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.