Democracy and Democratization

Introduction / Definition: 

Needless to say, democracy is an overloaded concept. It is derived from two Greek words ‘demos’ meaning ‘people’ and ‘kratein’ meaning ‘to rule’. Although Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States (1861-1865), popularised democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’, the concept has in the course of history come to mean different things to different people. It has been applied to many different formations, and, in interaction with different socio-cultural traditions and practices, it has produced diverse forms of government - some more representative, participatory, accountable, transparent and stable than others. Even in today’s ‘old’ democracies - most notably the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and those countries that followed the footsteps of these countries following World War II - there is no consensus as to precisely what the concept means and how best to express it as an ideal. There is not even widespread agreement among theorists and practitioners as to whether democracy is a form of government, a method of choosing a government, a reflection of legitimacy in the exercise of political power, a political culture, or a term applied to a whole society, as intimated in Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of Democracy in America, which is essentially about American society.

Whatever the diversity of views, there is nonetheless a core or minimalist definition that lies beneath all the interpretations and uses of the term, usually interpreted as some form of popular sovereignty. By the same token, democracy is a method of public participation and contestation whereby power and authority can be transferred in an orderly and peaceful fashion from one popularly-mandated leader or party to another, without the upheaval and bloodshed that often characterize such a transfer in non-democratic systems. Some analysts have also claimed that democracy is not an event or process but rather a journey, involving several transitional phases before it can reach maturity over a period of time.

Historical Evolution: 

Democracy has had diverse meanings. Indeed, the meaning of ‘people’ is itself socially determined. In ancient Athens, where the idea of democracy arguably was born, the word ‘demos’ originally meant district or land, and significant social groups were excluded from political participation, notably women, slaves and foreigners. In many ‘modern’ democracies, it was only in the 20th century that women received the right to vote, as the Suffragette movement in Britain testified. The elasticity of concepts of this sort has led some scholars even to seek alternative terminology. Robert A. Dahl, for example, chose to treat ‘democracy’ as an ideal, and coined the term ‘polyarchy’ to describe a real-world condition marked by high levels of participation and contestation.[1]

As an ideal of government, democracy is today embraced more pervasively than ever before in the world. It is no longer the province of what might once have been called ‘traditional’ or ‘old’ democracies. It is claimed by a majority of states. The number of states qualifying as democracies has grown five times since the end of World War II. According to one categorization, whereas in 1950, there were about 20 democracies in the world, this number grew to 40 by 1975, and to 120 out of the 193 states in today’s world. The largest increase has occurred since 1991 following the end of the Cold War and break up of the Soviet Union. Even most of the states which do not meet the basic democratic criteria of public participation and contestation, with freedom of choice, have found it imperative at least to adopt the vocabulary of democracy and claim some relevant measures of political legitimacy to brand their governmental systems as popular, representing the will of the majority of their respective publics. Many have pointed to the existence of some forms of ‘pluralist representation’ and ‘electoral legitimacy’ to lay claim to popular sovereignty and ultimately a functioning democratic system of governance. This applies even to the least democratically developed region of the world – the Muslim Middle East.

For an authoritarian or concealed authoritarian system to transit to a democratic one, it may progress from procedural to delegative to substantive democracy. Procedural democracy essentially denotes the institution of certain procedures such as regular elections, based on some kind of universal suffrage and pluralist political participation and contestation, to produce an electorally-legitimated government. This is also at times referred to as ‘working democracy’. Delegative democracy is basically a kind of procedural democracy whereby an all-powerful head of state is elected, but without the types of checks and balances that could prevent that head from exercising power in the way he/she sees fit between the elections. In either case, the danger is that the elected leaders can manipulate the procedures and delegation of power in order to enforce what may essentially amount to a variety of concealed or veiled authoritarianism. There have been numerous instances of this in Latin America, for example in Argentina and Brazil from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.

