Tag Archives: democratization

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?

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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?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Al Qaeda militants seized control of the Iraqi city of Mosul yesterday, forcing the country’s prime minister to request parliament declare a state of emergency in the country. According to the BBC, overnight, hundreds of militants sized control of local government offices, police stations, the airport, and regional army headquarters. An estimated 150,000 people have fled the city, sparking Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the neighboring province of Kurdistan to issue a statement requesting the UN refugee agency step up assistance for those fleeing Mosul.

The past week has seen a sharp uptick in violence in Iraq, with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its allies launching a series of attacks across northern Iraq. While Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki has promised swift measures to enhance security in the country and drive back ISIS forces, it is not clear how effective Iraq’s fledgling military will be. While the United States completed the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq in 2011, the United States continues to provide support for the Iraqi military.

What do you think? Does the rise of ISIS and other militant Islamic groups in Iraq necessitate an increase in US involvement in Iraq? What should the US role in Iraq look like? Should it be limited to financial assistance and military aid? Should the United States provide air support? Military training? More extensive involvement? And what happens if Iraq falls to Islamic militants?

Commemorating Tiananmen Square

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. Many people remember the dramatic footage of “tank man,” the lone protestor who stood in front of a column of tanks in an attempt to prevent their movement against other protestors. The crackdown marked a dramatic shift in Chinese politics. In 1989, broad shifts were taking place across the Communist world. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, was attempting to introduce sweeping reforms in the country. Those reforms quickly spiraled beyond his control, and eventually the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union broke apart, and Eastern Europe moved to democracy.

Similar protests erupted in 1989 in China, culminating in a massive, student-led movement occupying Tiananmen Square and demanding democratization in China. The Chinese government cracked down, condemning the protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot.”

In this video, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviews one of the student leaders in the protest, Wu’er Kaixi, who was forced to flee China after the crackdown and now resides in Tiawan. In this interview, he offers his thoughts on the protest and the future direction of China in a post-Tiananmen Square era.

 

Libya: The Drivers of Democratization

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

In continuing developments in Libya, protestors on Friday stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia and the Sahaty Brigade. Both groups were believed to be involved in the recent attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

Anti-American protests continue to reverberate across the Middle East in response to a trailer for the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims. The trailer—which makes B-movies look like Academy Award material by comparison—was apparently shot to promote a film which (given the quality of the acting, thankfully) was never made. Nevertheless, many protestors believe the film was produced and that it mocks the Prophet Mohammed.

While protests against the film continue in many parts of the Islamic World, in Libya, the protests now appear to have a different message.

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Protestors there have taken to the streets there to demand justice for the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stephens last week. Many have carried signs like those here.

There appears to be reason to believe that Libya has, as the BBC put it, “bucked the Islamist trend.” While democratization has been a boon to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there appears to be much less support for fundamentalist parties.

There is a rich tradition in political science of exploring why some countries move towards liberal democracy while others do not. Common theories center on one or more of the following variables: wealth (gdp per capita), education (especially female education), a free market economy, social equality, a civic culture, cultural values, foreign intervention, and even age distribution. Unfortunately it is not clear yet why (or even if) Libya is moving towards liberal democracy while its neighbors are not. At a minimum, though, the contrasting experiences of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt will likely provide interesting case studies for comparativists moving forward.

What do you think: What drives democratization? Will Libya sustain its move towards democracy? Or will the trend reverse?

With Qaddafi Gone, Can Libya Overcome the “Resource Curse”?

Libyans in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square celebrate news of Qaddafi's demise.

The death of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi is widely regarded as a positive development for the Libyan people as the Transitional National Council (TNC) seeks to usher in a more democratic and prosperous future. But it is unclear whether Libya’s new leaders can extricate the oil-rich country from the grasp of the “resource curse” and bring both democracy and economic development to the Libyan people.  The resource curse refers to the fact that countries endowed with abundant natural resources frequently end up with autocratic regimes and poor populations.  International relations professor Peter Fragiskatos explains the causal mechanism underlying the resource curse in a recent blog post:

“Islam’s supposed hostility to democracy is often cited as the cause of authoritarian persistence in the Middle East and North Africa, but oil
is a far more credible culprit. Oil has sustained the rule of tyrants in the
region, whether it was Gaddafi, the shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein or the princes of Saudi Arabia. In place of taxes – and the calls for democracy and representative government they usually give rise to – the Gaddafi regime used oil profits to maintain its power. Flush with cash, the only real requirement it needed to fulfill was to adequately fund a security and military force that could silence any signs of dissent.”

Some analysts suggest the resource curse is all but inevitable.  An NPR report observes that “If the resource curse is inevitable, then you might imagine that Libya has much worse odds than Egypt at becoming a real democracy. Some leader will eventually take over those oil wells, capture all that wealth and become yet another despot.”

But other observers are optimistic, and they focus on the power of transparency to overcome the government’s monopoly on information and wealth production.  In an op-ed piece at the Huffington Post, U.S. Senators Dick Lugar and Benjamin Cardin tout an International Governmental Organization that is dedicated to overcoming the resource curse:

“In recent years, a number of  international actors — including responsible oil and mining companies and  citizens groups — have begun to tackle the resource curse problem by calling  for greater disclosure and accountability of revenues through voluntary participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  An Oslo-based international organization, EITI requires member countries and the companies they host to publish payments and receipts, and to have the results audited and certified.  The voluntary EITI approach has  been enthusiastically endorsed by the World Bank, the IMF, and the G-20 group of major economies.”

What do you think?  Does the resource curse provide a convincing explanation for the persistence of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa?  Or is this an overly simplistic argument?  What is the likelihood that Libya’s new leaders can create a democratic and prosperous state, and why?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?