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The Fate of Young Democracies: Q&A with Ethan Kapstein and Nathan Converse

February 5, 2009

The Fate of Young Democracies

Recent setbacks in Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia, and Georgia have raised concerns about democracy's viability in developing countries. In their CGD-sponsored book, The Fate of Young Democracies, CGD visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein and co-author Nathan Converse draw on a unique data set of every democratization episode since 1960 to explore the reasons for backsliding and reversal in the world’s fledgling democracies. In a new Q&A with CGD publications coordinator John Osterman, the authors suggest ways the international community, President Obama, and Secretary of State Clinton can support young democracies.

Q: You write in the book that there's been a backlash against democracy in some places recently. What's going on?

A: In the last five years or so, we've seen setbacks in a number of young democracies, and outright reversals in several. In some countries the military has become dissatisfied with the democratic process and opted to overthrow elected governments. In others, such as Russia, Venezuela, and Bolivia, democratically elected governments have removed important institutional constraints on the chief executive, arguing that the president or prime minister needs freedom to address pressing problems.

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Q: Is this new?

A: We believe that it is, but it's also important to put these recent events in context. Three out of four countries that became democratic in the past 25 years are still democracies. Most young democracies enjoy wide popular support, as in Indonesia and much of Eastern Europe. In fact, democratic reversals were more common in the 1960s and 1970s than they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Q: What do the countries that suffer reversals have in common?

A: Democracies that start off in poverty are at greater risk of reversal, and poor economic performance boosts the risk that a young democracy will be overthrown. Institutional factors, too, play an important role: effective checks and balances do much to reduce the likelihood that democracy will fail. In certain cases, inequality and ethnic fragmentation can prove problematic. When leaders routinely come from one group, other groups are offended and may rebel. Leaders may shore up their power base at the expense of other groups.

Q: Yet your book says that economic performance may not be the key to stability. Why?

A: Our research confirms that good economic performance makes democracies more likely to survive. But many nascent democratic governments have been overthrown despite impressive growth. Several democracies that have suffered setbacks or outright reversals, including Venezuela, Russia, and Thailand, were enjoying economic booms. Conversely, several democracies have survived economic collapse. The discussion must go beyond economics, to also consider institutional arrangements, especially checks and balances.

Q: If effective checks and balances are key, are parliamentary systems better than presidential systems?

A: Not necessarily. Surprisingly, we find that parliamentary systems are no better than presidential systems in checking executive power. How much the legislature actually checks executive power matters more than the institutional structure. We studied formal institutions, and we think much more work needs to be done on informal institutions like a free press and civil society. Just as markets can’t function without information about prices, perhaps democracy can’t function effectively without information about government policies and their consequences.

Q: You mentioned ethnic fragmentation. How does this affect the chances of a young democracy surviving? Why have some nations been able to cohere despite such divisions and others not?

A: At first glance, it does appear that ethnic divisions pose a problem for young democracies. In the democratizations we look at, democracy was reversed 51 percent of the time in countries with above average ethnic fragmentation, compared with 38 percent in countries with below average fragmentation. One can also find numerous individual cases where it seems clear that ethnic divisions contributed to the downfall of a democratic government.

That said, in our cross-country regression, ethnic fragmentation was not significantly associated with a higher probability of reversal once we controlled for economic, institutional, and other factors. This points to another core finding: difficult initial conditions do not necessarily mean democratization is doomed. Ethnic divisions may create problems, but the right political institutions, along with policies promoting economic growth, can go a long way toward overcoming those problems.

Q: What does all this mean for foreign aid?

A: It’s a problem that economic and political programs run on separate tracks. Those who target economic growth have generally pursued “Washington Consensus” policies while those who focus on politics have emphasized assistance to parliaments and to civil society. The aid community needs to think harder about how to bring these tracks together. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) has taken a step in that direction, for example, by concentrating on land tenure and the related judicial and financial institutions that will support small-holders.

Q: How do you see the current financial crisis affecting young democracies?

A: A prolonged global crisis could challenge the world’s youngest democracies in several ways. There’s a risk that weak economic performance will lead to frustration with the democratic process and to a willingness to allow chief executives a freer hand. U.S. and European Union support may falter. And if authoritarian regimes in China and elsewhere weather the storm better than the leading democracies, some countries may be tempted to abandon the democratic path. A collapse of world trade or a retreat to protectionism also could drive these countries away from democracy. Finally, reversals in large young democracies could undermine neighboring smaller democracies, leading to a string of such failures. Against these risks, it will be vital to reinforce institutional structures associated with democratic survival.

Q: What advice would you give to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton as they take the reins of U.S. foreign policy?

A: We would emphasize the crucial role of U.S. programs—like the MCC—that contribute to the institutional development of young democracies. International support for these governments costs little in budgetary terms but can make a huge difference. If we can support young democracies during their earliest, most difficult years, we greatly increase their chances of success.

Returns to our investments in democratic development are large. Beyond the intrinsic value of democratic freedoms, democracies are better than authoritarian regimes at providing public goods, such as education, public health, and infrastructure. In short, U.S. support for democratic institutions can contribute to a world in which more people are not only freer but more prosperous.

CGD helped to fund Kapstein’s research and manuscript preparation.