Interview: Why the world is losing faith in democracy

In the heady days of 1989, nondemocratic regimes fell like dominoes to the peaceful march of activists across Eastern Europe. Even China briefly appeared vulnerable to popular demands for a voice in how the country is ruled -- until the crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

The spread of democratic rule was at its apex a decade ago, when many of Africa’s strongmen went the way of the discredited European Communists. Free elections brought to power a new generation promising to wrest the continent from poverty.

Since then, though, democracy has been on the wane. Economies have been undermined by the global recession. Skimming public funds in secret has been replaced by blatant corruption. Fragile democratic institutions have been manipulated by autocrats masquerading as advocates of equality and freedom.

In his newly released book,  "Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government” (Yale University Press, March 2013), writer and scholar Joshua Kurlantzick tracks the fate of emerging democracies, examines the causes of flagging enthusiasm for participatory democracy and ponders whether the decline is reversible.

Kurlantzick, who studies Southeast Asian politics and democratization at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed the trend in an interview with The Times.

 Q: What recommends democracy -- when, as you note, top-down economic development policies in places like China, Singapore and the gulf states sometimes provide better living standards?

 JK: There is no strong evidence that authoritarian governments are better at providing development than democracies. I could name about 50 dictators who ran their countries into the ground economically. There is evidence that over time democracy provides better social welfare, such as longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more social and political freedoms.

 Q: You outline a broad array of causes for the retreat of democracy in the world, but is there consistency behind this widespread development?

 JK: There is often a problem of leadership that is not really committed to democracy. The idea of democracy to them means people vote, and not anything else. [Late Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez is a good example. He did good things for the poor people, but he also destroyed the rule of law.

 Q: You refer in the book to “highly deficient democracies.” At what point does a deficient democracy revert to an autocracy? What is the deal-breaker that pushes a state from deficient to dictatorial?

 JK: Authoritarian countries are those where there are no elections that could be called free or fair in any way. A highly deficient democracy, or hybrid regime, is something between that and a functioning democracy -- states that have some of the trappings of representative government but the system is still not really free and fair. On the low end of this spectrum is a country like Russia, where they have elections but it’s really hard for any voice to be heard above the Kremlin’s party.

 Q: You address the problem of elected autocrats -- how do the middle classes confront populists who use the power vested in them by the poor masses to undermine democratic institutions?

 JK: Not every popular leader seeks to do that. You can win a lot of votes and still uphold the rule of law, like Lula in Brazil [former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. For rulers like Chavez or Thaksin Shinawatra [of Thailand], how do their electorates push them to live up to their promise to build democracies? It’s the job of all people, but in particular the middle classes and the elites need to improve education so that people vote for leaders not just based on ethnic or tribal loyalties. What they shouldn’t do is use extra-constitutional means to get rid of an elected leader, like a coup. If an opposition can help maintain the rule of law, they will eventually have the opportunity to get their message across and win elections.

 Q: How do effective leaders battle the "nostalgia" factor, when people who have suffered under authoritarian rule lose enthusiasm for their new-found rights and freedoms because their day-to-day needs become a struggle?

 JK: A lot of time people’s memories of the past are what they want it to have been. Sometimes when they look back at a regime that provided a certain degree of development or security, they forget the bad parts. In the Philippines today they talk about [late dictator Ferdinand] Marcos in a positive way, and his wife and son are still very powerful there, perhaps because the presidents over the past 12 years have been pretty disastrous. A successful leader in transition realizes that you can’t destroy all of the institutions of the past, that you have to work with them. It’s also important to keep in people’s memories the wrongs that were committed. Burma [also called Myanmar] is going to be facing this in the next few years. The new leadership is going to have to decide whether to let the old generals off the hook and let them retire quietly, or whether they want to create a sort of truth and reconciliation commission that will investigate and remind people of what happened under dictatorship.

 Q: What is the main loss for the world when fewer states choose the path of pluralism, free speech, equality, the rule of law? What happens if the “Beijing Consensus” wins out?

JK: China is not the authoritarian China it was four decades ago, but still it’s not generally good for people’s well-being to live under that type of leadership. Authoritarian governments are more likely than democracies to be at war with other countries, and it’s not good for the protection of global interests that come together with peace, like free trade and shipping and environmental protection.

Q: You point out that democracy is being challenged even in some of the most developed countries, as with the Occupy movements that take their discontent to the streets rather than the ballot box. Is it democracy or capitalism that is losing its appeal?

 JK: A lot of different social strands have been brought together by the Occupy movements. A lot of the protests are against inequality, against poor governance or the failure of democracy to prevent the economic benefits of a free society from being captured by a very small percentage of the population.

 Q: Many emerging democracies experience a surge in graft and corruption among new government and industry leaders that tend to discredit democracy in the eyes of the people. What can be done to combat this phenomenon?

 JK: This is a problem that tends to correct itself over time, as governments become more transparent and freedom of the press strengthens. Open political systems are better for fighting graft. Often the problem is one of perception, with newly independent media exposing corruption that also existed under less-transparent regimes. If you watch television in the Philippines, where you have one of the freest media environments in Asia, you would have the impression that there is more corruption there than in China. But is that the case? I think not. It’s more that people see these reports of graft on the air every day, whereas Chinese media aren’t really able to push against the leadership’s denials that corruption is a serious problem.


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