To avoid this, what may ultimately be required is a transition from procedural democracy to substantive liberal democracy. The latter rests on the development of what is generally recognised as a liberal tradition as grounded in the aggregate of the intellectual contributions of such Western thinkers and activists as John Locke (1632-1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), James Madison (1751-1836), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and some of their contemporary successors, such as Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), Milton Friedman (1912-2006) and John Rawls (1921-2002). This tradition, which essentially emanates from a belief that all human beings are by nature free and equal, and that therefore they are entitled to certain inalienable rights equally, has grown to underline the importance of liberal principles as central to the creation of a democratic polity, involving both state and society. These principles combine the twin goals of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ under law to denote that no citizen should be deprived of the opportunity to participate in politics and build a democratic polity regardless of his/her race, religion and sex. In particular, they place high premium on the need for not only a political order to be participatory and pluralist, but also for society to be tolerant, humane and equitable, based on the rule of the majority but with protection and safeguarding of the rights of minorities. This can require fair, free and contestable elections; the separation of powers and an independent judiciary; the rule of law with justice; equality of citizens before the law; freedom of thought, expression and congregation; political checks and balances; safeguarding of the rights and liberties of citizens against state manipulation and arbitrary impositions, and opportunities for all to fulfil themselves to the best of their abilities and live in dignity.

As such, a minimalist model can only serve as a foundational opening, but the ultimate goal has to be building substantive democracy, based on what have evolved as fundamental principles of classical liberalism. Obviously, the institutional mechanisms and processes for achieving a minimalist model and progressing beyond it can vary from country to country, depending on the country’s traditions and circumstances. They need not to be a replica of those of a Western democracy, although one can argue that competitive elections through universal suffrage, and institutions of the executive, parliament and judiciary to ensure rights and freedoms of citizens and correspondingly define the exercise and limits of power, have universal applicability. In today’s world, what exists is a kaleidoscope of democratic forms. Some countries can be regarded as advanced in their achievement of liberal democracy, as in the case of ‘old’ democracies, and some are placed at different stages of development in their progression from a variety of procedural democracy to substantive democracy, as in the case of many ‘new’ democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. In many others, leaderships simply use the vocabulary of democracy and some of its basic procedures, though in a highly selective and exclusive fashion, as a means to claim political legitimacy and brand their regimes as popular, representing the will of the majority of their respective publics. This means that when it is claimed that the number of democracies has more than quadrupled in the world since the 1970s and that democracy’s global domination as the best political set up now seems a certainty, it is important to be aware that these democracies vary widely from one another. While there is no universal agreement that even the ‘old’ democracies have been able to meet all the essentials of what constitutes liberalism, many of the new ones fall short in different degrees to be viewed as anything more than a form of minimalist or procedural democracy, far from fulfilling the criteria of substantive or liberal democracy.

[1] See Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: participation and opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

Theoretical Implications: 

The spread of democracy – most recently in the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of the late 20th century[1] – has prompted a number of attempts to explain why this should be the case. Some posit a universal craving for democratic choice (in other words, a preference for being asked rather than simply told who one’s rulers are to be); others emphasise strengths of democratic systems that make them models for emulation; others point to the role of evolving norms of ‘democratic governance’. In reality, a number of these may reinforce in each other. But much also depends on elite orientations, on cultural orientations, and on the wider regional and international environments in which territorial units find themselves. Meaningful explanations of democratisation are unlikely to be simple and straightforward.

Democratisation, or processes by which a society could progress from authoritarianism to minimalist democracy to substantive democracy, have never been linear, smooth and free of hazards. The experiences of both old and new democracies show that sustainable pro-democratic changes cannot be initiated and implemented effectively unless first the right social and economic conditions are generated. Many analysts strongly argue that the prelude to the creation of democratisation is building civil society, where various political, social and cultural groups and practices play a role in defining the limits of public authorities, and broadening public participation in the processes of policy formulation and policy implementation, therefore protecting citizens’ rights and liberties. It is this initial transitional phase that has often proved to be most hazardous. In some cases, it has resulted in the undermining of societal changes conducive to democratisation, or in the growth of violent disorder in the face of other entrenched and countervailing factors, such as traditions or ideologies (whether tribal or religious), in the given society. Iran under the pro-western regime of Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) provides a good example in this respect. When, with strong urging from Washington, the Shah finally embarked in the mid-1970s on processes of expanding civil society as part of a move towards democratisation, he ran into serious conflict with the dominant Shi’ite Islamic establishment in Iranian society. The revolution against him resulted not only in his overthrow, but also in the transformation of Iran into an anti-US theocratic state under the Islamic regime of his cleric opponents. A similar attempt in Egypt to some extent in the late 1970s and Algeria in the 1980s led to violent developments in those countries, resulting in the reversal of many pro-democratic initiatives. These events set powerful precedents for many other regimes in the region not to go down the same paths.

