Summer/Fall 2000

Reprinted with permission from Georgetown Journal of International Affairs at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Democratic transformations are never simple, linear processes. The now established democracies of Europe and the United States have arrived at where they are having endured a tortuous process of partial transformations, conflicts, slowdowns, and even outright reversals. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise to see many countries undergoing the same travails today. Despite the demise of socialism as a competing ideology, the road to democracy is proving as difficult as ever. After a decade of transformation, it is clear that many countries will remain very imperfect democracies or even suffer reversals in the foreseeable future. This is normal and it should not be cause for despair. What is worrisome, however, is the evidence that, in many countries, citizens are welcoming the overthrow of formally democratic, elected governments and their replacement by military regimes or populist leaders. Also worrisome is that, in some cases, the international community is unwittingly contributing to this rejection of democracy by pushing for the implementation of economic policy reforms that go beyond what the domestic political process of democratizing countries can sustain. Rapid democratization and rapid economic reform may well be incompatible in many countries.

Contrary Trends. After two decades of steady progress toward greater democracy in Latin America, contrary trends have emerged. In Peru, people have shown strong support for Alberto Fujimori for years despite his questionable practices; support started weakening only after he sought a third term in office. In Venezuela, voters overwhelmingly elected Hugo Chavez to the presidency only a few years after he led two coup attempts, and more recently endorsed a constitution that allows a significant role for the military. In Ecuador, massive demonstrations forced the resignation of the elected president Jamil Mahuad, showing not only popular resentment of a specific leader, but also disregard for the democratic process.

Similar trends are evident elsewhere. Military coups are becoming common again in Africa, with the Ivory Coast serving as the most recent reminder that elected governments are no more immune to military takeovers than autocracies, and that the population still welcomes military intervention when it distrusts civilian politicians. An elected government has been overthrown in Pakistan, also to popular acclaim.

In all these cases, the incumbent regimes were not models of democracy; on the contrary, many were corrupt, unresponsive to their citizens, or adept at manipulating elections to lock out the opposition. The recently overthrown president of the Ivory Coast, for example, had been busy rigging the forthcoming elections, according to reports of international NGOs monitoring the preparations. Pakistan has had a succession of highly corrupt elected governments. In Venezuela, the attempted coups d'etat that eventually catapulted Hugo Chavez into power came in the wake of a strong popular reaction against newly-implemented economic reforms. These measures were enacted by an elected president who had not campaigned on an economic reform agenda and had pursued quite different policies during his first term in office during the 1970s, leading voters to expect more of the same. He decided nevertheless to follow a radical reform agenda for which he had no mandate.

Tepid Support. What is problematic in all these cases is not the rejection of the incumbent governments, but the lack of support for democratic practices shown by those who encouraged military intervention or who supported new leaders who disregarded democratic practices. The trend augurs poorly for the consolidation of democracy. During the 1990s, a surprisingly large number of countries took some steps toward democratization, with elected governments, however imperfect, replacing authoritarian ones. That was the easy part of democratic transformation. Since the citizens blamed incumbent, authoritarian governments for the problems they were experiencing, democracy was seen as an appealing alternative. Today, most governments are formally democratic, but often the problems are as bad as ever. And the most difficult part of the democratic transformation lies ahead: to convince the majority of citizens not to throw out democracy with the particular government they oppose. It is only when people have come to value democracy in itself, rather than simply as a tool for change, that democratic consolidation can be considered to have taken place.

As the aforementioned examples demonstrate, democratic consolidation is still a distant goal in many countries. In a growing number of countries that have had experience with democratic institutions, ordinary people appear ready to put their future in the hands of charismatic leaders and military officers promising salvation, instead of using the mechanisms of democracy to seek redress. Today there is a renewed skepticism about democracy that was rare in the early 1990s but was frequently voiced in developing countries in the 1960s and 1970s. Underlying this disturbing trend is the fact that most people care a lot about the government policies that affect their lives, but much less about democracy as an abstract ideal.

Compounding skepticism about democracy is the fact that many formally democratic governments have done very little for their citizens. The reasons for this failure are multiple and vary from country to country. They include poor leadership, corruption, and the enormity of the problems many countries face after decades of mismanagement. But they also include strong external pressures for policy reform, which create a disjunction between the democratic process governments are supposed to respect and the policy choices they implement. These pressures often come from the same foreign donors and international institutions that actively promote democracy.

Well-Intentioned Meddling. For almost twenty years, the international community-industrial democracies and the international financial institutions, that is-has pushed developing countries to enact economic policies that aim to liberalize their economies and integrate them as swiftly as possible into the global market. As these institutions learn more about the complexities of economic reform, demands on reforming countries escalate. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank impose conditionalities, the World Trade Organization (WTO) adds its own rules, and bilateral donors throw in their requirements. To complicate matters, increasingly vocal international networks of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also push their economic policy prescription, which may be different from, or even at odds with, those of the international financial institutions or the bilateral donors: halting the construction of large dams, for example, or preventing oil exploitation in countries with authoritarian governments. These outside pressures, particularly those of international financial institutions capable of providing or withholding financial resources needed by hard-pressed governments, are difficult to ignore.

