Partial, malleable democracy as the new normal

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By Prof. John Harbeson

That post-Cold War democratisation has peaked in Africa since about 2005 and has been stalled or even retreating in the succeeding decade has been observed so frequently that one may reasonably ask if partial democracy is now the new normal in the region and perhaps elsewhere as well.  For example, a recent essay in an influential US publication suggested that democracy only needs to be “good enough,” implying that the aspiration to full democracy prevalent not so long ago has become unrealistic, if indeed if it was ever realistically unattainable.

Perhaps for that reason, studies of contemporary democratisation so prevalent only a few years ago have seemed to be largely supplanted by studies focused on resilient authoritarian rule. Others have implicitly cast democracy no longer as the wave of the future as it seemed to be in the first post-Cold War decade of the 1990s, but bogged down in an uphill struggle to survive and overcome tenacious authoritarian rule much as was the case in the preceding decades of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, it now appears that the immediate post-Cold War decade of the 1990s was a unique halcyon, not-to-be repeated era when democratisation momentum was dominant globally, when competing narratives were relatively muted, weak, and on the defensive.

By contrast, a newly released book by three internationally prominent students and advocates of democratisation, entitled “Authoritarianism Goes Global”, asserts that the world’s autocrats have not only managed to survive within nascent democracies, as many have observed, but are determinedly seeking to counter democratisation. The authors write that autocrats seek not only to weaken democracy within individual countries, of which there is considerable evidence within Africa, but to weaken international regimes dedicated to democracy and the rule of law such as the Organization of American States and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  They observe that autocrats have set out to create international institutions of their own to buttress undemocratic rule citing, inter alia, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In this context, one may note strenuous objections by human rights groups to the European Union’s alleged transgression of its own core democratic norms and violation of the Geneva Conventions in its moves to deport desperate migrants to less than democratic Turkey and back to their war-torn countries of origin. Without passing on the merits of individual cases, one may also note the mixed record, at best, of the International Criminal Court in bringing to justice alleged perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity, at least in part because of determined resistance to it by those it has indicted on those grounds.

The authors of “Authoritarianism Going Global” rightly call upon democracies to do battle in the market place of ideas to restore democratic momentum, to do so in solidarity with each other, to resist hollowing out of rules-based international organisations, and not least, to improve the quality of democracy in their respective countries. But the way forward in following their pertinent recommendations is not only difficult but, in many respects, even uncharted. Very little attention seems to have been given to the question of just how to restore democratic momentum or, conversely, how to prevent elected presidents from corrupting the democratic institutions through which they came to power.

Continuing democratic movement

The problem is deeper.  To settle for partial, flawed democracy as the new normal is in effect to weaken it further. Every democracy I know anything about is less than perfect.  Even countries that Freedom House thinks meet its fairly exacting standards for democracy have obvious and debilitating flaws – for example the corrupting influence of oceans of money spent in my own country on elections through insufficiently regulated political action committees. Thus, what weakens democracy is not just the presence of flaws in democratic institutions, which are ubiquitous in the world of democracies, but surrendering the aspiration to improve them and to bring them closer to the goal of a pure and complete democracy.

In essence, every democracy needs a continuing democratic movement, led by civil society, to press for improved democratic processes and institution in order, at a minimum, to prevent them with regressing and decaying. Presidents with authoritarian inclinations grasp that reality all too well when they move to coopt, undermine and curtail civil society advocacy as has happened in too many newer democracies in Africa and elsewhere. The Afrobarometer surveys of citizen attitudes toward democracy in more than thirty countries have shown that African citizens throughout the continent prefer democracy to all the alternatives by significant margins even as they recognise clearly the flaws in their existing nascent democratic institutions. So, citizen support is present in Africa for democratic movements to sustain and improve democratic institutions. What is lacking to varying degrees throughout African countries is the leadership that only a vibrant civil society, including the media, can provide as happened in Kenya in the years leading up to the passage of the 2010 Constitution.

Democratic movements to press for continued democratic improvement and resistance to democratic backsliding need the help of policy makers and the academic community as well as civil society. Democratic movements need well-conceived priorities. I have observed that as indispensable as free and fair elections are to the essence of democracy, evidence suggests that democratic establishment of the meaning and terms of the rule of law is probably a prerequisite. As one eminent student of democracy has written persuasively, democracies need a rule of law culture, and they probably need that first, to prevent the corruption of antecedent authoritarian regimes from infecting newly embryonic democratic institutions.

Deficiency of Weberian concept

At the same time, democratisation improvements must come to terms with the nature of the state that they seek to transform. The conventional understanding of the nature of the state has derived implicitly or explicitly from the teachings of the influential early 20th Century German scholar, Max Weber.  For Weber, the state requires a monopoly of legitimate coercive capacity within a compulsory, territorially bounded, community.

Missing in that definition is any hint that the inhabitants of the state are citizens as distinct from passive subjects. I suggest there is ample evidence that the Weberian conception of the state is simply inadequate in the context, at a minimum, of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. African peoples must assert their citizenship by participating in determining the terms upon which they acquiesce in membership in a state and to coercive capacity established for its protection and preservation.

Constitutional deliberations are the most important means to this end, but I suggest that relatively few constitution writing processes have really met this standard in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. Citizen participation has typically been limited to approval of constitutions drafted by experts and, beyond generous provisions for citizen rights, it is not clear how well new African constitutions have addressed what citizens of very different ethnicities, religions, and economic circumstances require to live in peace with one another within the state.

Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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