World democracy is on a roll ... or is it?

The flowering of fig-leaf democracy
Daniel Baldino.

In terms of neo-liberal ideology, the end of the Cold War produced a flurry of expectations for a more peaceful and prosperous world order. The fall of the Berlin Wall served to reinforce a series of arguments that favored the existence of universally applicable methods of political organisation and the dominance of democratic principles. Francis Fukuyama's (1989) controversial 'End of History' thesis had even argued that the much-heralded wave of democratisation might embody the end point of humankind's ideological evolution and assumed that the world's remaining dictators may soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.1 Other theorists supported democracies on the grounds that they were potentially more reliable economic partners, less inclined to wage war against one another and more likely to promote sustainable development and protect human rights.

The global expansion of democracy as a system of government both within individual countries and internationally does give some ground for optimism. While democratic governance may not be decisive, it can be profoundly influential in shaping state behavior and explaining why states do or do not resort to force. Such reflection upon the future prospects of democracy and world order has not merely been confined to the theoretical level. In 1900, the international system comprised mostly of unaccountable and autocratic states. No country, except New Zealand from 1893, elected governments on the principle of universal suffrage. Democracy was an uncertain experiment, had pejorative implications and was frequently viewed by privileged groups as a 'dangerous' system. Further, participation for many people within the democratic landscape was often restricted due to racial, gender, or property barriers.

The past quarter of a century has witnessed an unprecedented advance of democracy in many parts of the world. The global resurgence of democracy has reinvigorated debate on people-centered security, the virtues of popular participation and the priorities of foreign policy objectives within Western nations while also capturing the attention of a wide range of international institutions and private foundations. At the very least, the collapse of the Soviet sphere did represent a watershed in history; it accelerated experimentation in democratic systems and forced policymakers to speculate about the merits of external assistance to support historical advances. Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Global Policy at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, has labeled democracy assistance as a major growth industry responding, in part, to the unfolding of the 'third wave' of democratization in places such as Eastern Europe, in Latin America, in Africa and some of the successor states of the former Soviet Union.2 However, despite renewed attention to the subject of democratic transition and broad-ranging identification of areas to improve classification criteria for aid to promote democracy, policy-makers continue to encounter difficulties in suitably labeling emerging political systems that exhibit contradictory repressive and responsive aspects. The interrelationship between democratic and authoritarian traits and an emergence of authoritarian regimes being replaced by a potentially phony or fig-leaf democracy (a term coined by UN Secretary General Koffi Annan) suggests that many difficult challenges lie ahead in managing relations and reworking clear-cut classification systems of political organization. History has not ended with the final triumph of liberal democracy nor is the future political character of the world system assured. In many cases, political change and transition has failed to produce tangible benefits in the lives of citizens. Pivotally, many countries labeled democracy's 'third wave' are not yet completely secured while the precise nature of their political status remains uncertain. In many locations the prospects for democratisation remain cloudy, as some states appear to be making progress, others appear to be faltering and several are displaying mutually supportive and deliberately organized democratic-authoritarian tendencies.

It is worth highlighting that there is no fixed definition of democracy and models of popular sovereignty can assume a wide variety of contested forms. There is no simple, unchangeable or perfect blueprint. Yet the phenomenon of a political mix between democracy and authoritarianism, revealing some representative political characteristics co-existing with other repressive features and only a tentative commitment to civil and political liberties, merits a more focused attention because it remains the key challenge facing democracy-promoters. The rise of compromised governing structures and dysfunctional politics, including leaders who ostensibly pledge a commitment to popular aspirations and democratic openings while exploiting opportunities for personal power and material reward, remains a contentious issue. In this context, Joseph Schumpeter's procedural concept of democracy, summed up in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), as a 'competitive struggle for people's vote', expresses a popular concept which is limited to short-term operations and provides a very restricted understanding of democracy.3 Elections are not the sole essence of democracy. Policy makers must appreciate how democratic regimes might be shaped in significant as well as ambiguous directions after formal elections have been completed. Formal electoral participation, while an integral part of a functioning democracy, is a necessary but insufficient variable towards the development of a substantive democracy.

While democratically orientated concepts and constructions are becoming more or less being adopted worldwide, many fledgling democracies are sliding into serious trouble while taking a variety of mangled, hybrid forms. Indeed, democracy-building projects undertaken by incumbent political elites have often failed to match their pursuit of economic development programs that favor entrepreneurial activities, an open economy and greater market integration. A range of observers have expressed deep concern about unstable politics, notable social exclusion, tremendous income disparities and illiberal practices that point to shallow levels of accountability and an executive ascendance within a wide variety of pseudo-democracies.4 In regard to the context of regime transformation, the change of direction for many transitional countries is neither broadly dictatorial nor clearly igniting the dynamics towards a durable participatory democracy in the near future. While many countries have generated democratic pressures and experienced important progress toward political reform in recent years as their governments have allowed some expansion of political freedoms, political systems and popular movements grapple with the pervasive legacy of old authoritarian forces, networks of opportunism and traditional distributions of power.

