In the Arab Spring's Aftermath, Democracy Retreats

Despite the hopes raised by the Arab Spring, democracy is actually in retreat around the world. Here’s how to revive it

In the year since Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, some of the world’s longest-surviving dictators have fallen from power, men who once seemed likely to die in their (very plush) beds. The Arab Spring that spread from Tunisia to Egypt claimed Yemen’s Ali Saleh and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and is now gunning for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Closed societies and quasi-autocracies from Myanmar to Russia to Singapore have also witnessed stirrings of democratic change. Carl Gershman, head of the National Endowment for Democracy, the leading American democracy promotion organization, wrote that we may be entering “a Fourth Wave of democratization, which could extend democracy’s reach into other regions of the world that have been most resistant to democratic change.”

Don’t count on it. Despite the Arab Spring, democracy actually retreated around the globe in 2011, as has been true for the last five years. For every country that has made the transition to democracy, there are numerous others—from Hungary to Pakistan, Nigeria to Thailand—that have gone backward. And public opinion surveys reveal increasing skepticism among people everywhere about whether democracy is the form of government that can best improve their lives.

The decline of democracy is a story of dashed hopes, as elected leaders have failed to deliver on their promises to boost growth while using state institutions to destroy their opponents. The economic crisis that has battered Europe, North America, and parts of Asia is also placing more stress on fragile democracies, creating a vicious cycle: The development record of dictatorships is abysmal, and they are much more likely to stumble into destabilizing conflicts. Should more countries regress into authoritarian rule, instability will increase, darkening the world economy’s recovery prospects.

So what can be done? Restoring the world’s commitment to democracy would bolster growth and improve the quality of life for billions. But doing so requires those in the developed world to fix what ails their democracies, too.

Only a handful of countries, mostly in North America and Western Europe, could truly be called democracies after World War II. Beginning in the mid-1970s, a major surge of democracy—what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called the Third Wave of democratization—swept across Latin America and Asia. It continued through the early 1990s, transforming Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. By the mid-2000s, more than half the world lived under freely elected governments, the highest point for democratic governance in recorded history.

But since that zenith, the spread of democracy has slowed; it now appears to be going in reverse. In its most recent annual survey, Freedom House found that democracy—as measured by a wide range of political and social indicators—regressed in 2010 for the fourth straight year. Some of the countries going backward were once seen as beacons of hope. In Hungary, long a star of the post-Communist world, an increasingly authoritarian government has passed laws neutering opposition parties and silencing much of the press. In Thailand, which in the 1990s was held up as a democratic example, a 2006 coup toppled an elected government, and since then politicians have used lèse-majesté laws to crack down on free speech and crush independent politics.

Even in Egypt, the cradle of the Arab Spring, hopes for the emergence of a healthy democracy have dimmed. Since last February, a resurgent military has tossed some 10,000 Egyptians in jail, while religiously conservative Islamists have gained ground; such groups may participate in elections, but they are far less tolerant of democratic principles such as a free press and women’s rights. Many of the educated businesspeople who sparked the original Tahrir Square uprising are fleeing the country.

Public opinion has soured elsewhere. In Indonesia, whose transformation from dictatorship to democracy is cited by the Obama Administration as a model for the Middle East, people are growing impatient with their elected leaders. A survey released last year showed that a majority of Indonesians believed the country had been better off under former dictator Suharto, perhaps one reason his son Tommy is now forming a political party of his own.

One explanation for this broad democratic recession is that many young democracies, such as Thailand and Hungary, were much more fragile than they appeared. Transitioning to democracy is messy: Countries that do are prone to civil strife, graft, and crime, all of which depress growth in the short term. The first generation of elected leaders in several of these nascent democracies, however, promised their publics that democratic politics would also bring economic growth. (By contrast, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela managed expectations by admitting in the early days after apartheid that growth could be slow.) The gap between expectations and reality negatively affects attitudes toward democracy, a phenomenon now playing out in Egypt. In a Pew Research Center poll taken two months after the Tahrir Square uprising, 56 percent of Egyptians said that, with Hosni Mubarak gone, their economy would improve. Instead, Egypt’s economy has ground to a halt over the last year, with the interim government struggling to maintain its international reserves and the country’s poor faring worse than they did under Mubarak.

The global economic slowdown has further fueled antipathy toward democratic governance. A study of almost 20 young democracies that I conducted with Council on Foreign Relations research assistants found that support for democracy dropped in nearly every one of those countries where growth has been weakest and inequality has risen. A study of attitudes in Eastern and Central Europe, conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, found that “the more people were personally hit by the [economic] crisis, the more they turned away from democracy. … Those who enjoyed more freedoms wanted less democracy and markets when they were hurt by the crisis.”

There’s a third reason why democracy is ailing: the erosion of support among the middle class. Educated, affluent citizens have watched populist leaders turn into “elected autocrats”—men such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who win votes and then use their powers to undermine the rule of law with little regard for the courts, opposition parties in Parliament, or the media. As a result, middle classes increasingly have embraced undemocratic remedies. In places like Pakistan and the Philippines, businesspeople have openly agitated for coups to topple elected leaders.

Yet even if democracy has produced disappointing economic results in parts of the developing world, the alternatives are worse. As political scientists Morton Halperin, Joseph Siegle, and Michael Weinstein show, democracies in East Asia generally recovered from the economic crisis of the late 1990s more rapidly than autocracies and hybrid regimes. Because they were more flexible in economic policymaking, they were able to gain the public’s trust over time. Political scientists Thomas Zweifel and Patricio Navia found that despite their initial problems, young democracies “almost without exception … made more of their inhabitants better off than did dictatorships” in terms of social welfare and other measures of progress. By making their citizens healthier and more secure, democracies ultimately created the kind of transparency that businesses crave and that makes the world safer and more stable.

Reversing the decline of democracy is still possible, though spending more money on democracy promotion initiatives is a nonstarter in Congress. The U.S. should focus instead on getting its own house in order, whether by coming together to resolve the long-term entitlement crisis, by consolidating and streamlining some segments of the federal bureaucracy, or by creating nonpartisan election primaries, as has been proposed in California and elsewhere. Demonstrating that our political system can tackle big challenges would bolster the case for exporting democracy abroad. Says one American official working on democracy promotion: “How can we with a straight face tell countries in Africa and the Middle East that they need to develop better systems for governing when we can’t even pass a budget?” In the developing world, many leaders and citizens have watched China sail through the economic crisis relatively unscathed. As a result, the “China model” of authoritarian capitalism has grown in appeal—all the more reason for Washington to get to work restoring democracy’s brand.

The good news is that the democratic recession hasn’t yet turned into a depression. The possibility that this downturn will lead to the kind of malignant political movements that arose in the 1930s, another period of major democratic decline, is remote. History shows that many young democracies do manage to survive their turbulent early years, eventually lifting the growth rate enough to make elected politicians look good. So perhaps some patience is in order. The Arab Spring has changed the Middle East, but it will take more time before democracy’s next wave rolls in.

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