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
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."
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. …