The Dilemma of Democratization in Fragile States

By Baker, Pauline H. | UN Chronicle, December 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Dilemma of Democratization in Fragile States

Baker, Pauline H., UN Chronicle

Conventional thinking juxtaposes democracy and dictatorship as mutually exclusive systems. It is often assumed that when one system collapses, it is replaced by the other, as if this was the natural order of things. Some theorists, such as Francis Fukuyama, argued that liberal democracy had decisively defeated tyranny with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which marked the "end of history". Indeed, since then, while there have been setbacks in countries such as Ukraine and Zimbabwe, dictatorship has been in retreat.

The most dramatic wave of change has been the Arab Spring, in which strongmen in North Africa and the Middle East have been deposed since January 2011. In less dramatic fashion, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa have also moved incrementally toward democratic rule over the last decade. According to The Economist, since 1991, 30 parties or leaders in sub-Saharan Africa have been removed by voters. While outcomes have varied, and violence has sometimes followed, grass roots political action, not military rule or assassinations, is emerging as the primary method of removing unpopular leaders.

However, states often go through fleeting periods of democratic reform which may not fully materialize, or teeter in the balance for prolonged periods of time. Myanmar is an example of democracy crushed for half a century. The military has ruled since 1962, and the current junta since 1988, when it violently suppressed a pro-democracy movement. In 2011, a civilian Government was installed, dominated by the same military or ex-military leaders. It initiated a series of positive steps, including giving more freedom to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular opposition leader who won the 1990 elections. The Government also loosened restrictions on the media and the Internet, suspended construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam supported by China, and released more than 200 political prisoners. While these steps are encouraging, Myanmar has far to go. It remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, where the army continues the repression of ethnic minorities, the main opposition political party was banned until November 2011 organization, and hundreds more political prisoners languish in jail, though the Government released some prisoners in October 2011.

Nigeria is an example of a country with democratic promise that remains unfulfilled. Credible elections were conducted in 2011, the first since the return of civilian rule in 1999, and it resulted in the historic installation of a president from a minority ethnic group. Yet this singular event, which deservedly earned worldwide praise, did not fundamentally change the political system. While there is a vibrant press, an increasingly active civil society and an enterprising population, the country faces formidable problems, including ethnic, religious, and economic friction; endemic corruption; severe economic inequality; deepening violence; and a political culture dominated by competing cliques of ex-generals and business tycoons who act as behind-the-scenes power-brokers. Thus, while Myanmar remains an authoritarian State with inklings of political reform, Nigeria is an electoral democracy with undemocratic traits. In neither country is democratization assured.


In 1989, there was widespread hope for democratic transformation when the Berlin Wall came down. However, the death knell for authoritarianism had not rung in many of the capitals of the successor republics that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia. In Russia, a popular leader with a KGB background appealed to his people's desire for order and national pride over the chaos of a criminal oligarchy and the loss of superpower status. The result was "managed democracy", which cloaked authoritarian rule in democratic trappings.

Mixed outcomes are also possible in the Middle Eastern countries embroiled in the Arab Spring and in African States struggling with democratization.

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