The political upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia have yet to generate a demonstrably democratic transition and there is a serious prospect of authoritarian resilience or restoration in both cases. But if a democratic breakthrough occurs, the experience of earlier transitions is promising, writes Cornell University’s Nicolas van de Walle (left). A paradoxical lesson is that undemocratic processes can help ensure successful democratic transitions.
The anti-authoritarian revolts in Tunisia and Egypt are strikingly similar in two respects at least to several transitions witnessed in the celebrated Third Wave of democracy that began in Southern Europe in the mid 1970s and swept through Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa over the 1980s and 1990s.
Massive popular protests erupted against longstanding, entrenched and unpopular authoritarian regimes, leading to successful democratic transitions in Poland and Czechoslovakia (both 1989), Indonesia (1998), Benin (1989), Zambia (1991) and Mali (1991). The transitions in Spain (1975), Hungary (1989), Argentina (1983), Greece (1974) exhibit similarities that can be instructive, too.
These cases stand in contrast to post-conflict transitions, in which democratic elections are part of a peace deal – as in Mozambique or Bosnia, for example – and to the protracted transitions in places like Mexico, Brazil and Senegal in which democratization was engineered in a largely top-down process over a decade and several electoral cycles.
But there are two important aspects of these transitions that we do not see in Tunisia or Egypt.
First, the international dimension is relatively weak. In Greece and Argentina, military defeats played a key role in precipitating regime crisis. Central and eastern Europe’s communist regimes collapsed once the Soviet Union’s external guarantee was effectively withdrawn by Mikhail Gorbachev. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt has experienced an external shock and that conditions the transition.
Second, while the global economic recession and rising food prices have probably exacerbated popular anger, neither country is mired in the destabilizing economic decline that precipitated the fall of many other authoritarian regimes. In fact, both have been enjoying steady if unspectacular economic growth rates and relative macro-economic stability.
By contrast, significant debt crises helped trigger the transitions in Argentina, Poland, Benin, Hungary and Mali. Benin’s civil servants had not been paid for months due to the state’s bankruptcy. Indonesia had undergone a 15% decline in GNP as a result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. We should not underestimate the economic cost of the current unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, particularly if it persists, but the two economies are relatively sound going into these transitions.
Four key transition decisions – plus a ‘meta decision’
The experience of these earlier comparable transitions suggests that four key decisions tend to determine prospects for successful democratization. Perhaps most significantly, determining the decision-making process critically shapes the four other judgments.
1. The nature of the interim government: In each of these transitions, a power vacuum looms dangerously at the outset. Popular protests result in the ouster and exile of the discredited dictator, while neither the old government nor the single party legislature retains the legitimacy to govern. As the possibility of chaos looms, it is essential to fill the political vacuum.
But how? Pro-democracy forces are typically fragmented and often disorganized. Many opposition leaders have been exiled or compromised by links to the old regime, and/or their organizations are weak.
As a result, an interim government is often established, even if its mandate is temporary and focused on preparing elections and/or devising a new constitution. This interim governing structure needs enough legitimacy to satisfy both the protesters and the remaining defenders of the old order. Independent technocrats are often chosen, but in many cases, politicians from the former authoritarian government also occupy key positions.
Who leads it? In Greece, the exiled opposition politician Konstantinos Karamanlis was invited back to Athens, while in Czechoslovakia the intellectual dissident Vaclav Havel emerged.
In many cases, however, it is someone closely associated with the discredited government – not unlike current Tunisian Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi. In Spain, following Franco’s death in 1975, King Juan Carlos picked an insider technocrat, Adolfo Suarez to dismantle the Francoist order. In Indonesia, the departure of President Suharto left his vice president B.J. Habibie in charge of the process of democratization. The success of the Indonesian transition was largely due to Habibie’s decision to pursue a consensual path for democratic reform, through which he gained the trust of pro-democracy forces.
2. A new constitution? A second critical decision following the collapse of an authoritarian order is whether or not to devise a new constitution. The existing rules of the game have often been devised specifically to protect and sustain the authoritarian order. The power and privileges of the ruling party may be constitutionally enshrined, while the opposition’s ability to compete for power may be curtailed. The opposition may believe that a completely new constitution is a precondition for a successful transition.
In other cases, it is not clear whether an entirely new constitution is necessary, or whether reform of the old constitution will suffice. New constitutions were forged in Spain and in most of Eastern Europe, where it was felt that the constitution was too compromised by the old order to be serviceable. In Indonesia, on the other hand, the old constitution was laboriously adapted and reformed by the post-transition government. Whatever the case, all transitions are marked by a serious debate on the nature of political rules.
