Democracy Lab

The Year in Unfreedom

An encouraging number of the world's people voted in 2012. But voting does not a democracy make.

2012 was a great year for elections. But it wasn't a great year for democracy.

We often make the mistake of equating democracy with the freedom to choose our leaders. The mix-up is understandable, since it's impossible to imagine a democracy in which a government works without the consent of the governed. Free and fair elections are the central prerequisite of a free society.

But they also aren't enough to guarantee genuine freedom on their own. And if anyone needed any examples, 2012 has plenty to offer.

It was supposed to be a year when voters drove change. As my FP colleagues noted just over a year ago: "If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box." One-third of the world's nations held local, state, and national elections in 2012, and four out of five members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, and France) had leadership transitions on the agenda.

All this seemed to offer considerable potential for change (especially in the wake of the Arab Spring). Yet that expectation didn't really pan out. 2012 turned out to be a year that was kind to incumbents. Of those four leading UN countries, only France broke the mould, thanks to a solid victory for incoming President François Hollande. China, of course, prefers to get by without elections altogether -- even though the Communist Party does claim to enjoy the overwhelming support of the nation's citizens. (How it knows that with such assurance remains something of a mystery.) In any case, it was no surprise that the man who ended up on top in Beijing, Xi Jinping, was exactly the guy that most people expected to see in the job. In the United States, a long and rowdy election campaign ended in a triumph for President Obama -- but at least the result was far from preordained.

Russia had a presidential election, too. But, as one might have expected, it turned out to be a bit of a joke. Old-new President Vladimir Putin still enjoys considerable popularity among Russians, and he might well have won (though somewhat narrowly, I suspect) even had the poll been truly free and fair. But he still made sure to exploit the prerogatives of his "managed democracy" -- such as control of the electronic media, crackdowns on protestors, and enormous financial and administrative resources -- to ensure that he got the result he wanted. There were, predictably, widespread allegations of vote fixing on election day. But that didn't stop Putin from claiming a mandate.

He had little to fear by doing so. The Russian opposition is a feeble force, bereft of credible leaders. In 2012 it showed that it was good at massing middle-class demonstrators in big cities, but poor at articulating a political program calculated to appeal to mainstream voters. The government still rules over a massive security apparatus and a tame judiciary. (Just witness the carefully choreographed trial of the political punk band Pussy Riot). Civil society is weak. And it's likely to stay that way, given the elaborate restrictions imposed on non-government organizations by the Putin administration last year.

Much of the same can be said of Venezuela, where incumbent Hugo Chávez achieved a convincing win in October's presidential election. Venezuela does differ from Russia in that it boasts a convincing and well-organized opposition movement, led in the election by upstart governor Henrique Capriles. But however free Venezuela's brand of democracy may look, it's a long way from fair.

Like his Russian counterpart, Chávez has used the perks of office to leverage the Venezuelan state to preserve his power. Over his 14 years in office he has extended his influence to institutions ranging from the courts to the oil industry. Author Will Dobson, writing in his fine book The Dictator's Learning Curve, captures the problem concisely: "‘Election day is not a problem,' a former member of the national electoral council [in Venezuela] told me. ‘All the damage -- the use of money, goods, excess power, communications -- happens beforehand.'" This capture of the state by the forces of chavismo has far-reaching consequences. As a result, even the prospect of the commandante's death from cancer -- a possibility now being widely discussed -- doesn't mean that democracy is destined to break out.

Elections don't necessarily democratize society even when they're conducted according to democratic rules. The parliamentary vote in Georgia this past autumn was hailed as a milestone in that country's progress when President Mikheil Saakashvili gracefully conceded his party's loss to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. But the achievement of that first peaceful transition of power in the country's history was tarnished when Ivanishvili quickly moved to order the arrest of a series of Saakashvili's political allies -- a move seen by some observers as a risky act of political revenge. Here's hoping that Georgia can overcome that friction and move forward to a stable liberal order.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has used its post-Arab Spring victory in parliamentary and presidential elections to impose its own political vision on society by centralizing power in the presidency and drawing up a constitution that enshrines an Islamic government. This is to mistake majoritarianism for democracy: Winning most of the votes doesn't give you carte blanche to run roughshod over the rights of those who didn't cast their ballots for you. What about the 10 percent of Egyptians who happen to be Coptic Christians -- or the even larger group who simply prefer a secular state? One can only hope that 2013 will see the different factions in Egyptian society work out a way to return to a shared political ethos. If they can't, disaster likely lies ahead -- elections or not.