It is equally pertinent that democratisation is not something that can be imposed from outside as long as the conditions in the subjected society are not favourable. The cases of Japan and Germany in immediate post-World War II period have often been mentioned as successful instances of outside imposition. Yet the factor that has frequently been overlooked is that this success rested a great deal on not only both countries being highly homogeneous nations but also on their being at the same time totally defeated. It is also important to note that the consolidation of democratic structures can take time, making it prudent to avoid premature celebrations. Independent East Timor before 2006 was sometimes depicted as a success story. After the severe disturbances that struck the country in 2006, that is much less frequently the case. Democratisation in general needs to grow from within a society, based on first achieving favourable civil-society changes, with a necessary level of political and social maturation whereby a majority of the citizens can grasp and adopt democratic ideas, values and practices as not threatening but complementing their traditional referents of cultural identity and beliefs as to what might constitute the ‘common good’. Without such level of development, any effort from within or outside may produce little more than a form of manipulable or unsustainable procedural democracy.

Beyond this, democratisation cannot be expected to result in substantive democracy without the subjected society going through certain phases of development: from pro-democratic civil society changes to procedural or working democracy to substantive democracy. The accomplishment of each stage ensures the sustainability and effectiveness of the next stage. It is in this context that the Afghan and Iraqi experiences under the conditions of US-led intervention in Afghanistan from October 2001 and US-led invasion of Iraq from March 2003 are likely to be the most trying cases of foreign-induced democratisation since the successful post-World War II democratic transformation of Japan and Germany. If Afghanistan and Iraq stagnate or revert to traditional authoritarianism, it would further reconfirm the widespread thesis that any democratisation instigated from outside stands little chance of success, except under exceptional circumstances.

[1] See Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

Practical Applications: 

The region of the world that has remained least democratised is the Muslim Middle East. Regimes in the region have come under increasing domestic and external pressure to democratise, but repeated attempts have either failed, or produced nothing more than different forms of procedural democracy. There is not one Muslim country in the area that can meet the essential requirements of a liberal democracy. When prompted to promote democratic reforms, a majority of leaderships have done so on a highly selective and exclusive basis, and within procedural frameworks that have not substantially affected their personal or family or elite powers. They have conveniently designed the reforms in such a way as to produce little more than systems that may be termed ‘democratic in form but authoritarian in content’; devoid of the necessary dynamism to secure even the gradual application of basic liberal principles against the open-ended, arbitrary needs of rulers. Thus, whether operating within a traditional or traditional-modernist or revolutionary-modernist mould, not many of them have succeeded in venturing beyond at best a kind of manipulable procedural democracy.

Most strikingly, they have fallen well short of creating a widely inclusive and competitive system. They have sought to exclude from the processes the groups that they have perceived as popularly threatening, and have refused to disperse power to the extent that could reduce their own indispensability to the operation of their politics. As a consequence, their reforms have frequently resulted in political polarization and violent conflict. One can draw on a number of countries’ experiences to illustrate this point, but none are more pertinent than those of Iran, Algeria and Egypt. This is not to claim that important civil society changes have not taken place in the Muslim constituent states, but to emphasise that these changes have been manipulated to be less conducive to democratisation and more supportive of authoritarianism or concealed authoritarianism.

The UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report 2002, which was largely reconfirmed by the agency’s subsequent reports and which is applicable to the whole of Muslim Middle East in various degrees, notes:

“There is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has barely reached the Arab states. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development. While de jure acceptance of democracy and human rights is enshrined in constitutions, legal codes and government pronouncements, de facto implementation is often neglected and, in some cases, deliberately disregarded. In most cases, the governance pattern is characterized by a powerful executive branch that exerts significant control over all other branches of the state, being in some cases free from institutional checks and balances. Representative democracy is not always genuine and sometimes absent. Freedoms of expression and association are frequently curtailed. Obsolete norms of legitimacy prevail.”[1]

This has also led to failure to ‘adapt to demands of the new economics and the new politics’, to address problems of gender disparities and inequalities, to promote liberal education, and to part with those outdated traditions and cultural practices that have proved to be unaccommodating of certain much-needed aspects of modernity. Further, there has been a ‘mismatch between aspirations and their fulfilment’, as well as ‘alienation and its offspring - apathy and discontent’. Given the lack of progress beyond a form of limited procedural democracy, such alienation has created serious legitimation problems for rulers and their governmental systems, with which the people have found it increasingly difficult to identify. It has also reflected a high level of distrust, not only between rulers and ruled, but also among the people themselves.

A variety of national and cross-national reasons can be cited to explain why most of the Muslim Middle Eastern countries have proved so inhospitable to anything more than procedural democratisation. At least five in the literature are worthy of particular attention.

The first is the degree of incompatibility that allegedly exists between Islam and competitive pluralist democracy. It is argued that Islam, with its central principle of Tawhid (Unity of God), from which other Islamic principles flow, including those concerning earthly governance - most importantly the principles of Shura (consultation) and Ijma (consensus) - essentially provides for little more than what Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-1979) has called ‘Theo-democracy’[2]; and is therefore a foundation for an authoritarian, not liberal, political culture. Consequently, what has historically evolved has been incremental acculturation of Muslim–dominated Middle Eastern societies to authoritarian thinking, values and practices, although with variations in their intensity and effectiveness from time to time and place to place. This phenomenon took a sharper upward turn following the closure of the gate of ijtihad (creative interpretation of Islam, based on independent human reasoning) in the thirteenth century. Having said this, there is also a counter-argument, advanced by such thinkers and activists as the former Iranian and Indonesian presidents, Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005) and Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2002), that Islam is essentially compatible with democracy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; all depends on how Islam is interpreted and applied. If one goes down a traditionalist path, as many Jihadi Islamists (or combative forces of political Islam) do, Islam can be cited to negate some of the liberal principles of democracy related to individualism and freedom of choice. On the other hand, this need not be the case if Islam is applied through an ijtihadi spectrum according to changing times and conditions.

The second factor, which in a way flows from the first, is that personalization, as against institutionalisation, of politics has, become deeply entrenched in the Muslim Middle East in particular, and in the Muslim world in general. Many date the origins of this back to the early leadership of Islam following the death of the Prophet and his Companions, and the patriarchal nature of Arab societies, pre-dating Islam. With rulership frequently falling into the hands of self-centered individuals, families, clans and elites, the need for institutionalisation of politics has grown more acute than ever.

The third factor cited is the lack of sufficient critical education to enable the public to grasp easily the significance of democratic values and practices, with responsibility and cross-cultural understanding and commitment. The culture of authoritarianism, and ensuing political exclusivism, divisiveness and distrust that it has generated, have substantially thwarted the growth of freedom of critical thinking and expression, and therefore the degree of intellectual diversity and free discourse which are so vital for the innovative, pluralist development of societies.

The fourth factor concerns the lack of consensus over the form and functions of government, a problem which has historically dogged most of the countries in the Muslim Middle East. Few of these countries have so far succeeded in fostering, as against imposing, a viable national approach to, and agreement on, what constitutes good and acceptable government. Although the Islamic regime in Iran put this issue to the people in a referendum in 1979, the fact that it was done without the provision of any alternative greatly reduced its significance.

