In Asian countries and beyond, democracy is taking a beating

Eric Randolph examines the state of democracy around the world, from Nepal to Thailand, India, Egypt and the Maldives, and finds an ideology seemingly under fire – even in the US.

Nepalese voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Patan on the outskirts of Kathmandu, during the second free election in the country’s history in November. AFP / Prakash Mathema
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Very few people are allowed to drive on election day in Nepal – even pedaling a bicycle is against the law. The authorities worry that some people might travel around voting more than once. So, on a crisp November morning, I was presented with the rare and glorious sight of Kathmandu’s roads suddenly free of their usual honking cacophony and nerve-rattling near-misses.

I had managed to hitch a lift on the motorbike of an election monitor – the only people with a pass – and we hurtled through the congestion-free streets of the capital. There were no vehicles, but the streets were far from empty. At every polling station, hundreds milled around enjoying the day off work and the festive atmosphere that attends Nepal’s still-nascent democracy. We left the city behind and headed into the countryside, an awe-inspiring landscape of stepped gardens on steep mountain sides, the snow-capped Himalayas on the horizon.

What seemed like the entire hamlet of Bhotechaur had gathered around the polling station. At a coffee shack next door, old gentlemen sipped coffee, smoked cheap Indian cigarettes and spoke excitedly of politics. They scoffed at the antics of a hardline communist group that had tried to derail the poll with a spate of low-level bombings in recent weeks. A local college teacher quoted Abraham Lincoln at me: “We believe in government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Democracy felt special on that day in late November. It was not just the lack of cars that lent an air of the surreal. There was a wonderful sense of something exciting and out of the ordinary taking place. In the run-up, everyone had been saying that voters were disillusioned, that they were fed up with politicians of all stripes and wouldn’t bother voting. Instead, there was a record turnout. Over 70 per cent voted.

It should not have come as a surprise. Barring a few half-hearted and quickly undermined shots at democracy over the last few decades, this was only the second free election in Nepal’s entire history. Consider that for hundreds of years – forever, in fact – there was nothing like this level of political freedom. Nepal has been a feudal society for centuries and many of its 27 million people are still strapped down by caste and debt bondage. But for once, even if just for a day, they were truly empowered and people weren’t taking it for granted.

It’s worth remembering that – in the scheme of human history – democratic freedom is a recent, rare and fragile phenomenon. The US think tank Freedom House ranked 90 out of 195 countries as “free” in its 2013 report. A hundred years ago, given the limited franchises and weakness of institutions, it’s likely that the number would have been zero.

Nor is the trend moving in one, positive direction. In many parts of the world, democracy is failing to maintain that magical allure that I saw in Nepal. Freedom House recorded a “significant decline” in democratic freedoms in 27 countries last year alone. For many emerging democracies around the world, democracy has failed to live up to the huge expectations placed upon it. From Turkey and Brazil to Russia, Egypt and Thailand, millions have come out in the past year to protest not against autocrats, but fairly elected governments.

In a timely book, Democracy in Retreat, released midway through the year, the analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations and contributor to The Review, put the blame squarely on the middle class. In many parts of the world, he wrote, they were turning against representative government, fed up with the “chaos, corruption, and weak growth” that plagues democracy; angry “at the rise of elected populists who disdain the rule of law”; and worried “that their own power will be ­diminished”.

Having traditionally been seen as the main advocates and defenders of democracy, the middle classes can no longer be counted on to support it. Their protests helped bring down the elected governments of Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in 2001, Hugo Chavez (temporarily) in Venezuela in 2002 and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand in 2006. Even more worrying has been their willingness to turn to the army for help – Kurlantzick found that nearly half the military coups in developing nations over the past 20 years had significant support from the middle class.

The root of the problem in each of these examples was quite simple: democracy arrived in a country where the traditional elite was vastly outnumbered by the poor. That gave rise to populist leaders with reckless economic policies and a willingness to exploit nationalistic and religious chauvinism to win the support of the poor majority.

For the educated middle classes, the results of this equation can be horrifying, spawning opposition-crushing autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Islamist incompetents like the Muslim Brotherhood or corrupt demagogues like Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan. Suddenly, a military regime can seem like a pleasant alternative.

