The difficult path to democracy in Ukraine, Thailand and Egypt
UBC Political Science Assistant Prof. Arjun Chowdhury, an expert on how autocratic regimes cling to power, explores the fight for democracy in these three countries.
Is the instability we’ve seen in three ‘new’ democracies – Ukraine, Thailand, and Egypt – connected?
It is too early to declare a verdict on their transitions towards democracy. Many states fluctuate between democracy, autocracy and ‘anocracy’, or partial democracy, a regime where there are elections, but leaders face few checks on power.
What is similar in Thailand, Ukraine, and Egypt is that the state does not provide for all citizens. Instead, whichever group wins elections uses state resources to reward supporters and exclude other groups from patronage. So when one group wins an election, the other group takes to the streets, not because it doesn’t like democracy, but because it expects to be excluded from the spoils of power.
What is a crucial element of any successful shift to democracy?
Groups that lose elections need guarantees that they have a chance to win in future elections, or at least participate in power-sharing arrangements. If minority groups are excluded from power by a dictator, they could reasonably expect to be excluded from power in a democracy under majority rule. Their response might be a revolt, or to back a new autocratic leader from their own group. So it is important to build institutions, such as protection of minority right, that give all groups a say in the government, even if they are too small to win elections.
What are the critical turning points that lead to success or failure in transition to democracy?
There’s no one set of turning points. In places like Egypt, it’s better to think of fluctuation between democracy, autocracy, and anocracy versus a one-time permanent shift. To avoid this fluctuation, electoral winners must build institutions that give electoral losers ‘insurance’ against being jailed, cut out from government spending or excluded from power. This is hard to do! You win elections and stay in power by rewarding those who voted for you, not reaching out to those who didn’t.
What can established democracies learn from these difficult transitions?
Three things. First, there’s more to a democratic transition than elections or the downfall of a dictator. Second, the transition should be seen as a long-term process rather than a one-time event, like holding an election. Third, it’s not enough that every individual has a vote – what matters is that groups don’t feel they’re permanently left out of the new government.
Is the spread of democracy inevitable, or are we seeing the start of a ‘democratic recession’?
A democratic world is not inevitable, but the number of democracies is not receding either. In the 1990s, the number of democracies increased by 50 per cent, because of the Communist Bloc demise, although many of these were partial democracies.
Since 2000, the number of democracies has stayed about the same. We’ve seen shifts to democracy – in Tunisia, for example – but there has also been backsliding, like in Russia. My best guess, with Yogi Berra’s caveat that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, is that the number of democracies will slowly increase, but some members of the group will fall out at certain moments and come back in later.
Information on global trends in governance 1800-2012 can be found here.