The recent coups in the Maldives and Mali against democratically elected leaders, and the continuing political struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya following the Arab Spring, are potent reminders that democracy is a fragile institution. In fact, of the 120 attempts at democratization that have occurred around the world since 1960, nearly half have been reversed at some point. The reasons for democratic failure, however, are surprising.
In our book, The Fate of Young Democracies, Nathan Converse and I found that democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance. In fact, the democracies that are overthrown have, on average, higher growth rates than those that are sustained over long periods of time. Some recent examples of fast growing democracies that have reversed include Russia, Venezuela, and Thailand.
Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform. To the contrary, reforms like trade liberalization and privatization tend to support the democratic process, as they bring forth entrepreneurs who provide a bulwark against an authoritarian backlash.
Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions. Though parliamentary forms of government are often said to help prevent power grabs by the executive branch, prime ministers have proved to be very adept at commanding power—think of Vladimir Putin—and parliaments are often weak and sharply divided, thus incapable of exercising authority.
Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused.
Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles. Among the leaders who have threatened their democracies in this way are Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Eduardo Correa in Ecuador.
Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome. Such societies are often characterized by “insider”-“outsider” tensions that are not easily resolved. As the “insiders”—the ethnically dominant group—centralize political power, the “outsiders” may find they have no alternative but to try and overthrow the regime.
Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed. In crucial respects, democracy as a regime type is justified by its ability to deliver public goods to a broad spectrum of citizens, and not just to an elite. If democracies are unable or unwilling to meet these demands, their very raison d’etre may be called into question.
The democratic reversals that have occurred since the publication of our book in 2008 broadly confirm our findings. For example, in Mali, ethnic tensions are a major source of political instability, and these have not been adequately addressed or peacefully resolved by democratic institutions. In the Maldives, the overthrow of the president was sparked by his efforts to dismiss judges appointed by the previous regime in a manner inconsistent with constitutional processes.
If democracies fail for these reasons, what can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power.
This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector. Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.
These programs, of course, cannot guarantee that young democracies will be sustained. Whether that happens will ultimately be up to the people who live within a given nation. But the international community has all-too-often undermined young democracies by supporting favored leaders and their “in-group” at the expense of the society at large.