Making Progress on Democracy

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In the crush of international reporting on terrorism, civil war, and revolution, it’s easy to lose sight of the more incremental progress in the world.  A few decades ago, few would have dreamed that a majority of states in the world would be democracies, or that democracy would be the only broadly legitimate form of government in the world.  Neither would many have imagined that the United Nations General Assembly, which had made a habit of excusing if not celebrating tyrannies, would establish in 2007 an annual International Day of Democracy to intensify global resolve to promote and consolidate democracy.  Even the date (just four days after September 11) is a not-so-subtle rebuke to those who see violence and extremism as the path to a more just world.

While democracy has made dramatic gains over the last four decades, it has also confronted a growing pace of challenges and setbacks, even in the face of the new hope generated by the Arab Spring.  In each of the past six years, many more countries have declined in freedom than have gained, and the number of democracies in this period has also receded.  There has been a rising tide of democratic breakdowns in the past twelve years, and autocrats have been emboldened by the growing power and self-confidence of China and the economic and political troubles of the advanced industrial democracies.

Yet, as we have seen in the Arab Spring, and before that the Color Revolutions of the post-communist states, authoritarian regimes are also facing acute challenges to their stability, and without the floor of intrinsic legitimacy that most democracies enjoy.   A rising generation in Singapore expects more freedom and openness, and has helped to drive unprecedented opposition gains in recent elections.  The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in Malaysia has seen its political dominance erode and could lose power altogether in the next elections there.  In Burma, the military has launched a transitional process that could lead to a transition to democracy in the next scheduled national elections, in 2015.

While the Arab transitional regimes—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—are going through difficult times, elections are demonstrating what public opinion polls have shown for some time:  people in the Arab world want the political accountability that democracy brings. New constitutions and the repeated practice of free and fair elections could induce authoritarian parties to privilege economic performance, good governance, and service delivery over their more ideological and illiberal tendencies.

To be sure, there is no guarantee that democracy will bring effective governance and responsible politics.  Since the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004, Ukraine has suffered a discouraging and avoidable democratic regression due to bitter divisions and ineffectual governance by pro-democracy forces.  As a result, the villain of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, won the 2011 presidential election and has since squeezed media freedom and civic pluralism.  An important test will come in the October 28 parliamentary elections, but unfortunately a new electoral law will favor established political parties and wealthy candidates in the single-member districts.  And with democratic opposition forces still bitterly divided and their leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail, an opportunity to renew democratic momentum might be squandered.

On the other hand, the unification of opposition forces in advance of the presidential elections on October 7 could produce a much more hopeful outcome in Venezuela. After nearly thirteen years of autocratic, populist rule by President Hugo Chavez, the opposition is now united behind the candidacy of a skillful candidate, Enrique Capriles, and the coalition, with enthusiastic youth support, has been working intensively to reach citizens at the grassroots.  This time they could win, if the Chavez government does not postpone or rig the election.  A similar opportunity will come in Zimbabwe within a year, but there the Mugabe regime appears more ruthlessly determined to hold on to power at all costs.

In the new documentary film, A Whisper to a Roar, we can see how and why ordinary people are moved to take great risks for democracy and freedom in countries like Ukraine, Egypt, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.  Probably not all of these five countries will make it—or make it back—to democracy soon.  But their common struggles for political freedom, pluralism, and dignity underscore what the United Nations General Assembly sought to convey in its 2007 resolution: that democracy is a universal value.

Larry Diamond is the Director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and Executive Producer of A Whisper to a Roar, which opens in New York October 12th and in Los Angeles October 19th.