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How Democracy Dies

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
March 12, 2010
Newsweek

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Political freedom blossomed in the developing world in the 1990s and early part of this century. While authoritarians still ruled most of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia in 1990, by 2005 democracies had emerged across these continents. The Soviet Union had morphed into Russia, a freewheeling society that seemed to bear little resemblance to its grim predecessor. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the overthrow of the Taliban, the apparent end of military interventions in Turkey, and the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami in Iran, even the Middle East, long the laggard in democratic reform, appeared to be joining the trend. In 2005, Freedom House noted that only nine countries experienced rollbacks of democracy; in its report in 2009, it registered declines in "40 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union." Indeed, the organization found that the number of electoral democracies had fallen back to 116, its lowest number since 1995.

The culprits in democracy's decline may come as a surprise. Many of the same middle-class men and women who once helped push dictators out of power are now seeing just how difficult it can be to establish democracy, and are pining for the days of autocracy. Why has this happened? In many cases because the early leaders of the young democracies that emerged in the 1990s failed to recognize that free societies require strong institutions, a loyal opposition to the ruling party, and a willingness to compromise. Instead, they saw democracy as just semiregular votes; after they won, they then used all tools of power to dominate their countries and to hand out benefits to their allies or tribe. This narrow interpretation of democracy not only distorted the true meaning of the word but also alienated the public in many countries, who became disgusted that these democrats seemed no more committed to the common good than their authoritarian predecessors.

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