Democratic Ideals Replace Fading Isms He Flame of East Europe's Democratic Revolution Has Rekindled across Continents. with Persistence and Courage, Citizens Are Reshaping National Politics. Popular Protest, Free Elections, an Independent Press Signal This Radical Change. but Relics of the Old Order - Ethnic and Religious Rivalry, Economic Inequity, Military Intransigence - Threaten Fragile Democratic Structures. Series: GLOBAL FRONTIERS. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. First of Nine Articles Appearing Today

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FOLLOWING the collapse of a wave of popular revolts that swept Europe during the mid-19th century, one French observer noted dryly: "The revolution has come before its time."

A century and a half later, it seems, the time is right. Demands for political liberty have ripened into a force that is transforming governments around the world.

From "people power" in the Philippines to candlelight vigils in Eastern Europe to food strikes in Africa, ordinary men and women have been demanding accountability from their leaders and, in the process, producing an unprecedented peaceful revolution in political rights.

The democratic revolution reached critical mass in the heart of Europe, where the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the overthrow of entrenched communist regimes. It has gathered momentum in remote corners of Africa and Asia. In Latin America, for some time the preserve of autocratic military juntas, every nation is now governed by a popularly-elected ruler.

Fanned by demands for free elections and multiple parties, constitutions and parliaments, the desire for democracy has come, within a few short years, to rival nationalism as the dominant political emotion of the age.

"This is probably as close to a truly global turning point as we've ever seen," says Dankwart Rustow, a professor of political science at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. "The world is becoming more unified than ever before, and democracy has become a strong, possibly irresistible force."

Why now?

In the broadest sense, political analysts say, it is because historical alternatives to democracy - 500 years of monarchy and a century of communism - have been intellectually discredited, leaving democracy as the only viable model for political development.

Since World War II, the process has been hastened as economic failure, inefficiency, and corruption have undermined both rightist authoritarians and leftist dictators in less-developed countries and the Soviet bloc.

"This is the first time in history there is no legitimate alternative to democracy," Dr. Rustow says.

The process of democratization has been energized by technical advances in mass communications. The computer, the fax machine, satellites, radio, and TV have helped erase national borders, breaking governments' monopolies over communication while fueling aspirations for freedom.

Political liberalization has also been abetted by parallel economic liberalization, in which decisions are increasingly made by the free market rather than centralized state agencies.

"If a society fundamentally disagrees on fundamental issues - the nature of property and what constitutes a legitimate political system - democracy can't handle it," notes Richard Feinberg, vice president of the Washington-based Overseas Development Council. "If people agree on what constitutes good politics and good economics, the preconditions for democracy are in place."

Beyond such global forces, regimes have been nudged toward democratic reforms by specific factors, such as international sanctions, in the case of South Africa, or the removal of powerful autocrats, as in Tunisia in 1987.

In Latin America, democratization was abetted by the Catholic Church's new emphasis on human rights and development and by the discrediting of military regimes for failed economic policies and repressive practices. …