3. What timeline? A third decision concerns the timeline and sequence to be adopted. How long will the interim government rule? How quickly will elections be convened? Should the constitution be revised before elections are held? Transitions vary considerably in the sequencing of these different steps, but in most cases, they last for a period of no less than six months, but rarely exceeding 15 months.
In Poland, eight months elapsed between the beginning of the roundtable negotiations and the first democratic elections, whose resulting parliament pursued constitutional reform over the following months. In Mali, 15 months elapsed between the coup that toppled the Traore government and the first democratic elections.
In general, time is needed to pursue both the process of constitutional reform and the organization of multi-party elections in a country with relatively little experience of them. Typically, the opposition’s fear of losing momentum and allowing a reaction against the transition is balanced by its need for time to organize in order to successfully compete in elections.
4. Should the old regime be prosecuted? The fourth decision is what to do with the old regime’s assets and whether or not to prosecute its various transgressions. The old ruling party has often amassed considerable real estate and financial assets which can typically be easily transferred to the state.
But what should be done about personal abuses of power by key officials of the old regime? What types of actions, if any, should be prosecuted? How much should be forgiven, through some kind of amnesty? Should a “truth and reconciliation” process be pursued? Compelling arguments can be and are made on behalf of each of these possibilities. Typically, only a small and often largely symbolic number of prosecutions are pursued, usually for the most egregious crimes.
The meta decision – how to make decisions?
Each of the preceding choices is embedded within a broader judgment about how to make decisions to move the transition forward. This meta decision is problematic, precisely because the old provisions about rule making have been compromised, but there are as yet no new rules.
The old ruling class has been discredited, but not replaced. Some new political figures have emerged, but their popularity and legitimacy is unclear and often contested. The old legislature is made up of old elites and cannot be trusted to participate sincerely in the democratization process.
On the other hand, constitutional reform may have to precede elections, since the old rules tend to favor the ruling party. A variety of mechanisms have been employed to maintain the momentum of transition.
In some cases, a trusted individual figure may be able to spearhead the process. The Spanish transition relied in no small way on the legitimacy of King Juan Carlos, who had been put on the throne by Franco yet resolutely supported the process of democratization. In Czechoslovakia, the enormous legitimacy of Vaclav Havel – and to a lesser extent of Alexander Dubcek – helped the Velvet Revolution move forward. In Indonesia, the sitting vice president inherited power and orchestrated political reform.
In each of these cases, the individual in charge of transition built enough consensus within the political and civil elites for the other decisions about the transition to be made with legitimacy.
Significantly, these leaders rarely emerged from participatory or particularly democratic processes. In other cases, however, the end of authoritarian rule results in such a fractious environment that no single person can engineer the process forward. In these instances, some kind of constituent assembly, national conference, or roundtable, is organized in which both the principal actors of the transition, and the process by which it will move forward are decided.
In Benin and Mali, civic and political elites convened a national conference and empowered it to decide key issues. In Poland and Hungary, many of the key procedural decisions were hashed out at the Roundtable between the government and key members of the opposition.
What is striking about this meta decision making process is, first, how often it is not particularly democratic. Ordinary citizens are not consulted through a referendum or other participatory exercise and the key players are not necessarily representative. In many cases, the participants are chosen by short term and somewhat arbitrary criteria. Many will not feature significantly in the post-transition order, including members of civil society who often return to the sidelines once a political society is constituted.
In Benin, the Church played a key role in the National Conference. In Poland, the roundtable constituted the high point of Solidarity’s influence on national affairs. Often, in addition, the discredited old regime plays a larger role in the process than its lack of legitimacy might predict. In Poland, half of the members of the round table were members of a Communist Party which, several months later, would get less than one percent of the popular vote. In Spain, Francoist technocrats orchestrated the dismantling of Franco’s institutions.
These transition processes succeed if and when the meta decision-making process stumbles onto the right formula. In some cases, it does not. In a number of African countries, the convening of a National Conference allowed the old regime to survive and begin the process of retaking power.
In Tunisia, it remains conceivable that the former ruling RCD party will manage to co-opt the Interim government and prevent real reform. In Egypt, at the time of writing, everything remains possible.
In both states, democratic actors are already confronting some of these dilemmas and choices. They can at least take heart that a number of states have successfully negotiated the tricky path they face, providing lessons which may help them anticipate and plan for emerging challenges.
Nicolas van de Walle is a Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.