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Loose Cannon: Wallowing in a democratic recession

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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  • Countries like Russia and China have learned to improve economic conditions without opening themselves to democratic reform. (F.

    Countries like Russia and China have learned to improve economic conditions without opening themselves to democratic reform. (F.

Written by Greg Beneteau

In his recently released book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Taylor Branch offers up some timely insights by the 42nd President of the United States.

A year into his first term, Bill Clinton went on a tour of Eastern Europe and met with several new leaders in the former Soviet Bloc. Already there were signs that democratic reform was going to be a tough sell, as oligarchs took advantage of weak governments and poor economic conditions to establish a system of robber capitalism.

From this experience, Clinton recognized the paradox of trying to establish democracy in an organic fashion. Push too hard for change and it’s not really democratic. Don’t push hard enough and it could be hijacked by self-serving individuals.

“I think this is what the 21st century will be about, how freedom will survive all of the pressures where it’s never been tested,” Clinton remarked. “Democracy may make it there. But you begin to feel why patterns of history repeat themselves.”

More than 15 years after the defeat of communism, supposedly the antithesis of human freedom, the world’s push towards democracy has once again stalled. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index noted that in 2008, the average ranking for countries remained more or less the same compared to two years ago.

The Index relies on polling data and other indicators in five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

While the Economist report found that more than half the world’s population lived in some sort of democracy, only 14 percent of countries could be classified as fully functioning democracies.

Meanwhile, more than a third of the world’s population, including most of Africa and the Middle East, continued to live under authoritarian rule.

“Although there is, contrary to some alarmist reports, no recent trend of outright regression, there are very few instances of significant improvement,” the report concluded – a striking turnaround from the era of “colour revolutions” in the former USSR and the downfall of military dictatorships in South America.

More worrying was the threat posed by the economic recession to those countries with already tenuous holds on democracy.

The Economist cited 51 countries as having “a high or very high risk of social unrest” in 2008.

“Many non-consolidated democracies are very fragile and if subjected to intense socio-economic stress, backsliding in democracy is possible,” the Index noted.

That report came out in September 2008. If the Economist folks would have waited a few months, their prognosis likely would have been even grimmer.

In the past year we’ve seen the Kremlin-backed party of former Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin increase its stranglehold, both in local legislatures and among its former satellite states.

We’ve seen Iran’s theocratic regime crack down on thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets, disputing the outcome of a presidential election that was never really free or fair to begin with.

We’ve seen democracy in Afghanistan take a big step backwards, with low turnout and widespread allegations of voting fraud in the election that returned President Hamid Karzai to power.

We’ve seen Honduran President Manuel Zelaya ousted in a military-backed coup, dealing a severe blow to a fledgling democracy.

There remains considerable debate about why authoritarianism continues to thrive, but the past twelve months have provided some interesting lessons about why democracy isn’t always guaranteed to succeed.

Democracy doesn’t always thrive where societal capitalism is embraced. The world’s largest consumer society, China, has learned to relax state control of the economy enough to improve the quality of life for its citizens without compromising its grip on power. Russia’s economy has fared much better under a tightly managed democracy than during the Yeltsin years, despite the crushing of dissenting voices.

Democracy certainly can’t exist without a minimally effective government, as Afghanistan and Haiti have learned. Both countries held elections this year, but despite a foreign military presence – or perhaps because of it – trust in government remains low and state institutions fail to impact the majority of citizens. 

On the other hand, it’s not sufficient to have fair elections and strong government for democracy to thrive. Just ask Venezuela, where popularly elected President Hugo Chavez earns his adoration by nationalizing entire industries, shutting down media stations critical to his rule and having opposition politicians arrested.

But perhaps the most disappointing lesson from this past year is that people don’t always embrace democracy by default. People do embrace security, dignity and survival, which are things an ideal democracy is supposed to offer. '

If a rich tyrant can give you a job during the recession or fundamentalist militants can protect your family from harm, does a vote really matter?

Of course, the answer is yes. But it goes to show that democracy is not always the easy choice, neither here nor anywhere else. Only time will tell if countries can break from the patterns of history and offer solutions that preserve human freedom against the pressures set against it.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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  1. Posted by: on Oct 17, 2009 @ 1:38pm

    An ideal GOVERNMENT should offer things like security, dignity and survival. An ideal democracy is just that. An ideal. It's no longer possible like it was in ancient Athens. We are too many. And in our larger, more complex world there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution. You ask the right question. Does a vote really matter? We all cast one everyday by letting what is be.

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