Democracy in Retreat

Josh Kurlantzick talked to OpenCanada about the worldwide decline of democracy.
By: /
April 12, 2013
Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations

Too often, our world is portrayed as moving inevitably toward a more democratic future, the result of the creation and empowerment of a global middle class. Countervailing trends rarely get the attention they deserve. Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and expert on democratization in the developing world recently published a new book that aims to remedy this. Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government challenges long-held assumptions about governance and economic development. We talked to Kurlantzick about whether democracy is in trouble, and if the global political future will be defined by alternative approaches to governance.

Your book makes a provocative claim–that democracy is in decline around the world. What led you to explore the idea that democracy is losing momentum?

It started with Thailand and the Philippines. I’m mostly a Southeast Asia specialist, and what I saw happening in those two countries was that despite the economic crisis of the late 1990s, the middle classes and elites in both Thailand and the Philippines have done pretty well. But they have also become extremely disillusioned with democracy. When I looked to Southeast Asia, I saw people in revolt and people joining counter-democratic movements. My interest started with this development and then broadened to consider how other middle classes were responding.

The idea that economic development leads to democracy has been oversold in a lot of places. To clarify, I'm not saying that economic development is bad for democracy, just the idea that it is always good isn't necessarily correct.

In what countries outside of Southeast Asia is this decline most evident?

One good example is Venezuela. The Chavez case demonstrates how someone can be democratically elected, but then not subscribe to other elements of democratic leadership – the type we’d see in Canada or the U.S.. Russia is another good example, and so are a number of Central and Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and the Ukraine. In South Asia, we’ve seen significant reversals in Pakistan; Sri Lanka has almost regressed to an authoritarian state. Greece and Italy have undergone serious regression, and disillusionment with democracy and support for alternatives continues to grow. The later is demonstrated in the rise of far-right fascist parties in Greece.

Your book explores the factors involved in democratic decline at length. Did you find that the cases you considered had factors in common?

My book explores some common factors among states experiencing democratic decline. Firstly, in the nascent period of democratic reform, the first generation of elected leaders don’t show a strong commitment to aspects of democracy beyond getting elected. They don’t show a commitment to rule of law, the protections of minorities, property, or freedom of speech. Secondly, in poorer countries, the ruling class and western aid donors have promoted economic growth. The people expect that democratic reforms will lead to strong growth but that doesn’t always occur, which causes unrest. Thirdly, there is a striking rise in graft and corruption during the transitional years. Graft becomes decentralized as institutions are no longer strong enough to control them.

What should the international community be doing in light of this trend? Is there a way to engage with countries that are governed under alternative structures while still championing democratic reform?

The U.S. is in a weak position to be dictating any other country’s democratic reforms at this point. But the international organizations based in other countries, if they’re seeking to engage with these state, should not focus on elections alone. It’s important to have a free and fair election, but that’s not enough to push these states towards real democratization. Democracy is about more than just votes.  Democratic forces will have to collaborate with those who made up the autocratic apparatus before the upheavals, no matter how unsavory those individuals may be. Nelson Mandela broadened his franchise and fought poverty, while still assuring the middle class and the elites that he was committed to the protection of private property. Other countries should look to him as an example.

What about when it comes to getting involved with opposition groups that are more inclined towards democratic reform? Is there a way to do that, in somewhere like Egypt – where involvement with Western donors and governments may end up delegitimizing the activist groups?  

Aid is an important part of engagement. Western donors have to do a better job of coordinating their aid efforts. We’re already seeing problems related to this in Myanmar. As it’s become a place that everyone is excited about, donors are jumping in, but with little coordinating of their strategies.

The U.S. has confronted that challenge since the Iraq war – even before. It’s important not to be discouraged, and to continue supporting movements if they are reputable and doing good work. Aid can be provided while still respecting these groups’ values and efforts to manage their public image. This may lead to embarrassing moments for the donor organizations, but the key is to help them maintain respectability domestically.

In your book, you discuss the Indonesian model of democratic reform. Is gradual decentralization a good example for other countries undergoing political transition?

This depends on the demographics and character of the state looking to change their policies. In a small, homogenous country, the Indonesian model may not be appropriate. For other large, diverse transitional countries, there has to be a significant degree of decentralization. This is where countries like Myanmar could best echo the Indonesian reforms. Both the Myanmar government and opposition groups need to think hard about that process underway and consider lessons from the Indonesian case.

Does the decline of democracy imply the rise of the China model?

The China model is an authoritarian, but not a totalitarian model; it combines relatively liberal economic planning with a tightly controlled political system. However, the economy is still more tightly controlled than in any Western state. This model will be attractive to other developing countries as long as China keeps ascending and maintaining a rapid growth rate. China has actively promoted their model aggressively in recent years, but they face a lot of significant domestic challenges. At the same time, people have been predicting China’s collapse under the weight of its own internal problems for a long time, and it hasn’t. Western democracies are struggling, so as long as the China continues to demonstrate that it has a workable model, it’s going to look pretty attractive. However, even if their internal problems are not fatal, they must also cope with the prospect of their regional dominance leading to increased animosity from neighboring states.