The Conundrum of Democratisation

By Claire McNear, on 7 May 2014

By Fei Xue

Taking even a glance at the news this spring, one would quickly notice the great amount of public attention devoted to the massive protests and political conflicts taking place in Venezuela and Ukraine. Although both countries nominally have democratically elected leaders, the lack of checks and balances on executive power, the manipulation of elections, and the oppression of dissenting opinions mean that neither country truly embraces democratic principles. As a result, Venezuela and Ukraine are suffering from acute class antagonism and ethnic division, and the angry voices of citizens cannot be expressed through democratic channels, but rather in massive protests and violent resistance. Thus, despite the geographical distance and the historical, ethnic, and cultural disparities, both nations follow a farcical brand of democratic design that, with these recent uprisings, has revealed the flaws of the universal and immediate democracy approach wielded by several major players in global politics.

This paradox between the constituents and the conditions of democracy has been troubling political theorists and democracy advocates for centuries. After what Samuel P. Huntington termed the three waves of global democratisation – which occurred first in the 19th century, second after World War II, and third starting from the democratic transition of Latin American countries in the 1980s and leading into the collapse of Soviet Union – only developed Western states and a limited number of examples in Asia and Latin America have managed to maintain stable and sustainable democratic regimes.

Looking retrospectively at other democratic experiments, the story is replete with frustration and distress. Since their liberation from colonial conquistadors and the establishment of political institutions designed to emulate their big neighbour to the north, Latin American states have rarely succeeded in escaping from the vicious struggle between elected politicians and authoritarian dictators; caudillismo and military intervention have become emblematic patterns of the region’s politics. The democratic regime in South Africa was initially deemed to be an example for other African countries, only to find itself all too often falling back to apartheid and political and societal polarisation. More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though successful in ousting brutal dictatorial regimes, failed to fulfill their promise of a stable, harmonious society and a more secure and decent life for Iraqis and Afghans. Those wars have seen the emergence of two states suffering from ceaseless tribal conflicts, burgeoning terrorist networks, and chaotic politics manipulated by corrupt politicians. From this perspective, the turmoil in Venezuela and Ukraine is just another resurrection of this nightmare of democracy.

Lessons should have been learned from these tragedies. Even when displaying the principal constituents of democracy – namely a publicly elected government leader, a representative parliament system, and a constitution based on democratic principles – a sustainable and well-operated democratic regime cannot be established overnight while lacking the more important conditions of democracy. Elements like checks and balances on power, an actively participatory civil society where citizens have the willingness and adequate venues to express their opinions, and the ability to hold the government accountable through an independent judiciary as well as a free and active press, all deserve more attention and efforts from any designer or founder of a new democratic polity. For instance, the democratisers of Taiwan, which has a stable and relatively well-educated population, took advantage of a long period of international and domestic stability, and gradually introduced a balance mechanism among the three governmental branches to enhance monitoring and prohibit the expansion of executive power. The result is a successful democracy enjoyed by its population.

Therefore, anyone confronted with the task of bringing a democratic regime into a non-democratic state should lay great emphasis on the issue of sequencing. In addition, one must not ignore the significant impact of social stability, economic growth, and cultural adaptation on the process of democratisation. After all, only with the effective collaboration of both the conditions and the constituents could a stable and sustainable democracy be established and the miseries of Venezuela and Ukraine be avoided.