Tag Archives: democracy

Democratization in Myanmar

Although results have yet to be confirmed, Sunday’s election in Myanmar appears to be headed to transferring power to Nobel Peace Laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy. The elections marked the first democratic ballot after nearly 50 years of military rule. Although final results are still more than a week away, Suu Kyi’s party was already won 256 of the 299 seats declared and the military has already declared it has lost more seats than it has won.

The constitution of Myanmar, developed by the country’s military government in preparation for the transition to democracy, still places considerable limits on the new government. Suu Kyi will be a member of the parliament but is ineligible to serve as the country’s president. Further, the military retains control of key government operations, including the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. It is also guaranteed at least 25 percent of the seats in parliament. Nevertheless, there have been high expectations that the election represents a significant step forward in the democratization of Myanmar.

What do you think? What comes next in Myanmar’s democratization? Will the process continue or will it suffer setbacks as the nation moves forward? Why? And what lessons, if any, does Myanmar hold for other countries transitioning to democracy?

Constitutional Crisis in Portugal

The government of Portugal appears to be headed for a constitutional crisis. Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s President, has refused to permit a left-leaning coalition from forming a new government in the country, despite the fact that the coalition secured an absolute majority in parliamentary elections earlier this month. Instead, incumbent Prime Minister Pedtro Passos Coelho, who leads a center-right coalition, has been asked to form a new government, despite controlling just 107 of the 230 seats in the parliament—compared to the left-leaning alliance that controls 122 seats. The country’s conservative president declared he would not ask the leftist coalition to form the government due to the coalition’s anti-austerity political platform, which the president says threatens the economic stability of Portugal.

The move creates an interesting stalemate. While the left opposition cannot form a government without approval of the president, no government formed without their support could survive a confidence vote, suggesting whatever government is formed may be short lived indeed. The leader of the Socialist Party, Antonio Costa, described the standoff as a “pointless political crisis,” and voted to oppose the first vote in parliament, paving the way for a government to be formed next month.

What do you think? Is the president of Portugal correct in his decision to deny the ability of the leftist coalition to form a government? Why? And how might this decision affect the future of Portuguese democracy?

Parliamentary Elections in Egypt

Parliamentary elections in Egypt will take place beginning this weekend, with more than 5,000 candidates running for 448 seats through single-member districts. An additional 120 seats will be allocated by proportional representation lists, and 28 will be appointed by the country’s president.

The military ousted the country’s elected President, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013, leading to a period of instability in Egypt. In 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, protestors overthrew the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. His pro-Western military regime was replaced by more pro-Islamic parties, leaving the military in an uncertain role. Many hopes now rest on Sunday’s elections, which will fill the country’s House of Representatives. Delegates to the House will also be charged with reviewing laws passed by the caretaker government when the House was not in session.

What do you think? Will this weekend’s elections help facilitate Egypt’s path back towards a fully functioning democracy? What challenges does Egypt face in its path? And what, if anything, should the United States and/or the European Union do to help facilitate this process?

The Rule of Law

Thursday marks the 26th anniversary of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military used force to end a mass student protest demanding democratization and liberalization. The BBC marked the anniversary with an interview with Mo Shaoping, one of China’s most well-known defense lawyers. Mo specializes in handling sensitive cases and has defended many Chinese dissidents, including Guo Guoting and Liu Xiaobo.

In the video, Mo criticizes the Chinese government for what he sees as a lack of progress in democratization. He argues that, “China has laws but no rule of law. We have a constitution, but no constitutional governance.”

What do you think? Is Mo correct in his assessment? And if so, why has the push for democratization in China stalled? What does Mo mean by “Rule of Law” and why is it important for democracy? How has economic growth affected demands for political liberalization in the country? And what might the Chinese experience suggest for democratization and development elsewhere?

The Paradox of Democracy in US Foreign Policy

There’s a famous saying that we should “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

Last week was a difficult one for the US foreign policy establishment. On Tuesday, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed by militants, who killed the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel. Stevens had worked closely with the rebel movement that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in last year. Fluent in French and Arabic, he was, in many ways, the ideal US representative to the troubled region.

It is now believed that the attack was launched by Islamic militants who used ongoing protests against the United States in Benghazi as cover to launch their operation. But the protests which were initially exploited to cover the operation have since spread. By Friday, US, German, and British embassies in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were the scenes of often violent protest by demonstrators who objected to an obscure online video produced by an American mocked the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer.

The growing protests have been strongest in countries which experienced the Arab Spring, where longstanding dictatorships were overthrown and replaced with fledgling democracies. The leaders of those countries must play a dangerous balancing game. While seeking to retain good relations with the United States, they must also keep an eye on reelection campaigns. When Anti-Americanism runs high, one of the two competing goals has to give.

This tension marks an interesting turn from the historical foreign policy of the United States. During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized for supporting dictators who, while not democratic, were certainly anti-communist. While the promotion of democracy often remained an ideal objective of US foreign policy during the Cold War, in many cases, such as that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was willing to overlook democracy for a firm commitment to anti-communism. Now, the emphasis on democratization has raised new questions arising from the competing demands faced by the fledgling democracies in the Middle East. How do we reconcile those demands?

What do you think? How should US foreign policy engage with democratically-elected governments expressing anti-American sentiment? What is the most effective way to engage with governments like those of Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, where leaders balance a desire with closer ties with the United States against popular expressions of anti-Americanism? And more fundamentally, what role should the promotion of and support for democratization play in US foreign policy? Let us know what you think.

Development, China Style

Angola's Presidential Ballot

Angola’s Presidential Ballot

Angolans are voting in the country’s second national election since the end of a 27 year civil war a decade ago. Incumbent President José Eduardo dos Santos, whose ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has governed the country since 1979, is expended to soundly win reelection.

Angola today is a far cry from the country ravaged by a 27 year war involving three separate liberation movements and external intervention by the former Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States, and apartheid South Africa. That war, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 Angolans, left deep scars on the country. But today, Angola is growing rapidly. Angola is home to extensive oil reserves, and has experienced rapid, double-digit economic growth since the 1990s. Between 2001 and 2010, Angola experienced the highest rate of economic growth in eh world, averaging 11.1 percent per year.

But Angola’s development has not been without its shortcomings. Despite its rapid economic growth, most Angolans remain desperately poor. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world. And economic inequality has increased, as a relatively privileged few benefit from the country’s newfound wealth while most continue to live in poverty.

As the New York Time notes,

Angola is one of several African countries that have molded their governments, in an unspoken fashion, on what is widely known as the Chinese model. Leaders who have been in power for decades in countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda have delivered considerable economic growth and, by some measures, improvements in health, education and development.

Leaders of these nations, all of them scarred by internal conflict, have offered their citizens an implicit bargain of development and stability in exchange for robust democracy.

An election poster of the ruling MPLA party in Luanda

An election poster of the ruling MPLA party in Luanda

The exact nature of the “Chinese model of development” is contested. Nevertheless, at its core, Chinese development was defined by a combination of selective economic liberalization combined with continued political control. China’s economic opening was the result of specific and selective political decisions made by the Chinese Communist Party. Further, Chinese development brought into question the link between democracy and capitalism that hand long been assumed in the development literature. Angola, like many other developing countries, appears to be moving towards that model, encouraging economic liberalization while restricting political liberalization and democratization.

Certainly there is historical reason to question the connection between democracy and development. South Korea, for example, experienced rapid economic growth by selectively liberalizing the economy (in the context of extensive state regulations, much like China) but simultaneously maintained a repressive and undemocratic government. Indeed, South Korean economic development, which averaged an impressive 9.2 percent per year from 1961 to 1979, occurred largely while the country was a military dictatorship. Clearly the relationship between democracy and development is not clear cut.

What do you think? Does China present an alternative model for economic development in Africa? How does Chinese development differ from the historical patterns of industrialization and development experienced in the West? And perhaps most importantly, how are democracy and development connected?

Institutions and The Egyptian “Counterrevolution”

Egyptian protesters voicing their displeasure at court rulings that have stalled the country’s democratic transition.

This week’s events in Egypt indicate that a counterrevolution is under way by the ruling military authorities (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF).  A court appointed by former president Hosni Mubarak ruled that Egypt’s democratically elected parliament must be disbanded, effectively giving legislative power to the SCAF.  The court also ruled that the Mubarak regime’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, could remain a candidate in the presidential election currently taking place.  The SCAF is also preparing a new constitutional “annex” that will define the powers of the incoming president and will set further guidelines on the composition of the assembly that will draft a new constitution.  For analysis of the implications of these events for Egypt’s transition to democracy, see here and here.

