The ongoing global shift toward democratic government, vividly joined in recent years by the Arab World, is tempered by the many challenges of democratic transitions, writes Joseph Siegle.* The toppling of an autocratic leader does not automatically mean the rise of democracy. Elections do not guarantee the protection of civil liberties. And democratic leaders are not immune from the seductions of power and the incentives of dismantling democracy’s institutional checks and balances.
The costs to a society and the international community for democratic reversals are high in terms of civil liberties, human rights, human development, and political instability. Strengthening international legal instruments including mechanisms to enhance accountability for violence against journalists and proscribe the subversion of democratic institutions as a Crime against Democracy can help overcome these conundrums.
Experience has shown that the early years of a democratic transition are most risky. More than half of all democratic backsliding takes place in the first 5-6 years of a transition. This risk diminishes over time, with less than 10 percent of backsliding occurring once a country has been engaged in the democratisation process for 15 years or more. In other words, momentum for democracy builds the longer a country stays on a democratic path. Still, instances of backsliding even 20 or more years into the democratisation experience do occur. This includes a military coup in Mali in 2012 that reversed a democratisation process that had been underway since 1991. The ongoing risk of backsliding faced by democratisers underscores the reality that democratic consolidation is typically a decades’ long process.
A key factor for democratisers’ uphill struggle is that they must overcome entrenched and overlapping autocratic political and economic interests. Lacking popular support, exclusive regimes rely on strong ties to key constituencies – political party, security sector, ethnic group, and geographic region – to stay in power. Regimes reward these groups through patronage – political appointments, jobs, contracts, educational opportunities and other benefits. As in other
monopolistic or oligarchic relationships, the privileges that accrue to those in the network come at the expense of the rest of society who suffer from fewer opportunities, services, and overall lower economic productivity. Over time, this arrangement leads to deep and widening disparities in a society.
The problem often persists after an autocratic regime has been toppled because of significant collective action challenges. Supporters of a former autocratic regime have much to lose if their privileged positions are threatened. Moreover, because of their close knit networks, they are well-informed, organised, and resourced. Thus reformers do not begin a transition with a neutral playing field but one that is highly unbalanced and embedded in a society’s economy. Reformers represent the interests of the majority but they are fragmented, difficult to organise, and operate with limited information. Old guard supporters play on this lack of cohesion through misinformation campaigns that further impede organization and mobilization. In short, given the institutional history, pushback from rearguard interests is not only common but to be expected – often from the earliest days of a transition.
Meanwhile, democratic reformers are under intense pressure to deliver jobs, services, and a stronger economy in the first months and years of a transition. The euphoria of toppling an autocrat may soon give way to democratic disillusionment with citizens questioning whether democracy brings any tangible differences. In fact, because of the entrenched autocratic institutional legacies – corruption, patronage, limits on access to credit and business licences, undefined property rights, stunted markets, etc. turning an economy around quickly in the early years of a transition is very difficult.
Typically democratic reformers inherit an economy that is contracting – a trajectory that often continues for 3-5 years – until new, more broad-based institutions can be established. After this point, democratic transitions tend to yield increasingly more steady growth. It is in the first five years that most democratic backsliding occurs, however. That is, economic stress feeds political dissension, opening the door to a return of an autocratic system.
Democratic transitions then can be seen as periods of norms-setting or, perhaps more accurately, norms competition. In addition to pressures from rearguard interests, democratic transitions are also vulnerable to hijackings by those with divergent ideological, religious, or economic interests. Seizing the opportunity of a transition, such spoilers redirect the momentum toward their ends.
Arguably, this is the sequence that took place following the protests against the Shah of Iran in 1979. Iranians had mobilized to reject the tyranny of this autocratic model only to have this groundswell redirected under the banner of a charismatic religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who affirmed his desire to see democracy take root in Iran. Instead, nationalist and Islamist fervor were fused to justify a theocratic governance system that while adopting certain democratic practices, in fact, did not respond to popular preferences or allow checks on the Supreme Leader.
Since most democratic transitions are emerging from a political context where power is consolidated within the executive overcoming autocratic inertia requires establishing checks and balances on the Office of the President or Prime Minister. Insights from earlier transition experiences reveal that such state institutions can emerge but they take time, typically a decade or more. Consequently, non-state actors play a vital role in upholding new norms of democratic accountability during this interim period.
In particular, civil society groups, media, and public access to information and communications technology are essential forces for accountability. These actors and tools generate independent information – the lifeblood of accountability. Information enables independent assessment and oversight as well as educating the general public, effectively empowering them to protect their interests. Civil society networks, moreover, create links between and across social, geographic, and economic groups in a society. The density of such networks enhances the social cohesion of a population enabling them to sustain popular pressure for democratic reform over the extended period until state accountability institutions can gain traction. While it should be recognised that not all civil society actors represent the public good (e.g. racist organizations, gangs, criminal networks), depth of civil society networks is a key predictor of successful democratic transitions.
This is a brief extract from a longer article published in a Special Issue of the Nordic Journal of International Law to commemorate Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th anniversary.
*Joseph Siegle is Director of Research at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies.