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Democracy Promotion’s Mixed Track Record

A man in Jakarta shows his inked finger at a polling station to proof he voted in the 2009 presidential election, the second since the fall of the Suharto regime. Photo: Isabel Esterman.

Once widely considered a desirable endpoint for all nations, democracy’s seeming benefits are now openly questioned by many. The poor results of democratization in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the rise of economically successful non-democracies such as China, have caused democracy promotion to lose some of its luster. So, given these recent trends, what are democracy’s prospects for the future?

This question was the primary focus of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Forum Aussenpolitik (foraus) and NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich. Entitled “Democracy Promotion: Lessons from Different Regions of the World,” the discussion featured three experts who analyzed the ways and means of democracy promotion; its feasibility; how and whether it should be encouraged, and its successes and failures.

The View from Jakarta

Dr. Hassan Wirajuda, who was Indonesia’s foreign minister from 2001-2009, kicked things off by recounting his country’s successful evolution from 32 years of authoritarian rule to becoming, at least according to Freedom House, not only ‘completely free’, but also the most democratic state in Asia. This evolution, Dr. Wirajuda continued, has enabled Jakarta to promote democracy across Asia, most notably among fellow ASEAN member-states. Indeed, in the case of ASEAN, the Indonesian government hopes to expand this forum from an economically-centered organization to a political community.

Dr. Wirajuda was also quietly optimistic about East Asia’s potential for democratization, even in the case of China. What he did lament, however, was the seeming abandonment of democracy and good governance as priorities in international development policy, particularly in the case of the UN’s post-2015 Millennium Development goals. In his view, democratic good governance is inextricably tied to economic development, and vice versa.

Ways and Means

After Dr. Wirajuda’s good news story about East Asia in general and Indonesia in particular, the University of Lucerne’s Sandra Lavenex concentrated on the following question –what methods of democracy promotion are available to the European Union and do they actually work? According to Dr. Lavenex, Brussels has three distinct strategies available to it.

  1. A ‘soft’ bottom-up approach, which promotes grassroots support and persuasion, and therefore local ownership of democratic processes.
  2. A top-down approach where states use ‘materially coercive means’ to encourage or enforce democratic norms.
  3. Sectoral cooperation, which represents a relatively new and non-traditional strategy. It stresses approaching democracy promotion from a sideways angle, primarily by encouraging cooperation in largely non-political ways. (Environmental protection is an obvious example.)

Although each of the above strategies has its virtues, Dr. Lavenex readily conceded that none of them is perfect. Sectoral cooperation has potential but remains a work in progress and is relatively untested. The top-down strategy has certainly worked in Europe, where outlier nations were eager to reap the economic benefits of EU membership, but Brussels’ traditional reliance on carrot-and-stick methods is less attractive outside the Eurozone. Finally, the bottom-up approach, which the EU has traditionally favored outside of Europe, hasn’t fared particularly well either, as illustrated by the “well-intentioned but ineffective” democratization projects recently promoted by the EU in Egypt.

One Size Fits All?

If Dr. Lavenex ultimately advocated the sectoral approach to democracy promotion, which she did, she was not alone. Given his experiences working in Sudan and South Sudan, the Centre for Democracy Studies’ (ZDA) Fernando Mendez argued that ‘low politics’ was a far more effective approach to democracy promotion than ‘high politics’, particularly in the case of African states dominated by close-knit elites.

But can ‘low politics’ be exported to other countries, or must it be organically grown from within? In trying to answer this question, Dr. Mendez elaborated on the exchanges, seminars and voter education programs ZDA has conducted in Africa, which in his eyes are essentially democracy promotion activities. These measures did contribute to democratic reform in circumscribed ways, but they were no substitute for locally-defined reform and change. This truth, by the way, applies to bona fide democratic governments as well. The financially troubled US state of California, for example, recently flirted with the idea of adopting Switzerland’s ‘low politics’ constitution for itself, but ultimately to no effect. Local politics did indeed have to be accounted for.

Questions and Answers

The question of the exportability and transferability of democracy remained an important issue in the evening’s follow-on question-and-answer period. Indeed, the example of California showed the difficulties that wholesale export of democratic models can yield, and raised the question of what democracy promotion really means. Should specific models of democracy be promoted, or – as in the case of sectoral cooperation – should the flexible promotion of values be the true agenda? Mendez noted that in developing democratic structures, using ancestral institutions and historical traditions as a foundation was often a fruitful strategy, which suggests the need for highly adaptive models at a minimum.

The wrap-up discussion also focused on what constitutes the right conditions for democracy promotion. In responding to this question, the event’s moderator, Haig Simonian, emphasized the critical roles of economic performance and discontent as agents of change, as they were in the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

The third major discussion question of the evening turned on how to maintain democracy in the long-run, as illustrated by the erosion of democratic engagement and institutions in the West. For new democracies, economic crisis may provide the impetus for change, but how do they then maintain the longevity of their new found prize? No one provided an easy answer to this question, perhaps because it’s tied to something that wasn’t discussed in the Q&A – i.e., the ethics of democracy promotion. Whether democratic countries have a right, or indeed an obligation, to assist in promoting democracy elsewhere is a question that remains an open one.

An additional article on the event “Democracy Promotion: Lessons from Different Regions of the World” can be found here (in German).


For additional reading on this topic please see:

The Reincarnation of Nawaz Sharif: Pakistan’s Deepening Democracy

Libya and the Problematic Political Isolation Law

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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