From a political science standpoint, these events provide a stark reminder of the importance of institutions in determining political outcomes.  Institutions are usually defined as including both the formal structures/processes and the informal rules and procedures that govern behavior.  In the case of Egypt, the SCAF knows that in order to preserve its power it must control the process of institution-building and not allow the creation of institutions that will severely limit or eliminate its influence (hence its insistence on micro-managing the selection of the assembly that will draft the new constitution).   The SCAF could continue to exercise power informally despite what the new constitution says–as has happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example–but relying on informal institutions in defiance of the formal ones will be politically difficult in a country gripped by revolutionary fervor and the notion that power must devolve to the people.

Institutions are worth fighting over because they play a major role in determining who wins specific political battles.  They determine the rules of the game, the cast of legitimate players, and the “victory conditions.”  For example, executives in presidential systems (like France and the U.S.) are less constrained in certain ways by their legislatures than are prime ministers in parliamentary systems.  And as comparative politics scholars have noted, certain voting rules (proportional representation systems) allow small parties a chance to be represented, while other rules (“first-past-the-post”) tend to produce two large, powerful parties while stifling minority parties.

What do you think?  Will SCAF succeed in its attempted counterrevolution by creating favorable institutions?  Or are these measures the last grasping efforts of a dying regime that will inevitably fall to an empowered public that will create new institutions of its own?  (Take the poll below to voice your opinion on the future of democracy in Egypt).

Election “Management” in Autocratic States

Former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was one of ten Egyptian presidential candidates disqualified yesterday by Egypt's election commission.

Democracies aren’t the only states that hold elections. Autocratic states frequently hold elections also. But these elections fall far short of the “free and fair” standard in order to ensure outcomes acceptable to the regime. Common–and effective–tactics include putting only one name on the ballot (e.g., Saddam Hussein in 2002), intimidating voters, and having regime allies count the votes.

Another creative “election management” tactic has been used for years in Iran and appears to have been employed just yesterday by Egypt.  This measure preserves the appearance of a competitive election but disqualifies in advance any candidates the ruling authorities deem unacceptable.  In Egypt the High Election Commission eliminated 10 candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, including the three leading candidates: former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, leading Muslim Brotherhood strategist Khairat el-Shater, and ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.  They were all disqualified for technical violations but the underlying reason may have been a desire to avoid deep societal conflict: “The race has shaped up as a battle between Islamists and former officials of the Mubarak government. If the decision stands, it will effectively leave out the most polarizing candidates on both sides of the field.”  It is worth noting that Egypt is a regime in transition, so its interim rulers may be employing this tactic less to preserve their own power than to ensure a transition to the type of regime they ultimately want to see.

There is less ambiguity about the way this tactic is used in Iran.  An outstanding BBC guide entitled “How Iran is Ruled” describes the role of the highly influential Guardian Council in screening candidates (and legislation):

“The council has to approve all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law. The council can also bar candidates from standing in elections to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.  Reformist attempts to reduce the council’s vetting powers have proved unsuccessful and the council banned all but six of more than 1,000 hopefuls in the 2005 elections.  Two more, both reformists, were permitted to stand after the Supreme Leader intervened. All the female candidates were blocked from standing.”

Iran’s Guardian Council similarly disqualified 2,000 candidates prior to the 2008 parliamentary elections (most of them reformers).  The same pattern repeated itself for the 2012 elections.

While this candidate screening tactic is employed most egregiously and openly in autocratic states, does something similar happen in democracies?  In what ways are the candidates for high office in democracies recruited or “vetted” by powerful elites outside of public view?  Is this qualitatively different from what happens in autocracies, or is it essentially the same tactic?  What are the implications for democracy?

The Trouble with Quangos

U.S. pro-democracy workers board a flight in Egypt before departing the country on March 1, 2012. The charges against the Americans have not been dropped.

