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Interview: Why the world is losing faith in democracy

March 30, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • In his book, Joshua Kurlantzick tracks the fate of emerging democracies, examines the causes of flagging enthusiasm for participatory democracy and ponders whether the decline is reversible.
In his book, Joshua Kurlantzick tracks the fate of emerging democracies,… (Yale University Press )

In the heady days of 1989, nondemocratic regimes fell like dominoes to the peaceful march of activists across Eastern Europe. Even China briefly appeared vulnerable to popular demands for a voice in how the country is ruled -- until the crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

The spread of democratic rule was at its apex a decade ago, when many of Africa’s strongmen went the way of the discredited European Communists. Free elections brought to power a new generation promising to wrest the continent from poverty.

Since then, though, democracy has been on the wane. Economies have been undermined by the global recession. Skimming public funds in secret has been replaced by blatant corruption. Fragile democratic institutions have been manipulated by autocrats masquerading as advocates of equality and freedom.

In his newly released book,  "Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government” (Yale University Press, March 2013), writer and scholar Joshua Kurlantzick tracks the fate of emerging democracies, examines the causes of flagging enthusiasm for participatory democracy and ponders whether the decline is reversible.

Kurlantzick, who studies Southeast Asian politics and democratization at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed the trend in an interview with The Times.

 Q: What recommends democracy -- when, as you note, top-down economic development policies in places like China, Singapore and the gulf states sometimes provide better living standards?

 JK: There is no strong evidence that authoritarian governments are better at providing development than democracies. I could name about 50 dictators who ran their countries into the ground economically. There is evidence that over time democracy provides better social welfare, such as longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more social and political freedoms.

 Q: You outline a broad array of causes for the retreat of democracy in the world, but is there consistency behind this widespread development?

 JK: There is often a problem of leadership that is not really committed to democracy. The idea of democracy to them means people vote, and not anything else. [Late Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez is a good example. He did good things for the poor people, but he also destroyed the rule of law.

 Q: You refer in the book to “highly deficient democracies.” At what point does a deficient democracy revert to an autocracy? What is the deal-breaker that pushes a state from deficient to dictatorial?

 JK: Authoritarian countries are those where there are no elections that could be called free or fair in any way. A highly deficient democracy, or hybrid regime, is something between that and a functioning democracy -- states that have some of the trappings of representative government but the system is still not really free and fair. On the low end of this spectrum is a country like Russia, where they have elections but it’s really hard for any voice to be heard above the Kremlin’s party.

 Q: You address the problem of elected autocrats -- how do the middle classes confront populists who use the power vested in them by the poor masses to undermine democratic institutions?

 JK: Not every popular leader seeks to do that. You can win a lot of votes and still uphold the rule of law, like Lula in Brazil [former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. For rulers like Chavez or Thaksin Shinawatra [of Thailand], how do their electorates push them to live up to their promise to build democracies? It’s the job of all people, but in particular the middle classes and the elites need to improve education so that people vote for leaders not just based on ethnic or tribal loyalties. What they shouldn’t do is use extra-constitutional means to get rid of an elected leader, like a coup. If an opposition can help maintain the rule of law, they will eventually have the opportunity to get their message across and win elections.

 Q: How do effective leaders battle the "nostalgia" factor, when people who have suffered under authoritarian rule lose enthusiasm for their new-found rights and freedoms because their day-to-day needs become a struggle?

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