It's also important to remember that voting isn't supposed to be an end unto itself. Democracy is also supposed to ensure good governance. Voters expect the politicians they elect to deliver on their promises of an improved society. But so far it doesn't seem to have worked out that way for Tunisians, who had the privilege of electing a new government in 2011 after their own Arab Spring uprising, but then spent much of the past year protesting in large numbers over that same government's failure to boost the economy. Libya's 2012 parliamentary election surprised many observers by delivering a solid majority to secular parties rather than Islamist ones. Yet real power remains in the hands of countless militias, who represent a considerable threat to the consolidation of democracy.

And yet, despite all these caveats, it's still true that there's nothing like a genuine free vote in a former tyranny to make one's spirit soar. The parliamentary by-election won by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the other members of her opposition National League of Democracy last spring gave them only a negligible presence in Burma's national assembly -- yet that result still represented a tremendous moral and political victory for the forces of freedom. Burma still faces a long uphill climb in its journey towards an open society; the country's profound poverty and the recent outburst of ethnic violence attest to that. At least its leaders appear to have recognized that the old authoritarian system has outlived its usefulness.

If only we could say the same about Syria. But President Bashar al Assad continues to hold doggedly to his post, while his opponents from the Sunni majority cling just as desperately to the hope of victory. A Sunni victory becomes more probable as the fighting grinds on, but it is unlikely to mean an end to the bloodshed, given the spread of jihadi ideology among the revolutionaries and the growing bent for retaliation against Assad's ruling Alawite minority. The prospects for democracy under such conditions are grim at best. And that, perhaps, is the saddest conclusion to be drawn from the experience of 2012.



Democracy Lab

Nothing Is Written

The triumph of democracy isn't inevitable. It has to be fought for.

I recently had the chance to watch an inspiring documentary film. It's called A Whisper to a Roar, and it tells the stories of pro-democracy campaigners in five authoritarian countries (Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe). The movie offers some vivid stories of courageous political struggles. I especially liked the interviews with female Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel Fattah and the Venezuelan student campaigner Roberto Patiño -- both remarkable people who clearly have an interesting future ahead. It's the self-sacrifice and idealism of figures such as these that give the story its lift.

The producers of A Whisper to a Roar clearly wanted to deliver a message of hope to those of us who would like to see more freedom in the world. According to the film's website, "the core message of the work is that the thirst for freedom and accountable government is universal and that democracy is not just a Western concept." On balance, that's a statement that I'm inclined to accept (even if I find it a bit too vague for my taste). But if that's what the film was supposed to prove to me, it hasn't succeeded. The film would like us to believe, essentially, that the good guys will always win in the end, since that's what all of us want. It's not just clear that reality is ever quite so straightforward.

It's striking is that none of the countries so optimistically profiled in the film has yet to embrace full-blown democracy. The vicious Robert Mugabe is still president of Zimbabwe today (even though, as the film shows, he was pushed into a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai). The authoritarian regime in Malaysia remains in place (though it could be facing a strong electoral challenge from Anwar Ibrahim in an impending general election there). President Hugo Chávez is still in power in Venezuela. Viktor Yanukovych, the authoritarian leader humiliatingly defeated by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Orange Revolution, is now president of Ukraine.

In Egypt, demonstrators are locked in a battle with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government -- a democratically elected administration that, many Egyptians worry, is now on its way to curtailing some of their recently acquired freedoms via a new constitution drafted largely by Islamists and rejected by secular democrats. (The movie ends in the summer of 2012, so it touches upon some of these developments. Its take on Egypt is accordingly colored by the euphoria following the fall of Mubarak, and not yet compromised by the Brotherhood's power grab this autumn.)