During the last decade, the international community, emboldened by the disappearance of socialist regimes, has added democratization to the demand for economic reforms. Donors mounted complex democracy promotion activities and, in some cases, also imposed sanctions on governments resisting change. In this realm, too, NGOs added their demands, often going far beyond those of the bilateral donors. Some human rights organizations are trying to pressure countries that still have trouble respecting their citizens' basic right to respect standards that not only go well beyond the fundamental principles embraced by the United Nations and include ideas that are still extremely controversial even in the most industrialized countries. The government of Zimbabwe, for example, has been condemned for not respecting gay rights.

Whether the economic and political measures prescribed by all these actors are good, bad, useful, or damaging is not the issue here. Rather, the problem is that outside actors are prescribing the adoption of democratic processes and detailed policy outcomes. In so doing, they have tried to separate democratic political process from policy outcome. As a result, policies enacted by governments that are democratic in form do not necessarily reflect a domestic compromise based on the balance of political forces. And this practice undermines democratic consolidation by reducing democracy to a formal process of choosing leaders.

Form over Function. The wave of democratization that began in the 1980s in Latin America and then spread to the rest of the world in the 1990s was, first and foremost, a triumph of democratic form. The democracy promotion policies put in place by governments and NGOs of industrialized societies contributed to this triumph of form over policy content. The promotion of democracy initially focused on improving the electoral process-helping reform election laws, organizing election commissions, devising voter registration systems, and eventually sending observers to ensure that due process would be respected on election day.

After the initial elections, donors continued to stress form by focusing on the organization of democratic institutions-the structure of parliamentary committees, for example, or their access to information. Even when donors promoted civil society, an important component of democracy assistance projects, they focused on a predetermined format-civil society meant organizations focused on civic education or advocacy that predominantly concerned human rights, women's rights, and environmental issues.

The democratization process promoted by donors has been strikingly devoid of policy discussions. Donors have unquestioningly assumed that democracy and the free market go together, thus taking it for granted that democratic governments would naturally pursue free market reform and open up their economies to domestic and foreign competition. In many transitional countries, democracy has therefore become a formal process for selecting a government, rather than a mechanism that ensures that the policies enacted by an elected government reflect an acceptable compromise among different interest groups. This practice makes democratic consolidation difficult.

A deepening of the democratic process cannot take place without more change in the internal politics of many countries, and without a change on the part of the international community. Political parties and organized groups that represent the interests of different sectors of the population need to become stronger so that citizens feel that their vote represents a real choice. At the same time, the international community needs to accept that if it really wants to promote democracy, it must accept that the policy reform process will not be dictated by economic principles, but by political realities.

Democratic consolidation can only take place if citizens become convinced that they can further their demands through democratic mechanisms-that is, if they think that there are political parties and pressure groups that represent their particular interests. It is only at this point that citizens will not be tempted to applaud military coups d'etat and support populist leaders with weak democratic credentials. In countries with large, poor populations-with the majority of democratizing countries falling into this category-popular demands are likely to be economic ones that are not satisfied by the protection of civil and political rights. The established industrial democracies faced the same problem in the past, and it is worthwhile to briefly consider their experience.

In Europe, the extension of the franchise resulted in the emergence of strong socialist and communist parties whose agenda was not the protection of liberty, but the redress of material grievances. What made democratic consolidation possible was that radical parties accepted democracy, transformed themselves into a parliamentary opposition, and succeeded in pushing through enough reforms to give their constituents a vested interest in the preservation of the system. The result was the emergence of the welfare state. Even in the United States, where democracy developed under very different circumstances, the reforms of the New Deal were important in convincing a population battered by economic crisis that a democratic government was capable of responding to their plight.

Creating Stakeholders. A missing element in many democratic transitions today is a process through which policy reform gives the majority of citizens a vested interest in supporting democracy. As long as the linkage between politics and policy is missing, it is unlikely that citizens will see much point in defending democracy. They will be tempted instead to turn to leaders who promise concrete measures. The process that reconciled political form and policy content for the now established democracies-the emergence of the welfare state-is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere in the same form. Today, welfare states are politically controversial and economically suspect, and even in the industrial countries, they are threatened financially by the mounting costs created by an aging population. Though the welfare state of the past is not a viable model for the future, governments cannot disregard the demands of their populations and still survive as democracies. The consolidation of democracy depends today, as in the past, on a successful compromise among the demands of different groups.

The struggle to reconcile democratic form with a policy content that satisfies popular demands is the next chapter in the process of democratization, and the survival of many new democracies will depend largely on how it plays out. The outcome depends on both the formally democratic government and the country's citizens: how citizens organize themselves, how parties develop their programs, how interest groups defend their agendas and compromise, and how governments clean up their act. But the consolidation of democracy also depends increasingly on the international community, which needs to become more realistic about the possibility of what has been called the double transition-simultaneous democratization and radical economic reform.

A few countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic have been able to move forward rapidly and successfully on both fronts. In many other countries, rapid economic reform undermines democratic consolidation and democratic consolidation undermines the possibility of rapid economic reform-Venezuela is a case in point. The international community must learn that democracy is the art of the possible, in their own countries as well as developing countries, and modify its goals accordingly. If it wants to promote democracy, the international community will have to accept the messy, compromise-driven policymaking process with which the citizens of democratic countries are familiar. If it wants a tidy, rational, and orderly policymaking process, it will have to accept the risk of undermining of democratic consolidation and the possibility of democratic reversals.

Copyright (c) Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2000