It is indeed tempting to see this as a contest between the pro-democracy poor and the anti-democracy elite. But it’s not so simple. Take Thailand as an example. In recent days and weeks, the Bangkok-based middle classes have taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to demand the resignation of the prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and its replacement by an unelected “People’s Council” of elders. The protest leaders demand this because they know they have no hope of winning an election. Yingluck is really a proxy for her brother, Thaksin, who still runs the country by video conference from Dubai, where he is in self-imposed exile since being ousted in a coup and convicted of corruption. Thaksin remains enormously popular with rural voters for bringing them virtually free health care, low-cost education loans and old-age pensions for the first time. “Ten years ago, the road you drove on to get here was dirt. There was no electricity, there was no irrigation,” Pichai Poltaklang, a retired primary-school teacher in rural north-east Thailand told AP last month. “Before Thaksin came to power, we were left out.”

Unable to match Thaksin’s near-god-like popularity in rural areas, the parties of the middle class in Bangkok have taken a stand against democracy. In many respects they are sore losers, but they are also acutely aware that democracy is about more than holding the occasional election and handing out goodies to the biggest constituency. Democracy requires vibrant institutions – an independent judiciary and civil service, freedom for the press and NGOs, a lively democratic culture. Thaksin might have empowered the poor, but he also undermined these institutions through massive corruption, politicisation of officials and the heavy-handed use of security forces to silence ­opponents.

Rather than opposing democracy, the middle classes in Thailand could be seen as demanding a deeper and more meaningful form of democracy. The trouble is that they think the best response is to violently force the government from power.

“Putting pressure on elected governments outside of the ballot box might be quite important,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-author of Why Nations Fail. “The key, however, is that these protests should not be seen as a power grab by the old elite and their parties. In Thailand, they are clearly that.”

Many emerging democracies are already starkly polarised between a traditional elite and the rest of society. In these circumstances, any attempt to subvert elections and grab power can drive a further wedge between communities – one that becomes very hard to remove.

In Egypt this past summer, the military takeover that brought down the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was welcomed by many in the middle class. But it has created a lasting source of grievance among Brotherhood supporters that will last a generation. It also turned the legitimate concerns of the middle class about the erosion of democratic rights into a violent battle for control.

It would have been far better to let democracy run its course, says Acemoglu: “The events since [the takeover] show very clearly that the only path to consensual democracy is to keep the army out. The Muslim Brotherhood would have certainly lost the next election, and there was really no danger of them taking over all the institutions of state within a few years, especially given the army’s hostility to them.

“This is not to absolve [the Muslim Brotherhood] of the many sins they committed. But an intervention makes the whole dynamics worse and the polarisation more pernicious.”

Polarisation provides an excuse for all sorts of bad behaviour. Even when protesters are not really seeking to grab power, autocratic leaders can claim that they are. The Turkish protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last summer were only asking for better and more responsive institutions, but the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan depicted them as dangerous insurgents trying to seize control of the state. That rallied his own – largely rural and religious – supporter base and legitimised the brutal crackdown that he unleashed in Gezi Park.

Few places are as dangerously polarised as Bangladesh, which held a farcical and horrifically violent election this month after the main opposition party boycotted the race. The two main parties are led by the “Battling Begums” – Sheikh Hasina for the Awami League and Khaleda Zia for the Bangladesh National Party. Their bitter personal rivalry has all but destroyed democratic debate in the country. A leaked transcript of a phone call between the pair in October – their first conversation in over a decade – is replete with childish insults and outrageous accusations, leaving little doubt about why so many were happy when the military seized control in 2007 and threw both of them in jail.

The army backed down after a couple of years and let the begums get back to what they describe as work. But the death toll from this month’s election – 19 on the day, dozens more before and since – has many wondering whether democracy is worth the effort.

And for many in Asia and beyond, there is a model that looks far more stable and effective: China.

Indeed, argues Alina Rocha Menocal, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, if developing countries are most interested in development, there’s no particular reason to opt for democracy.

“Democracy doesn’t inherently or automatically lead to development,” she says. “There’s a tendency in the West to see democracy as the answer to everything, but it’s just one way of making decisions.”

She points to the bitter partisanship in American politics as evidence of how democracy can struggle to introduce progressive reforms. “The US system, with all its checks and balances, actually makes it very difficult to promote change because power is so fragmented.”