In at least three cases, it should be noted, the leaders in question won power in competitive elections. The Brotherhood moved into power with the blessing of Egyptian voters. Yanukovych, who capitalized on the corruption and internal divisions of the democratic coalition that defeated him five years earlier, trounced his opponent in 2010. Chávez also convincingly won reelection in his latest presidential poll two months ago, fending off the strongest opposition challenge in recent memory.

Democracy, it would seem, is not inevitable. Sometimes people even vote against it.

Yet it's surprising how many people out there (especially in the United States) seem to share the Whiggish belief that history is progressing in a smooth, straight line toward liberal democracy, the only form of political organization that makes sense to consenting adults. There are still plenty of people around who argue that "democracy is inevitable" (a phrase coined by sociologist Warren Bennis, who contended that democratic forms of decision-making were inherently more "efficient" than others).

You can hear a lot of similar views from tech mavens who argue that the possibilities for community action enabled by the decentralized Internet are the natural accelerants of democracy. Elites are doomed, and hierarchies will fall, we are told. Facebook and Twitter undermine censorship and undermine authoritarianism. Technology thus invariably smoothes the path toward participatory action.

There's just one catch to all of this: We're talking about people here, and whatever humans do rarely follows straight lines. Democracy is not the only ideal of action that inspires intense passion and engagement. So, too, do nationalism and religion -- forces that sometimes complement democracy, sometimes operate against it. Nor should one underestimate the deep human desire for predictability and good governance, which can sometimes trump the longing for transparency and agency. (The classic case here is Singapore, whose wealthy, hyper-educated citizenry has traditionally evinced little interest in the politics of opposition.)

Don't get me wrong: Democracy is what we should be striving for. But I think we make an enormous mistake when we try to lull ourselves into the conviction that we're "on the right side of history" by supporting liberal institutions and values. This sounds to me suspiciously like the naïve progressivism of the Victorians and their heirs, whose optimistic faith in the civilizing influence of modern technology crashed and burned in the inferno of the First World War. I don't think that history has an end to which everything necessarily tends. History is the sum of our actions. It's whatever we decide to make of it. Nothing is inevitable. To assume otherwise is to undermine the very sense of agency that lies at the basis of democracy.


What's more, working under the assumption that Providence favors your case can be outright dangerous, since it can cripple your powers of analysis. If you believe you're favored by the gods, you run a much greater risk of blundering into the traps set by devils. Lately I've been hearing lots of people here in Washington repeating that Vladimir Putin's regime has been enormously "weakened" or "undermined" by the protests in Russia's big cities last year. Putin's regime appeared so corrupt, so obviously stagnant, that his downfall seemed to be just around the corner (at least to some).

Yet the most recent protest in Moscow drew modest numbers, oil prices are holding, and Putin's term has another six years to go. Meanwhile, the Russian opposition movement has no clear leaders, no clear organization, and no guiding issues that can appeal to people outside of the educated, urban middle class. As a result, the folks who claimed, not too long ago, that the protests had transformed Russia's political culture are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I know that it is much more comforting to talk about how Putin or Xi Jinping or some other despot is facing impending doom. But the fact remains that many autocrats in the world retain a firm grip on power (sometimes even with American help), and most of them bear little resemblance to the caricature of the knuckle-dragging thug just waiting to be unseated by a couple of college kids conspiring on Facebook. The highly adaptable Hugo Chávez, to name but one, has shown that Twitter makes an excellent tool for populist mobilization. In Iran, the ayatollahs have long since figured out that the Internet is a great tool for organizing their illiberally minded followers. (The Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently just launched his own Facebook page.)

The obstacles facing democrats around the world are hard, but not insurmountable. We have every reason to be optimistic about their success. But I suspect we can do a much better job of supporting them if we stay realistic about the challenges they face.

Pedro PARDO/AFP/GettyImages