Democracy Lab

Fingers Crossed

2012 could be a great year for democracy. But it won't be a pushover.

There are plenty of good reasons to imagine why 2012 might turn out to be the year in which the forces of democracy triumph around the world. The Arab Awakening has toppled tyrants across the Middle East. The rulers in long-suffering Burma have set a new course toward openness that could end 50 years of autocracy. Surprising new protest movements in Russia and China are spurring concessions from the authorities.

Some experts even suggest that the spread of decentralizing technologies and the birth of "leaderless networks" are ushering in the end of despotism. Mao said that power comes from the barrel of a gun; today's rebels draw it from the screens of mobile phones.

Perhaps most strikingly of all, as FP colleagues Lois Parshley and Uri Friedman recently pointed out, 2012 is a year of elections. By the end of this year the citizens of 59 countries -- one-third of the world's countries -- will have gone to the polls to choose national, state, and local leaders. This would seem to bolster the claim that the overwhelming majority of Earth's inhabitants now implicitly accept the principles of democracy. By this argument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights now embodies a global standard to which all people -- and not just Westerners -- aspire.

That may be true. But it hardly means that the triumph of democracy is ensured. If history has taught us anything, it is that nothing in human affairs is inevitable. Most people undoubtedly yearn for freedom. In our imperfect world, however, the political choices actually facing most citizens are messy, risky, or morally fraught. There is no straight line to an open society.

Egypt is illustrative. What happens there, in the largest Arab country, is likely to have broad repercussions for the other countries of the Middle East. Yet Egyptians face many obstacles as they strive to assert their political rights. The military stubbornly refuses to yield power. The weakness of the economy, if allowed to continue, could easily sow doubt about the desirability of representative government. Then there is the possibility of sectarian or factional conflict. Already the two Islamist parties that have emerged victorious from the country's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections have begun feuding among themselves. And that's not even to mention the lingering disquiet among Egypt's large Christian population after last year's pogroms.

Elections are a vital prerequisite of democracy. Yet, as many examples this year will remind us, elections alone do not a democracy make. Russia's presidential election is likely to offer another study in what Vladimir Putin and his cohorts revealingly refer to as "managed democracy" -- a system in which the Kremlin uses its control of the media and other "administrative resources" to get the results it wants. It remains to be seen whether popular protests of the kind that we've recently seen on the streets of Moscow will be enough to produce lasting change. Unlike their equivalents in the Middle East, Russian demonstrators appear less interested in toppling the existing system than in pressuring their leaders toward greater accountability. Meanwhile, Russia still lacks many of the basic institutions of the rule of law.

The same holds true, it could be said, of Venezuela. Yet October's presidential election in that country holds unexpected promise. Despite his authoritarian instincts, President Hugo Chávez has never fit seamlessly into the role of a traditional dictator. He has maintained his hold on Venezuelan politics by keeping control of the commanding heights of the political system and using populist economic measures to ensure his support among the poor. All that helped him to leverage elections to his advantage. Yet surging crime rates, deepening disillusionment among the electorate, and an increased sense of common cause within the opposition are beginning to have a palpable effect. The presidential contest is gradually beginning to look like a real race.

At the same time, even rigged elections can lead to surprising outcomes. The 2010 general election in Burma (or "Myanmar, as its rulers prefer to call it) was widely dismissed by informed observers as a sham. Yet it prepared the ground for a new civilian government under President Thein Sein, who has ushered in a cautious opening. He released dissidents from jail, urged legislators to create independent trade unions, and held out the prospect of peace deals with some of the country's warring ethnic minorities. Now the redoubtable Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition, is preparing her party to contest a parliamentary by-election on April 1.

This story, too, is far from over. There are many signs that the military elite from which Myanmar's leader himself emerged is not yet ready to surrender all its privileges, particularly its control over the economy. But only by shaking off that yoke can Myanmar overcome the corruption and poverty that continue to plague it.

What these diverse examples suggest is that the fate of democracy can never be considered separately from the broader condition of the society in which it takes root. In Tunisia, the Islamist party al-Nahda won a plurality of votes in a general election -- and then proceeded to form a coalition with two secular parties as a sign of its determination to respect the interests of the country as a whole. In Hungary, by contrast, the governing coalition has used its electoral majority to restrict freedom of the press and push through a new constitution that may help its architects to keep their hold on power.

The desire for freedom can be trumped by the immediate need for security and material well-being. Iraqis and Afghans have voted for their leaders in recent years, but that doesn't always amount to much for people whose primary experience of life is violence, corruption, and chaos. In large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa, endemic poverty and inadequate education undermine democracy just as effectively as predatory dictators.

Indeed, the earnest defenders of democracy often fail to recognize that, in many parts of the world, the greatest enemy is not the black-hatted tyrant but the invisible, everyday scourge of graft. Vote for the leader who enriches himself at your cost, and you may never want to vote again.

This is a point that also touches upon the role of the West. Yes, promoting democracy throughout the world remains a worthy aim. Recent moves toward creation of the European Endowment for Democracy remind us that established democracies also have valuable experience to offer. Yet despite the Arab Awakening, this is no time for triumphalism. Just take the example of Libya, where the Americans and Europeans helped the country's people topple a vicious dictator. Today, by contrast, there is strikingly little discussion in Western capitals of how Libyans might be helped to shore up what appears to be an increasingly shaky state.

It is right and good that the world's older democracies should join forces to combat corruption, human rights violations, and bad economic policy in the rest of the world. Yet all too often the West fails to address its own role in these ills. For this reason, every effort to take a cold-eyed look at how assistance programs actually work deserves to be applauded.

Yet even under the most daunting of conditions we can see that the hunger for dignity -- the desire to assert one's most basic rights -- remains a powerful magnet. Even wealthy autocracies are finding that once docile citizens demand respect: see Singapore, Malaysia, or Bahrain. China, still relatively poor but rapidly rising, finds itself confronting comparable challenges. In a year that will see the Chinese Communist Party change many of its leaders in a manner that remains utterly opaque to the people it claims to represent, ordinary citizens will continue to press their demands for accountability -- from the plucky villagers of Wukan, who defied the might of the state in protests against illegal land grabs, to the activist monks of Tibet. Even the harshest of dictatorships must prepare for surprises. In early March, when their country holds parliamentary elections, Iranians may once again take to the streets to demand that their votes be recognized.

Don't get us wrong. There are many grounds for hope. The fall of dictators is always cause for celebration. So, too, is the news of elections successfully concluded or problems solved without recourse to violence. Democracy Lab will track all of these stories, the good as well as the bad. We welcome our readers to join the conversation.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images