Last spring I spent an exhilarating week prowling around Burma as the people of that long-benighted country prepared for their first genuinely free election in decades. Well, some of the people, at least. As elections go, the one that took place there on April 1, 2012 was a very limited affair, with only a handful of seats in the country’s military-dominated parliament up for grabs.
But no one really seemed to care about that. What mattered was that, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, Burmese were getting a chance to have a say over their rulers -- and it was no surprise when those who had the opportunity voted overwhelmingly for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the lionized (lionessed?) leader of the long-persecuted opposition, to represent them in their country’s national assembly. In a Rangoon slum, I watched as ecstatic supporters of her National League for Democracy rallied for their local candidate. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and should remind us all just what a marvelous thing a vote can be.
Elections, of course, do not a democracy make -- as we’ve learned again and again over the course of the past year. Burma has made small steps toward freedom, but it’s still a giant leap away from democracy. That will require the creation of solid institutions (such as independent courts and a civilian-controlled military) and an authentic general election. In that respect, some of the countries of the Arab Spring, which now have true elected governments, are much farther ahead. Yet they too -- as the recent violence in Egypt demonstrates -- still have a long way to go. And that’s not even to mention the bloody tug of war in Syria.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Optimist’s Case for Yemen
- The Prickly Politics of Aid
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
The past year, in short, has been a busy time for Democracy Lab. Over the past 12 months we’ve scrutinized uprisings, elections, and civil wars. We’ve eavesdropped on activists and we’ve peeked over the shoulders of leaders at work. We’ve surveilled secret policemen and celebrated unsung heroes. We’ve explored the immense problem of corruption and its potential to frustrate the rule of law. We’ve examined the power of the drive for dignity (Francis Fukuyama) and the longing for property rights (Hernando de Soto).
There’s been a lot of ground to cover. The world remains a place of raucous transformation -- and yet we still have a hard time figuring out precisely how such change occurs. We’ve got masses of data. We’ve got illuminating analyses. And we have countless historical examples to mine -- not least a raft of insights from former South African president F.W. de Klerk. Yet the collapse of regimes (and the triumph of unlikely underdogs) continues to test our powers of prediction.
Democracy Lab has made it our mission to illuminate the mechanisms behind democratic transitions around the world. That’s why FP and the Legatum Institute got together to bring Democracy Lab to life back in January 2012. As our original mission statement explained, we aim to embrace the complexity of the subject by tackling it from every possible angle.