How Democracy Dies

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | Newsweek International, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

How Democracy Dies


Kurlantzick, Joshua, Newsweek International


Byline: Joshua Kurlantzick

A global decline in political freedom is partly the fault of the middle class.

Political freedom blossomed in the developing world in the 1990s and early part of this century. While authoritarians still ruled most of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia in 1990, by 2005 democracies had emerged across these continents. The Soviet Union had morphed into Russia, a freewheeling society that seemed to bear little resemblance to its grim predecessor. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the overthrow of the Taliban, the apparent end of military interventions in Turkey, and the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami in Iran, even the Middle East, long the laggard in democratic reform, appeared to be joining the trend. In 2005, Freedom House noted that only nine countries experienced rollbacks of democracy; in its report in 2009, it registered declines in "40 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union." Indeed, the organization found that the number of electoral democracies had fallen back to 116, its lowest number since 1995.

The culprits in democracy's decline may come as a surprise. Many of the same middle-class men and women who once helped push dictators out of power are now seeing just how difficult it can be to establish democracy, and are pining for the days of autocracy. Why has this happened? In many cases because the early leaders of the young democracies that emerged in the 1990s failed to recognize that free societies require strong institutions, a loyal opposition to the ruling party, and a willingness to compromise. Instead, they saw democracy as just semiregular votes; after they won, they then used all tools of power to dominate their countries and to hand out benefits to their allies or tribe. This narrow interpretation of democracy not only distorted the true meaning of the word but also alienated the public in many countries, who became disgusted that these democrats seemed no more committed to the common good than their authoritarian predecessors.

Too often, Western nations, which after 9/11 refocused their attention from the democratization of the 1990s to the war on terror, said little as democracy went down the drain. Sometimes, the West simply no longer had the time to stand up for democrats abroad. Other times, as in the case of Malaysia and Pakistan, authoritarian rule suddenly benefited the West, since the U.S. could rely on autocrats to help detain terror suspects indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's linkage of the war in Iraq to democracy promotion tainted democratization in the minds of many, particularly in the Middle East.

The global economic crisis has also damaged democracy's appeal. To many middle-class men and women in the developing world, the spread of democracy was linked to the spread of capitalism, since many of these countries opened their economies at the same time as they embraced political freedom. As the crisis cuts into people's incomes, many blame democracy, in part, for the economic downturn. Dominican President Leonel Fernandez said as much. "Expectations over the prospects of democracy in the region [Latin America] have given way to disillusion as democracy failed to boost economic prosperity," he declared at a summit of Latin leaders in 2008.

The result is that on nearly every continent, democracy is sputtering out. In Iraq, the first post-Saddam leaders relied on the bluntest tools of intimidation to defeat their rivals and rise to the top of the political system, disillusioning the population. In the recent Iraq election, voter turnout dropped from the 2005 poll, despite extensive advertising prodding people to vote. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2006 used an emergency decree to, in effect, declare martial law, and her reign has coincided with an increasing number of abductions and killings of left-wing activists by the security forces. …

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