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Worldwide drumbeat of democracy slows

A majority of humanity is living under the system, but “backsliders” are taking a toll.

Published July 3, 2006

As Americans celebrate this Fourth of July, they might pause to consider how many others are fortunate enough to live in democracies.

A toast is in order: Three-fifths of all nations today have democratic forms of government. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s people enjoy at least some of the fruits of democracy.

Now for the negative.

“It is clear that the forward momentum we have seen in the past is no longer the case,’’ says Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that supports grass roots projects worldwide.

“There are governments in a number of countries that want to hold onto power and are resisting democracy.’’

Among them are what experts call the “backsliders’’ — nations like Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe whose leaders were democratically elected but since have cracked down on pro-democracy groups.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab nations have taken only the tiniest steps toward democratic rule.

“The real basket cases tend to have too much oil,’’ says Ted Piccone, executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project, a research and advocacy organization.

“The elites in power have more resources to control the country the way they want. If you look at the number of states with oil and gas, and those with democracies, they are inversely proportional. There are exceptions, but they tend to be countries that already had democracies, like Norway.’’

Still, democrats can take heart. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world’s longest experiment with communism, there have been no viable alternatives to democracy as a political system. As Winston Churchill famously remarked: “It has been said democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In just half a century, large swaths of Africa, Asia, Latin America and central and eastern Europe have undergone democratic transitions. Of the world’s 193 countries , 122 are now classified as democracies including former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia and large Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia and Nigeria.

“Democracy is not a Western concept — it’s a universal concept,’’ Piccone says. “You can find roots of democratic values in all the major religions and cultures.’’

Along with the growth in democracies has come a more disturbing trend — the emergence of dozens of “hybrid’’ states where authoritarian rule is masked by superficially democratic trappings.

A prime example is Egypt, which held its first multicandidate presidential election last fall.

Longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was overwhelmingly elected in a contest marked by allegations of vote-rigging and sharp restrictions on the campaign activities of other candidates. Egyptian law also makes it nearly impossible for pro-democracy groups to function.

Another case of democracy backlash is occurring in Russia, where the government of President Vladimir Putin has harshly and even violently persecuted civil-society groups. Experts say Putin was spooked by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which ousted a pro-Russian government, and fears the West is trying to undermine his efforts to restore Russia’s international power and prestige.

Although the former KGB spy was chosen by popular vote, his actions show that “a country doesn’t become a democracy overnight,’’ Piccone says. “Russia is coming from a long, long history of authoritarian culture and corruption.’’

Since 1983, the United States has supported democracy projects around the world through the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy.

With annual congressional funding of about $74-million, it makes grants to hundreds of local groups working for rule of law, free elections and other requisites of a true democracy.

The endowment’s efforts often seem undercut by U.S. foreign policy, which supports many autocratic regimes that critics say are most in need of democratic reform. Despite its poor human rights and electoral record, Egypt receives nearly $2-billion a year in U.S. foreign aid because it has a peace treaty with Israel and is considered a valuable American ally in a volatile region.

“There is a tradition of realpolitik triumphing over ideal politik,’’ says John Stremlau, associate executive director of peace programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

“You make compromises in the name of national security, but you can’t make a credible case for our values if our allies are the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.’’

In recent years, promoting democracy has spread well beyond U.S. efforts. The European Union has emerged as a key player, partly to shore up democratic institutions in formerly communist eastern European states as they became candidates for EU membership.

According to a recent poll, 74 percent of Europeans think their governments should promote democracy in other countries, compared to just 51 percent of Americans who felt the same. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to support the idea.

The partisan difference is probably “a reaction to the war in Iraq because democracy was the (Bush administration’s) last rationale for invading,’’ Piccone says. Iraq and the broader war on terror have hurt the U.S. push for reforms in other countries because “people have identified democracy promotion as a tool of U.S. hegemony.’’

Despite setbacks in the global move toward democracy, the overall outlook is “reasonably positive,’’ says Stremlau of the Carter Center. He notes that South Africa adopted a new constitution in 1996 that in some ways is even more progressive than its U.S. counterpart.

“Never forget American history — it took the bloodiest war of the 19th century to come to some sort of minimal agreement to resolve the issue of slavery and another 100 years for the Civil Rights Act to be passed. The hard work of building a democracy never ends.’’

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 22:39:14]

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