But, she adds, opting for an authoritarian regime like China’s is “a dangerous wager”. There is no guarantee that it will care about its citizens in the long run and it’s much harder to kick it out if it fails.

Acemoglu adds that authoritarian regimes are much less capable of the “creative destruction” needed to innovate and expand economically. Democracies are more responsive to pressure from their citizens, and the constant churn of ideas and interest groups tends to make them more dynamic. China has made a lot of money by copying western goods and selling them back cheaper to the West. But it has so far struggled to demonstrate the innovation needed to transition to a fully developed economy.

In the long run, established democracies are more stable and productive and less likely to fight each other. But getting there can be a long and bloody affair, full of setbacks and disasters, with no guarantee of success. It took five republics and three centuries to get to modern-day France, with many a guillotined head along the way. Elites are liable to question whether the rule of law is really beneficial to their business interests, while poorer citizens grow tired of empty promises from politicians and all of the corruption scandals being exposed by their free press.

In the meantime, democracies can produce some pretty unsavoury results and it takes a great deal of faith and forbearance to stay the course.

A new president in the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, was elected in November. He is the half-brother of the dictator that ruled the country for 30 years. He defeated Mohamed Nasheed, the man credited with bringing democracy to the country in 2008, sharing the country’s tourism wealth with the poor and becoming an international advocate against climate change. Yameen didn’t win by being a better democratic candidate. He won by spreading malicious rumours that Nasheed was anti-Islamic and by using a rigged supreme court to cancel an unfavourable first-round election result. It was only Nasheed’s magnanimous acceptance of defeat – something that his opponent would certainly not have done – that prevented a slide into serious conflict.

In India, many will be disgusted to see the election in May of Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is accused of – but denies – complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that killed over 1,000 people while he was the chief minister. Modi stands a good chance of becoming prime minister as the head of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, thanks to the country’s impatience with the endless corruption scandals and ineptitudes of the stultifying, dynastic Congress party that has ruled for the past decade.

But India is also a country that can weather the crises that beset its democracy and keep its worst excesses just about under control. Its 60-year experiment with democracy has been a chaotic affair, faced with the persistent ignominy of its failure to feed and care for its citizens and an endless array of challenges from insurgents, regional upstarts and external enemies. It survives – barely – on the strength of the institutions and the faith in democratic culture that were forged in the high-achieving early days of independence, nurtured by the great minds of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

“India as a democracy is very argumentative about problems but not argumentative enough about solutions. Sustained periods of indecision can make even autocracy seductive,” says Shankkar Aiyar, a columnist and the author of Accidental India. “But democracy has survived in India because it has found root in India’s diversity. It’s in everybody’s interest that no one group’s interest is allowed to reign.”

Modi might win, in other words, but in the fierce competition of Indian democracy, with its blood-fanged press and energetic judiciary, he must placate his critics or face becoming irrelevant.

Back in Nepal in November, the positivity of election day turned to despair within just a couple of days. The Maoists, previously the biggest party in parliament, were headed for a dramatic defeat. In a panic, and despite a distinct lack of evidence, their leaders claimed that the election must have been rigged. For several days, Nepal’s young democracy hung in the balance. Would the Maoists, who only gave up their guerrilla war in 2006, throw the country back into chaos and war by refusing to fulfil that hardest and most necessary of democratic tasks – the acceptance of defeat?

At stake in the crisis was all that euphoria that I had sensed on election day – the joy that comes from that moment, however brief, of empowerment and hope. Much of it is an illusion, but for millions in the developing world, casting a vote carries at least the possibility of something new and better around the corner.

After days on the brink, the Maoists in Nepal stepped back from the edge and accepted the results. They gave democracy another chance and averted one more crisis – one of a litany in Nepal’s budding experiment with people’s power and certainly not its last. I was struck then by how fragile democracy can be.

The Cambridge University theorist David Runciman, in his recent and wonderfully rococo meditation on democracy, The Confidence Trap, argues that democracy is only ever capable of a constant cycle of success and failure, overconfidence and humble correction. But we should content ourselves with that because it is, surely, the best reflection of human experience. “The spread and growth of democracy has generated the possibility of collective failure,” he writes. “But the spread and growth of democracy remains our best bet against the possibility of collective failure, because democracies are always trying something new. The advantages are inseparable from the risks.”

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia.