Book Review: The Decline of Democracy

There was a time not too long ago – as late as the American invasion of Iraq in 2002 – that democracy was regarded, at least in Washington, DC as an inexorable force across the world as one country after another forsook the coils of dictatorship for democratic systems of government. Then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze proclaimed the Sinatra Doctrine, allowing the nations formerly under Soviet control to "do it their way." The political historian Francis Fukayama in 1992, in his seminal The End of History and the Last Man argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism had become the final form of government.

But hold on, says Josh Kurlantzick, a Fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a thoughtful new book published this month called "The Decline of Democracy."

Kurlantzick takes Thailand as an example, a country that after the neutralization of the coup led by onetime general Suchinda Kraprayoon had in the 1990s drafted a strong new constitution that allowed for a free press and solidified the institutions of representative government. As the world knows, none of that lasted. The Thai Rak Thai party of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was democratically elected in 2001 only to have Thaksin turn democracy on its head, governing as a populist while allowing murder squads to kill 2,000 people in his "war on drugs" campaign, eviscerating the civil service, silencing the media and cracking down on dissent.

Kicked out via royalist coup in 2006, Thaksin and the forces of the urban middle class turned Bangkok into a war zone. The situation finally culminated in the deaths of 92 people in May 2010. Calm has returned to Bangkok's streets and a democratically elected government is back in Government House. But there are questions just how democratic it really is. Behind Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister's sister, stands a military that has largely run the country for 75 years and has no intention of allowing democratic institutions that would threaten it to flourish.

"In its annual international survey, the most comprehensive analysis of freedom around the globe, Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political, and economic freedoms in each nation, found that global freedom plummeted in 2010 for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years," Kurlantzick writes. "At the same time, most authoritarian nations had become more repressive, stepping up their oppressive measures with little resistance from the democratic world. Overall, Freedom House reported, 25 nations went backward, in terms of freedom, in 2010 alone, while only 11 made any gains; among the decliners were critical regional powers like Mexico and Ukraine.

The decline he writes, was most pronounced among what it called the "middle ground" of nations, primarily in the developing world— nations that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies. Indeed, he says, the number of electoral democracies fell in 2010 to its lowest number since 1995.

Despite the apparent success of the so-called Arab Spring, China and Uzbekistan, freaked out by the possibility that a China Spring could erupt, cracked down harder. And, he writes, the Arab uprising "had little impact on a dire, deteriorating climate for human rights defenders worldwide." Russia itself, now ruled for more than a decade by the ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, has long since backtracked on most reforms. The press is routinely terrorized and journalists like Anna Politkovskaya have been murdered. The former satellites Ukraine and the 'Stans have fared little better, with the courts used to jail opponents on pretexts.

Another of the most comprehensive studies of global democracy, Kurlantzick writes, compiled by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation, found that "the overall quality of democracy has eroded [throughout the developing world]... The key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion….These developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance."

The index concluded that the number of "highly defective democracies"--democracies with institutions, elections, and political culture so flawed that they no longer qualified as real democracies--had roughly doubled between 2006 and 2010. By 2010, in fact, nearly 53 of the 128 countries assessed by the index were categorized as "defective democracies."

"In Latin America, Asia, and even most of Africa, coups, which had been a frequent means of changing governments during the Cold War, had become nearly extinct by the early 2000s. But between 2006 and 2010 the military grabbed power in Guinea, Honduras, Mauritania, Niger, Guinea- Bissau, Bangladesh, Thailand, Fiji, and Madagascar, among other states."

It is thus a grim picture that Kurlantzick paints. But is in an accurate one? In Southeast Asia, maybe not. There have been some signal developments in Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia that indicate all is not lost.

Myanmar is slowly earning the right to change its name from Burma, including in the pages of Asia Sentinel. The sham election that took place in 2010, leaving the military thoroughly in charge, has metamorphosed into something that may not be democracy yet, but it is a long way from what the military thought it had bequeathed to the nation. A solid though small opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi has made a real impact. The courts are becoming fairer. An unleashed media is freer than it is in Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore, all "democracies" for decades, to the point where it can be utterly irresponsible. That isn't to say Myanmar is a democracy today. But under Thien Sein, the country has made more progress than anyone would have thought possible two years ago.

In the Philippines, the election that delivered Benigno S. Aquino to the presidency in 2010 appears to have been uncharacteristically fair. Aquino seems from the start of his presidency to have been dedicated to fostering the foundations of democratic institutions.

The benchmark will be in Malaysia in April, where an aroused opposition coalition, aided by an energetic blogosphere, stands the first chance ever to take over the parliament. In Indonesia, the Corruption Eradication Commission is cleaning out the electoral stables in a way politics has never been able to. But out in the provinces, there is real change. The election of Jokowi Widowo as Jakarta Mayor over the entrenched interests of both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party and Golkar, the holdover party created as a democratic fig leaf by the late strongman Suharto was one of the most hopeful events in that country's recent history. In South Korea, a free and fair election delivered up a democratic government to succeed the corruption riddled Lee Myung-Bak governement last week.

It isn't all a cakewalk by any means. But the Internet, for instance, has had a dramatic effect on electoral politics, awakening voters to their real interests.

That said, there is plenty to worry Fukiyama and those who believe in the inevitable march of democracy. It is far too early to pronounce the Middle East in the democratic camp... "Armed forces have dominated the Arab Spring and Summer, putting the lie to the idea that the Arab uprising is going to bring democracy to the region. Instead, in the near term the Arab uprisings appear to be entrenching the power of militaries in the region, sparking massive unrest, scaring middle- class liberals into exodus, and potentially empowering Islamists."

Even in East Asia, few of the region's former authoritarian regimes have been thoroughly discredited, with that the region's average score for commitment to democracy, judged by a range of pro-democratic responses to surveys, has fallen in the most recent studies.

Kurlantzick's final chapter deals with some of the prescriptions to turn the situation around. He finds that "Probably the most important job for developing world democrats is to prevent their growth rates from stagnating or declining... when working class citizens of emerging democracies have become disillusioned with democratic government, they do so more likely than not because growth has stagnated and/or in equality has risen sharply.

Certainly the current global economic slowdown has further damaged faith in democratic government, especially as authoritarian China has seemingly sailed through largely unscathed.

In the end, he displays considerable hope that democracy will survive. The United States, he says, has an indispensable role to play--this is written, of course by an American whose own worldview is determined by the country in which he lives. That is a dangerous view. It is what got George Bush and the Vulcans, as they became known, involved in Iraq, a mess the US will pay for decades. Kurlantzick is too intelligent a writer not to know that. But in any case, his book sounds a useful warning for those who believed things could only get better.