Many of the new high profile democracies, such as Indonesia, Colombia, Nigeria and Ukraine possess some idiosyncrasies of democratic life, which include some form of regular elections and the adoption of formal institutions. However, frequent state coercion, a limited scope for opposition groups and poor human rights situations also characterise their current drive away from entrenched authoritarianism. These embryonic and fledgling democracies, with a particular mix of authoritarian and democratic characteristics, are responsive to some pressures from civil society while suppressing others and remain intrinsically flawed. Electoral choices are restricted while other serious democratic failings include low levels of popular legitimacy, frequent abuse of the law by government officials and elite-dominated political parties. Key elements of a liberal democracy, such as accountability, social reform, norms of tolerance and independent judiciaries remain compromised, highly vulnerable to breakdown or erosion, or simply non-existent.

In June 2000, the United States convened a 'community of democracies' in Warsaw, at a meeting sponsored by the Polish government. The aim of the Warsaw Declaration was to draft a universal (and non-binding) statement on the pillars of democracy and coordinate international programs to help nations stabilise political transitions. Participants reaffirmed lofty rhetoric supporting breakthroughs towards democracy and expressed both the universal applicability of democratic values and a desire to be highly sensitive to local circumstances and existing political cultures. More than 100 nations established a caucus at the United Nations that planned to hold future review conferences, including one that convened in Seoul in 2002, and to launch frequent ministerial exchanges intermittently around the world. Problematically, many of the declaration's 110 governmental sponsors, such as Albania, Venezuela and Algeria, lacked strong democratic credentials and allow little real competition for power. Such cases highlight that democratic regimes - from the fragile to the mature - remain under trial while vulnerable to setbacks as well as advancements.

Despite efforts to establish diplomatic agreement and guiding international standards, the idea of national autonomy and the principles of non-intervention and self-rule also remained alive and well. Notably absent beyond towering claims of democratic intent in the Warsaw Declaration were any institutionalised provisions for penalising any participant who subverted human rights, any framework for conceptualising between genuine, phony or semi-democracies and any major multilateral mechanisms for monitoring and reporting a regime's adherence to the aims of the Declaration. Problematically, while Iran had not been invited despite a recent holding of multi-party elections, six other signatures more closely aligned to US interests, and who had signaled significant democratic breakdown or shallowness, such as Egypt and Kenya, were accepted. Discriminating selection conditions and awkwardly flexible approaches cast suspicion that there may be at least some tendency to rank states as more democratic if they were friendly towards the US.

While governments may profess their embrace of democracy to extend intentional legitimacy and gain foreign aid, democratic attitudes and practices will vary while style must always be weighted against substance. Indonesia, Nigeria, Colombia and Ukraine, all part of the so-called global resurgence of democracy, retain significant undemocratic features and are, at best, fig-leaf democracies that incorporate the extension of multi-party elections with a range of illiberal aspects. Further, unrealistic assessments that uncritically praise a country's social and political record may not only lend themselves to overly-optimistic expectations but may divert foreign aid efforts while loosening pressure for culpability by political elites in targeted countries. Political leaders must not be able to exploit low standards of democracy for their own corrupt and self-serving ends.

The global trend of authoritarian regimes being replaced by fragile and flawed democracies remains a precarious reality. While cultures are historically dynamic, the potential of developing countries to advance a deep and substantive democratic regime will vary considerably. New electoral democracies such as Nigeria, Colombia, Indonesia and Ukraine continue to have a record of dubious democratic practices including evidence of outright coercion. The reality of a new coalition of ambiguous regimes is that democratic and authoritarian practices, manifested during the uncertainty of regime transition, have been inextricably mixed. Whilst the growing appeal of democracy is now widely recognized, as evidenced in the pre-war ideological calculations of US foreign policy in justifying its invasion of Iraq in early 2003, the nature of democracy, the evaluation of democratic status and the limitations of a Schumpeterian notion require urgent redress. Despite hybrid political models being difficult to classify, a minimal definition of democracy should not automatically secure international legitimacy.

Daniel Baldino is a casual academic within the School of International Studies at the University of South Australia. Papers from the World Forum on Democracy are available on the site of the Stefan Batory Foundation (private Polish foundation established by American financier and philanthropist George Soros)


1. Fukuyama, F. (1989), 'The End of History?', National Interest, (16) 3-18.

2. Carothers, T. (1999), Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC).

3. Schumpeter, J. (1943), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, (London: Allen and Unwin).

4. Diamond, L. (2000), 'The Global State of Democracy', Current History, (99) 413-418.

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