Thoughts on promoting democracy

Thoughts on promoting democracy

By Prof John Harbeson

With all the commentary about democratic backsliding, not only in Africa and other newer democracies but in my own country and elsewhere, it is clear to me that responsibility for this trend lies not just with practitioners in these countries but with others as well. It lies to some extent also with those who have borne major responsibility for promoting global democratisation movement over three decades, including my fellow academics and some in the NGO community as well as influential figures in policymaking communities.

One problem has been that democracy, properly understood, has so many important dimensions and legitimate forms that it has been difficult to achieve a proper balance among them in the circumstances of individual countries.  Achieving a proper balance, and optimal sequencing in implementing the many dimensions of democracy in general and in individual country circumstances has been difficult. One clear example that many have indeed noted is an overemphasis on national level multiparty elections, as fundamental as they are at the expense of other key dimensions like local level elections and strengthening the performance of legislative bodies at both levels. Others have counselled the advisability of democratically establishing constitutional rules of the game that all parties can agree upon before launching their competition with each other in multiparty elections,

A much larger point is that perhaps insufficient attention has been devoted to the implications of a reality that while democracy is an end in itself, in practice as well as in theory it is not a system that is free-standing or self-contained.  

On the one hand, there is a huge literature on pre-requisites for the attainment of democracy. Based largely on western experience, a level of economic development, education urbanization, and media exposure has correlated well with the emergence of democracy and its sustainability.  

The post-Cold War era that brought a wave of democratization to many sub-Saharan African and other global south countries occurred without regard to this evidence of necessary sequencing, because these countries inescapably confronted the challenges of democratization, economic development, and also fragile state strengthening simultaneously.  And to their credit, at least half of sub-Saharan African countries, including Kenya, have become and remain at least partially democratic despite confronting these more challenging circumstances that received theory and experience contemplate.

However, an inquiry into why for many of these countries, including Kenya, democratic progress has remained only partial and indeed may be backsliding suggests that the familiar basket of explanations may miss something in plain sight though insufficiently acknowledged.  Clearly, corruption, ethnic and regional parochialism, partisan and personal self-interest on the part of political leaders, and preoccupation with economic woes like inflation and unemployment have been key contributing factors.  

In addition, however, something else is also clearly amiss to the extent debates about whether and/or how to amend a constitution, or whether a parliamentary or presidential system are optimal turn not on what may be in the best interests of the country in question but overwhelmingly more  on who in the political class will gain or lose under various alternatives and as though the interests of those outside the political class do not really matter.  It is as though in their untrammelled pursuit of political self-interest; elites do not recognize that this practice in itself corrodes democracy. It is as though they tacitly presume their democracy to be effectively self-actualizing. 

At a minimum, a revival of democracy is a needed countervailing force to ruling elites who have learned from each other how to disarm democracy by harassing free media, and civil society freedom of association.

Perhaps missing from the start in post-Cold War democracy promotion efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere has been recognition that newly established democratic institutions require continuous promotion at both grassroots and elite levels just to maintain their vitality and prevent their decay, let alone energize further advancement.  Doing so contributes to building a democracy promotion community founded on tempering the pursuit of individual self-interest with due attention to discerning and then pursuing what in the best interests of the sustainability of new democratic institutions.  

On the other hand, while clearly not self-sustaining, nascent democracies may be, and perhaps have an implicit mission to be, agents as well as the products of further social change. For example, there is a well-established democratic peace literature attesting that democracies tend not to go to war with one another, though the jury appears to be out on how this tendency is tempered to the extent that democracy is only partially realized domestically. There is also a respectable literature suggesting that economic development is advanced more under democracy than otherwise, though not necessarily more equitable economic development.

Too little attention has centred on a continuing need for democracy promotion to undergird nascent institutions and energize them as agents of constructive socioeconomic change. At a minimum, its revival is a needed countervailing force to ruling elites who have learned from each other how to disarm democracy by harassing free media, and civil society freedom of association. ( 

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