The fifth factor is related to the effects of European colonial domination and then the USA’s globalist penetration and interventions in the Middle East. In general, European colonization did little to promote the cause of good government and principles of human rights and responsibilities. British colonial rule proved more rewarding in terms of the judicial and institutional legacy that it left behind in the Indian subcontinent than in the Middle Eastern region. A survey of the colonial subjugation of Middle Eastern lands clearly indicates that the colonial powers, whether British, French, or Italian, paid far less attention to the task of nation-building and institutionalisation of politics in their colonies than the British perhaps did in the subcontinent. The history of European colonialism generally displays an attitude of divide and rule, and exploitation and a sense of cultural superiority. In most cases, the colonial powers deliberately thwarted the need for good governance in order to facilitate maintenance of their domination. When French and British colonial rule of the Muslim Middle East finally folded up, with the partial exception of Egypt little had been achieved in terms of political institutions and practices that could promote democracy. The postcolonial governments were confronted with the difficult task of starting state-building from scratch, and leading their citizens from the colonial political culture to a new one.

In their transition, they have also had to contend with another development: US globalist behaviour in the context of the Cold War and its aftermath. During the Cold War, the US approach was overarching; it made few bones about what type of leader, government or sub-national force the USA dealt with, as long as it was prepared to support the USA’s top foreign policy goal of containing Soviet communism. In the process, it made little or no effort to tie its penetration of many key Muslim Middle Eastern states to promotion of good governance and democracy. On the contrary, in several cases, it put dictatorship before democracy to achieve its globalist objectives. It was even prepared to court Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq in the 1980s in order to compensate for the loss of the Shah’s autocratic rule in Iran. Rarely did the USA seriously link its friendship or alliance with regional Muslim states to the need for democratisation, and rarely has it worked with democratic forces to enhance the conditions for democracy in the region. Its policy approach to the Muslim Middle East has continued to suffer from a serious tension between its desire to safeguard the state of Israel and to be the dominant power in the region, and what is required to help the region democratise.

The lack of progress beyond some form of procedural democracy in the Muslim Middle Eastern states, and of course for that matter many other countries around the world, underscores a vital point: the necessary conditions either for cutting through or for leap-frogging authoritarianism are still out of reach in most of them. Historical experience suggests that the way forward is perhaps not to strive for immediate transformation in pursuit of liberal democratisation of political systems, which would require profound changes in the power structures, with profound effects on the fortunes of the very leaderships which are expected to bring about these changes. The objective might better be to prepare the conditions in the given countries first of all for pro-democratic civil society changes and good governance. Such changes do not need to be fully in conformity with liberal democratic models that underpin the operation of politics and societies in old democracies. Methods and mechanisms would have to be founded on those ideals and practices that are conducive to the development of transitional conditions from procedural to substantive democracy on the one hand, and have sufficient relevance to the cultural and identity settings of the changing society on the other.

It is possible to achieve liberty - in terms of lessening the state’s grip over society - without first instituting a Western-type liberal democracy. However, the achievement of liberty could well open the way for not only procedural democracy, but well beyond it. Yet this cannot be achieved as long as many countries function in an international system where the most powerful assume a veto power over the weak or weaker. The character of substantive democracy, therefore, is partly determined by its systemic context. The development and transformation of democratic systems therefore requires at least in part a change of attitude and consensus on the part of those states that have a determining say in the shaping of the international order.

[1] See United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report 2002 (Amman: UNDP, 2002): 20.

[2] A major Islamist thinker and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. For more on Mawdudi, see Roy Jackson, Mawlana Mawdudi and Political Islam: Authority and the Islamic State (London: Routledge, 2008).

References / Further Reading: 

For an introduction to the concepts underlying our understanding of democracy today, see Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1689), Jean Jacques-Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762), John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859) and John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971).

For the development of the concept of democracy over time, see John Dunn ed., Democracy: The Unfinished Journey 508 BC – 1993 AD (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

For more on contemporary patterns of democracy across a wide spectrum of countries, see Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

For more on issues of democratisation see Amin Saikal & Albrecht Schnabel ed., Democratization in the Middle East: Experiences, Struggle, Challenges (New York: United Nations University Press, 2003) and Juan Linz & Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996).

For more on the interplay between globalization and democracy today see Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethic Hatred and Global Instability (New York: Doubleday, 2002).