Word still needs to get around to more people. At the moment the
trend is still pointing in the other direction.

Thus it is that Bhutan, a tiny country high up in the Himalayas, and,
on the other side of the world, Paraguay, in the pancake-flat
expanses of the pampas, are the only countries to have succeeded in
adopting a democratic form of government in the recent past. In
mid-April Fernando Lugo, a former bishop and hero to the poor, won a
sensational victory in the presidential election in Asunción,
defeating a candidate from the Colorado Party, which had ruled
Paraguay for more than 60 years prior to that. It isn't clear yet
whether the corrupt elite that has controlled the country for so long
is going to hold back or if they are going to try to undermine Lugo's
land reforms. Obviously skepticism is warranted here. Nonetheless, a
new democratic experiment has begun.
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