Democratic erosion

Democratic erosion

By Professor John Harbeson

The erosion of democracy, or democratic backsliding, has been widely acknowledged in academic and policymaking circles for almost fifteen years.  Perhaps because the backsliding has been gradual in most cases, quiet resistance to this trend seems to have been the norm while systematic efforts to address the underlying causes and mount comprehensive re-democratisation campaigns have been noteworthy for their absence. What’s going on here?

I believe the widely respected Freedom House may have been the first to lament the trend, but other democratic governance monitoring agencies have all attested its presence. Freedom House and others trace the onset of this trend from about 2005. One of the most persuasive explanations for this trend has been that ruling elites have gradually found work-arounds from full implementation of democratic practices without actually frontally cashiering those practices. Challenges to two term limits on presidential tenure have been among the most prominent push-backs by presidents reluctant to leave office. By contrast, constraints on media and civil society activism have tended to occur more under the radar, as it were.   

Ironically, in instituting these reforms, Abiy has  paid the price of a quarter-century of repressive rule by his two EPRDF predecessors: essentially the contradiction and delegitimization of its own ethnic federal vision of a post-imperial Ethiopian state. 

Another plausible interpretation has been that the western-led international community, whose influence matched widespread local popular enthusiasm for democracy in the 1990s, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, has lagged and been distracted by counter-terrorism pre-occupation since the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11, 2001. While, undoubtedly a factor, the deeper reality is that that international community of the 1990s and early 2000s simply no longer exists. The emergence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has limited the capacity of mature democracies to set international agendas, including democracy promotion. The emergent pervasiveness of state fragility has undermined domestic capacity in many countries to adhere to democracy norms. A sad irony has been that populist appeals by leaders of political movements in more stable states have actually proven antithetical to sustaining democratic rule, even in more mature democracies.   

So, what is to be done?  

I start from the philosophical premise that, properly understood, democracy is as indispensable a system for building political consensus as it is for establishing free and fair political competition. Key components of liberal democracy, like freedom of expression, association, and political deliberation, are as indispensable to building political consensus and community as they are to engaging in democratic political competition. My core hypothesis, therefore, is that there has been insufficient recognition that each form of democratic practice is indispensable to the viability of the other. Further, I suggest that erosion in the practice of democratic political competition is at least in part attributable to atrophy and insufficient accompanying and on-going cultivation of political consensus building practice, at least in new post-Cold War democracies.  

It was fairly clear in the first decade or so of post-Cold War democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa that those countries that had preceded initial competitive, multi-party national elections with significant consensus building measures tended to have the more initially successful democratic transitions, many with the benefit of sustained international assistance. Equally evident has been that measures to achieve ongoing maintenance, updating and sustainability of those agreements on basic rules of the political have lagged and that erosion of democratic competitive political practice has resulted.  

Mali has supplied perhaps the most dramatic example. A much-admired national conference featuring extensive grassroots participation in building its new democratic state produced nearly two decades of apparent strong democratic practice, at least by the Freedom House gold standard. But ineffective ongoing maintenance of the terms of what had been agreed, including terms to accommodate to the interests of Tuareg pastoralists left Mali susceptible to insurgency and near civil war since 2012 that has not yet been fully overcome.  Elsewhere, the flip side of ruler subversion of democratic practice and hollowing out of constitutional observance has been the inability of civil society and the media to generate consensus behind counter-measures to prevent or repair chinks in countries’ constitutional armour that allow democratic erosion. 

Constitutional referendums to amend the fundamental rules of the political rules of the game, as has been under consideration in Kenya, are one way to strengthen their effectiveness in regulating democratic political competition. I am inclined to think, however, that dialogues at local and regional as well as national levels, restoring and expanding the earlier national conventions that countries like Benin and Mali initiated, or perhaps analogous to the Bomas process in Kenya, would be more adequate to the scale of the task over time.  Measures of that scale and intensity may be essential to at last subordinate advancement of ethnic identity to the reality of shared pan-ethnic economic and political interests.  Ethiopia, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s historic democratization initiative attempts success, where three successive post-imperial regimes have failed because they did not effectively de-ethnicise pan-Ethiopian state building designs, might be a case in point. ( 

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