In The News

New Book Examines Global Democratization

June 22, 2011

Below is a foreword written by The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Nepal George Varughese to a new book, “Democratization Around the World: New Insights from South East Asia, Turkey, Kosovo, Taiwan, and Ghana,” edited by Daniel Stockemer and published by Edwin Mellen Press.

The idea of “rule by the people” or democracy is widely accepted as a good and desirable thing these days. Almost half of all governments worldwide are considered democratic in one way or another. But the many paradoxes and problems that afflict democratic experiments remain partially or poorly understood after over thirty years of experience. Democracies themselves can hardly be classified into a single category owing to their variegated state of growth and consolidation as well as their provenance. The more settled democracies still suffer the plague of political patronage and socioeconomic disparities. The newer, multiethnic states emerging from civil wars need to reconcile the need for pluralism and inclusiveness with power-sharing institutional arrangements that are sustainable beyond one or two electoral cycles. The factors that keep semi-democratic or partially democratic societies from (re)lapsing into autocracies are not well understood, although there is growing appreciation for the complexity of such societies.

Despite almost a decade of democracy-flavored assistance in Afghanistan, it is hard to find any more than a thin veneer of institutional arrangements or practices that can be called democratic. Two decades of democratic development in Nepal have witnessed the emergence (and fall) of an insurgency, the abolishment of a monarchy, a still-born peace process, and the tortured convulsions of a modernizing society that is fundamentally undemocratic. Can democracy be evangelized western-style in countries like these? Can their problems of democratic consolidation be better understood through an examination of more recent, similar contextual examples?  While it may be attractive to debate the theoretical merits of democracy as propounded through history by Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and other famous, recent thinkers, the authors of this volume seek a wide-eyed comparative perspective of democratic governance in practice, warts and all. Although more recent examples of countries in democratic transition, such as Afghanistan and Nepal, are not treated in this volume, there are important lessons to be gleaned from the case studies of countries like Ghana, Kenya, Kosovo, Taiwan, and Turkey where democratic politics has settled in different and interesting forms.

Given that political isolation is nearly impossible these days, the international context of democracy and human rights has had significant diffusion and imitation effects on transitional societies. There has been a proliferation of private and public organizations that provide resources, energy, and solidarity in support of political reform. Therefore, of particular worth for countries emerging from conflict is the authors’ examination of the role of regional and international actors in democratization in recent times. The case study on the successful use of political conditionality by the EU, for example, is an interesting and useful addition to the growing body of critical literature on this new form of external intervention.

For scholars and practitioners in the development aid arena, the discussion of the impact of democratic governance on economic growth, state relations, and human rights elaborates usefully its many attendant caveats and conditions. While still a much-debated subject with respect to causality, this contribution is important because more now than ever before, there is recognition that attempts at democratization in the present era must soberly and expeditiously consider economic reform while promoting political reform.

Scholarship on democracy is excellent these days and it is difficult to bring deeply original contributions to the field. This book is valuable for it provides timely comparative insights for both scholars and practitioners: the former are contesting the minimum necessary conditions for democratic development while the latter are challenging the discourse with infusions of their practical observations of what works or does not in a 21st century reality increasingly characterized by societies in competition and conflict.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at gvarughese@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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