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Democracy in Retreat?

by Soraj Hongladarom

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations, an independent organization devoted to the study of international relations and global security. It is well-known as the publisher of the journal Foreign Affairs. Kurlantzick’s field is South-East Asian politics and democratization of third-world countries. His new book, Democracy in Retreat, details a monumental change in democratization, or the reverse thereof in many of these countries – a worrying trend that deserves the attention of world leaders and everyone who cherishes democracy.

Speech by anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban in the run-up to the Feb 2014 elections. (Photo: Takeaway, Source: Wikimedia Commons – Used under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

Kurlantzick’s main argument is that democracy is in retreat in many countries. What is surprising is that the retreat is driven by the same middle class who fought for democracy in the last few decades. By contrast, they are now fighting for less democracy, or are starting to view it with much less friendly eyes than before. Many in the middle class in these developing countries have come to believe that democracy does not bring them what they value the most, namely rule of law, transparency, and political and economic justice. As a consequence, they are starting to call for a return to more autocratic forms of government, which they believe to be less corrupt and more responsive to the needs of the people. Most importantly, however, the middle class believes that this more autocratic form will secure its position as the privileged class in the face of rising challenges posed by the rising “new middle class,” namely the people who used to be villagers and farmers but now have benefited from economic development and who start to demand their fair economic share.

The argument is based on a historical analysis of democratization in these countries, which Kurlantzick divides into several waves. The First Wave took place roughly after the end of World War I, when countries such as Germany and Italy became democratic. This wave included Russia, which became a democracy for a brief period after the fall of the Tsarist regime. China also became democratic after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that toppled the emperor and created the Nationalist Government. Japan developed its democratic constitution during the reign of Emperor Meiji in the years leading up to the First World War. What ties these countries together is that the democratization process was closely connected with modernization and the sudden change from the old autocratic, monarchical system to a democratic one. Siam (as Thailand was called before 1942 when the name was changed) became democratic during this time too, when the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

The Second Wave occurred after World War II. What is characteristic of this period is that many colonial countries became independent and began to search for the most suitable forms of government for their countries, which in most cases were the democratic ones. Countries such as India and Indonesia became democratic at this time. However, democratization during this wave was beset by frequent coups d’états and the Cold War struggle between two competing global political ideologies.

Kurlantzick’s Third Wave of democratization first took shape in the 1970s in the context of these frequent coups d’états, when the people started to fight against militarism and instituted democratic change. Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” was credited as the first of these campaigns against military rule, which led to waves of democratization mostly in Latin American countries. In Thailand, the Third Wave coincided with the uprising of students and the middle class against military rule in 1973, leading to a short-lived democratic period from 1973 to 1976.

The Fourth Wave is a result of the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the flood gate that had held at bay the democratic aspirations and independency ambitions in many countries. The Fourth Wave is associated with the view of Francis Fukuyama, who in the early 1990s, proclaimed the ‘end of history’ and declared that the ideology of liberal democracy had triumphed. Many countries in Africa became democracies during this wave. As for Thailand, we can see that the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution, which was believed to be the country’s most democratic, took place alongside this wave. What is notable during this period is that the middle class was the key player in the transformation process to a fully democratic form. They believed that democracy would bring in a fresh form of government, one that was free from arbitrary, inept and corrupt military rule.

However, Kurlantzick notes in the book that the Fourth Wave is now fast losing steam. The middle class who had supported democracy at the inception of the Fourth Wave is now turning its back against it. The trend, according to Kurlantzick, is truly global. In Egypt, a government that had been elected by the people was toppled in a coup d’état in 2013, a move that was supported by a rather large proportion of the middle class. In Thailand, the protracted protests against former Primer Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can also be seen as a reaction of the middle class to a democratic regime.

Apparently, then, the middle class is disillusioned with democracy. Instead of realizing their dreams when they fought for democracy during the Third and Fourth Waves, the elected leaders behaved in such a way that they became “elected autocrats.” Using their clout obtained via populist policies, leaders in these democratic regimes manage to get themselves elected time and again, leading to the middle class despairing over measures to get these leaders out of office. Instead of ousting these autocratic leaders through the ballot box, they choose to do so through street protests and violence. In either case, then, the democratic process is seriously impaired.

So these newly democratizing countries are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, they seem to be mired in the seemingly perpetual rule by elected autocrats; on the other hand, they believe that the only way out is to rely on military force or other non-democratic means. In either case democracy cannot fully function. Kurlantzick, in his book, provides a number of recommendations regarding how to break out of the dilemma. One thing is that people have to realize that the best way to combat corruption sustainably is through a fully functioning and mature democratic process. This takes a long time, and the middle class are notorious for their impatience. So they prefer quick fixes, such as violently toppling an elected leader whom they perceive to be corrupt, but then the vicious cycle continues. The middle class need to have a realistic expectation of democracy. Democracy is not a panacea, but an ideal that requires everyone to work for it. Furthermore, Kurlantzick clearly suggests that powerful democratic countries in the West must support these struggling democracies by ensuring that institutions in those countries are strong enough to withstand the force of anti-democratic sentiments. What is missing in his book is an account of this “Fifth” Wave of democratization. This wave has not happened, of course, but it certainly will, as it will be a reaction against the various attacks on ‘Fourth Wave’ democracy by the current disillusioned middle class. It is up to all of us to design what the Fifth Wave will actually look like.

Kurlantzick’s argument is quite startling. After all, the middle class has traditionally been perceived as a champion of democracy. However, the data reported by Kurlantzick is unmistakable: the middle class is indeed disillusioned with democracy. The ongoing protests against the establishment in the United States also add fuel to the fire. Many Thai members of the middle class, for example, seem to genuinely believe that democracy is broken and needs to be fixed, and they would not mind a system that takes away their rights and liberties. Perhaps they have been in a democracy for too long and take their rights and liberties for granted, so they cannot imagine what it would be like to be without basic democratic rights. In any case, Kurlantzick’s book is an urgent call for action. If democracy is actually worth saving, which indeed it is, then it is the duty of all of us to help realize it, especially where it is most precarious.


Joshua Kurlantzick: Democracy in Retreat. The Revolt of the Middle Class and
the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government
ISBN: 978-0300175387
Price: US$18.90
Yale University Press, New Haven 2013, 304 pages, Hardcover.

Soraj Hongladarom is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and Director of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology. He works mainly in the fields of bioethics and information ethics.

(c) 2014 The Berlin Review of Books.


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