The recent detention of staff members from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt is only the latest example of a wider pattern of harassment and resentment against Western-backed NGOs in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.  Unlike intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), whose members are states, NGOs are private actors which operate–at least theoretically–independently from governments.  But increasingly the independent status of many NGOs has been called into question, with serious consequences for their mission, the safety of their workers, and relations among governments.  A blog post by foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead discusses the thorny dilemma of these “quangos“:

“‘Quangos’, as the Brits call them — quasi non-governmental organizations — operate partly as non-affiliated promoters of democracy and freedom abroad. But they receive US government funding and are closely linked to political leaders in both parties. The ‘wall of separation’ between the quangos and actual government policy is somewhat fictional, and the whole relationship is deeply suspect in countries with morbidly suspicious political cultures. The latest crisis in Egypt is a sign of just how very careless the US political establishment has grown as it makes use of these groups to achieve political ends in foreign countries…More and more countries (with, frankly, more and more reason) regard quangos not as innocent civil society actors but as direct tools of US foreign policy operating outside the traditional restraints of diplomatic institutions. They and their employees will increasingly be seen as fair game for retaliation.”

Mead calls for a stricter separation between NGOs and supporting governments, warning that “the existence of the quangos muddies the water for genuine civil society groups; it is easy for foreigners to denounce all western civil society groups as government agencies when some ‘NGOs’ receive most or all of their funding from foreign governments.”

Interestingly, Mead compares the plight of secular western quangos today to the problems faced by Christian missionaries in the 19th century.  He notes that these missionaries “had their greatest success when the missionaries were not backed up by gunboats, and when there was a clear separation between missionary groups and imperial power. Democracy activists need to spend more time studying mission history. There are some rich lessons there that need to be learned.”

What do you think?  Should western governments interested in promoting democracy sever or hide their ties to pro-democracy NGOs abroad?  Or will this weaken organizations that need state backing to achieve their goals?  Will autocratic governments threatened by pro-democracy NGOs really stop the harassment simply because these groups are certifiably independent of foreign governments?

State Sovereignty, Supranationalism, and the EU’s Threat Against Hungary

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban appears to be buckling to pressure from the European Commission to change Hungary's laws. But what are the implications for state sovereignty and democracy?

State sovereignty is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It means that governments exercise final authority within their own borders and that states are free from foreign interference in their internal affairs.  Of course, sovereignty is sometimes more clear in theory than in practice.  States are often incapable of exercising complete control of their territory (e.g., Pakistan) and they struggle in an age of globalization to secure their borders against unwanted goods, people, and ideas (e.g., China’s efforts to police the internet).  An additional threat to state sovereignty in the last several decades has been the rise of supranational organizations that have increasingly sought to place limits on state sovereignty in order to deal effectively with global issues ranging from human rights (the ICC) to trade (the WTO) to the distribution of the ocean’s wealth (UNCLOS).

It is therefore not surprising that Hungary today finds its ability to freely enact domestic laws constrained by its membership in the 27-member European Union, the world’s foremost experiment in integration.  Specifically, the EU has voiced concern that recent changes to Hungary’s laws and constitution that appear to undermine judicial independence, central bank independence, and media freedoms herald a return to authoritarianism in the former Communist country.  But the EU has gone beyond simply voicing its displeasure: the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) has declared that these laws violate EU rules and has threatened to take legal action against Hungary if the laws are not changed.  The New York Times highlights the extent (and the limits) of this effort to curtail Hungary’s sovereignty:

“The 27-nation European Union has been grappling with what to do about member countries when they adopt policies that seem to undermine the union’s basic principles.  Though nations must meet specific democracy criteria to join the bloc, once they are members there are relatively few sanctions available to enforce them.  For that reason, the commission’s action against Hungary is based on technical issues rather than the wider concerns that Mr. Orban’s government is undermining democracy, centralizing power and destroying pluralism.  The commission lodged objections to measures that threaten the independence of Hungary’s central bank and its data protection authority, and that change the retirement age of judges.”

It appears that Hungary’s leaders are backing off their earlier hard line and may give in to the EU’s demands.  Clearly this is a defeat for state sovereignty, and some would argue that it is high time for unrestricted state sovereignty to disappear as a relic of a past age.  But is this outcome ultimately dangerous for democracy?  By forcefully imposing rules from above, do supranational bodies like the European Commission risk creating an undemocratic precedent whereby unelected entities are given the power to overrule the choices of elected governments?