In this post, Ash Center Research Fellow Richa Mishra reviews a set of recent articles and reports on democratic movements, public opinion and democracy promotion efforts. Mishra, who has extensive experience in promoting democratic institutions in transitional political systems, highlights the importance of contextual nuance in understanding democratic twists and turns.
By Richa Mishra
Looking ahead, 2014 is going to be a big year for democracy. According to The Economist, around 40 countries representing over 40% of the world’s population, and more than 50% of global GDP, will participate in elections this year.
Yet the pervasive mood in countries facing impending elections as well as those embroiled in people-led protest movements is that of disillusionment with politicians and (sometimes) elections. The calls for political accountability are becoming ever more emphatic. And in many cases the disenchantment is accompanied by an extreme polarization in voters’ choices.
It is interesting then to note that while the American voter seems to share this sense of disillusionment with politicians, it is not accompanied by a similar polarization in terms of political choices. If at all, the American voter seems to be losing interest in classic party affiliations.
What does the average American think about US efforts to promote democracy abroad? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 18% of those interviewed believe that democracy promotion is a key foreign policy objective. This wariness with democracy promotion as a tool of foreign policy can partially be explained with the failed experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prevailing conditions in the Middle East where many promising pro-democracy movements have disintegrated into chaos.
A key lesson is that any effort to promote or strengthen democracy without regard for political and cultural context is never a good idea. While increased participation, transparency and accountability remain goals worth pursuing, the practice of seeking to transplant Western-style democracy anywhere and everywhere is fraught with problems.
One aspect of this sort of ‘democratization’ is the creation of democratic institutions to replace existing well-functioning and popular traditional institutions. Replacing traditional institutions with propped-up institutions often leads to a diffusion of authority and accountability.
Lack of clarity in terms of roles and responsibilities perpetuates and even exacerbates the very corruption, inequity and injustice that democracy promotion programs intend to eradicate. Read more about an example from Afghanistan and another from Ghana, where consideration for context made all the difference.
Whether the efforts to strengthen democratic governance are endogenous or exogenous, it is important to remember that each case is distinct. The year has barely begun and the news is full of the events in Ukraine, Thailand, Egypt and elsewhere. Contextual nuance will be the key to understanding the many democratic (and undemocratic) twists and turns countries over the world negotiate in the coming year. 2014 will indeed be a big year for democracy.
Richa Mishra is a research fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She has over 15 years of experience in international development and public policy formulation with the UN system, the World Bank and research and academic institutions. Richa has extensive experience in promoting democratic institutions in transitional political systems.