Hollowing out democracy

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By John Harbeson

Democratisation in African countries, including Kenya, has appeared to reach a plateau.  The plateau appears unstable to many observers because visible indications of actual democratic reversal have seemed more numerous than less visible continuing efforts that many are continuing to make to advance the democratic cause.

The major unanswered questions about this apparent democratisation plateau have been and continue to be what accounts for its clear emergence and what can be done about it. Answers to the latter question may lie in encouraging academics as well as country policy makers and aid agencies to think about democracy in more appropriate and realistic terms, and more deeply.  By “appropriate” and “realistic” I am not counselling resigning one’s self to partial democracy or democratic retreats but, rather, to urge that we recast our democratic thinking in ways that will better support sustaining existing levels of democracy and establish more durable foundations for further democratic advancement.

While the evidence that democratisation has reached a plateau in sub-Saharan Africa is persuasive, in fairness we should take a moment to reflect on one reason to be uncertain about the real state of democracy on the continent.  Some of the most prominent voices alleging democratic stagnation in Africa have been institutions that undertake to measure democracy, or the lack of it, by quantifying their estimates of democratic performance without specifying precisely how they quantify their empirical observations. The case of Mali in 2012 and beyond has been an explicit challenge to these democracy quantifying systems, all of which had previously given Mali high marks for democracy and estimated the state to be stable. None warned of the collapse of democracy or the fracturing of the state before it occurred.

Nevertheless, the four major systems for assessing democratic performance, with their different emphases as well as common concerns, all agree that at best progress has been marginal over the last decade or so for African countries. Freedom House focuses on observance of political rights and civil liberties, Polity on constitutional constraints on executives and openness in their selection, the World Bank on governmental effectiveness and integrity, and the Mo Ibrahim Index has a more expansive conception of democratic governing, focusing upon sustainable economic opportunity and human development as well as political liberties, the rule of law and personal safety.

One doesn’t need statistical measures, however, to witness the instances of democratic retreat around the continent, Kenya included.  The Mali case teaches us that democratic decay can accumulate quietly, like a slow growing cancer, until visible decay manifests itself and state collapse threatens.  Election fraud, infringements on the independence of judiciaries, as is now contemplated in Kenya, constitutional set-asides of presidential two term limits, governmental initiatives to restrict if not actually harass civil society organisations in a number of countries, routine abuses of civil liberties and political rights and, of course, ever-present if not worsening corruption, all threaten the health of the state itself as well as its nascent democratic structure.  Peculiar to Kenya in this vein have been denials of extensions of the terms of the Constitutional Implementation Commission and the devolution Transition Authority, thus seeming to put at some risk further implementation of the Constitution’s signature devolution initiative as well as ongoing constitutional implementation progress as a whole.

What accounts for these practices that signal not only retreat but an actual hollowing out of democracy, threatening to leave in place only its brittle constitutional shell? Explanations have been in relatively short supply.  Three plausible ones all suggest fundamental dimensions of democratisation that, because generally overlooked, may help to account for these overt manifestations of democratic hollowing out.

First, an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs argues that democratic states have proven sustainable where elected political leaders have internalised democratic values of tolerance, compromise, and respect for others in their private lives and personal dealings. In other words, the hollowing out of democracy occurs, in the first instance, when democratically elected leaders deep down don’t understand and embrace the full range of democratic values. They may “get” the political competition that is central to democracy but not these other equally fundamental values of fully democratic political order.

This explanation points to the well-known theory that for a democratic state to be sustainable it must rest on a democratic political culture in which the values of tolerance, compromise, respect for others and, more fundamentally, the importance of democratic consensus, are deeply ingrained at leadership as well as citizen levels. A significant challenge for African democracy is that though a democratic political culture may be a prerequisite for a sustainable political order, in contemporary circumstances fostering of a democratic political culture and implementation of democratic structures must take place simultaneously, significantly enlarging the responsibilities of elected leaders.

The second explanation is the hypothesis is that beyond creating the legislation necessary to have a fully operational constitution, there is the importance of causing the organisations involved to become institutions.  Institutionalisation entails not just the ceremonies, structures, and processes of parliaments, courts, ministries, and commissions that make democratic governmental bodies work, but focusing on what is necessary to deepen their political legitimacy with the public and governmental officials alike.  Making enacted organisations more legitimate entails ongoing focused effort to ask and answer the question: what can be done to identify and establish consensus on ways to make these organisations work more transparently, more user friendly, more effectively, and more in consonance with core democratic values.  Perhaps less democratic hollowing would occur if the tenants of these organisations devoted more time to this objective, amidst all the rough and tumble of their operations.  Conversation on this subject has seemed in short supply.

Third, in the first years of the post-Cold War sub-Saharan African “democratic spring”, there was clear evidence that countries making the most rapid initial democratic progress established new democratic constitutions as a basis for shared consensus before launching their first competitive multi-party elections.  In recent years, by contrast, it has seemed that for academics and policymakers alike, all dimensions of a full democracy are equally important and merit equal priority, when in fact that may not be the case. Attention to some aspects of democracy may be more important than others in certain times and circumstances to preserve democratic advances and prevent backsliding.

The competitive dimensions of Kenyan democracy have significantly compromised and undermined consensus on shared rules of the political game that sustain the state itself, not just its democratic organisation. To the extent this is the case, broadening and deepening consensus on, and implementing the rule of law would appear to be more important than anything else at this time to preserve and advance a democratic state in Kenya.

Writer teaches African Studies at Johns Hopkins University

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