Earlier this month, when the indefatigable Aung San Suu Kyi assumed a seat in Burma's parliament, her diminutive figure was almost lost in a sea of military uniforms. On April 1, she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in an unprecedented parliamentary by-election. The arrival of the NLD members in parliament marks the first time in many decades that pro-democracy activists have had a chance to participate in government. Yet their victory comes with many qualifiers. The current constitution, engineered by the generals who have ruled Burma for the past half-century, stipulates that one quarter of the seats in parliament must be reserved for the military. Much of the remainder is held by members of the pro-government party.
The constitution, which essentially rigs the political process in favor of the armed forces, appears likely to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, given that three-quarters of the parliament must vote in favor of any constitutional amendment for it to pass. This considerably limits the prospects for genuinely democratic reform. It's a situation that has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing among observers of Burma's political situation. Many pundits predict that Burma will never make the transition to full-fledged democracy even if free and fair multiparty elections become the new norm, making it a flawed and illegitimate democracy similar to many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. "The country's power holders -- a long-entrenched, anti-democratic military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- have not yet given up any significant structural levers of power," noted Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a conference in Washington earlier this week.
True enough. Yet there are good grounds for optimism. Research that we've conducted on the political histories of countries that have moved to democracy after inheriting constitutions from autocracies reveals many positive precedents. Our work suggests that it is possible to build democratic institutions and enact policies that benefit a majority of citizens, even in cases where holdover constitutions enable elites to retain considerable political power following democratization. To do so, new democracies must embark on a path of piecemeal constitutional reform.
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There are many examples of countries that began their moves toward democracy with autocratic constitutions and then later reformed them. In some of these countries there is now a solid consensus over fundamental rights, and formerly entrenched elites, while strong, no longer single-handedly dominate the political game. These include Chile and Colombia, two examples from Latin America that represent a potential model for Burma. While many observers were initially skeptical that these transitions would result in liberal democracy, these countries have nonetheless managed to deepen democratic institutions.
In Colombia, a bargain between the Liberal and Conservative parties led to the overthrow of military rule and the establishment of democracy under the National Front in 1958. The parties colluded to rotate power and exclude outside competitors for sixteen years. The poor could hardly improve their lot by turning to the constitution, a document written by autocratic elites in 1886. Yet the constitution was progressively amended, and in the face of popular pressure following a failed 1988 reform aimed at increasing citizen participation, an entirely new document was adopted in 1991. The judiciary was made more independent, and citizens were granted tutela, a mechanism to swiftly appeal to courts to protect basic individual rights.
Modern Chilean democracy is similarly founded on the basis of an autocratic constitution. General Augusto Pinochet passed a constitution in a heavily managed referendum in 1980 after seizing power from the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973. Despite a transition to democracy in 1990, the constitution provided a host of safeguards for the military and key elites incorporated in the regime, including the appointment of autocratic elites as senators for life and allowing the military to choose the head of armed forces. A series of constitutional amendments has slowly and cautiously chipped away at the remaining undemocratic elements in the Chilean system, most notably a set of key reforms in 2005 that were hailed as a democratic deepening by then-President Ricardo Lagos.