The different paths to democracy | South China Morning Post
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  • Feb 28, 2015
  • Updated: 9:54pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 12:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 12:34am

The different paths to democracy

Not all democracies are equally functional. Not all dictatorships are equally bad. The hopes that the Arab spring inspired have led to bitter disappointments. That ought to be an object lesson in government. Revolution and regime change are much easier to achieve than peace, stability and liberty afterwards. Dogmatic democrats never seem to learn this lesson based on overwhelming historical evidence.

In Egypt, a military strongman is hailed as the nation's saviour after massive bloodshed following the disposing of a democratically elected but demagogic Islamist. In Libya, lawlessness reigned as militias divided up the country with a dysfunctional if notional central authority. In Syria, more than 100,000 have died in a savage civil war. In Tunisia, bitter divisions paralysed government and delayed reforms and the drafting of a new constitution. If China was guilty of censoring news about the Arab spring, dogmatic democrats in the West should now admit the false and dangerous hopes they helped spread about it.

As Graham Greene observed in The Quiet American, people just want peace, stability and predictability in their lives. They want their children to enjoy better prospects than they do. When they grow old, they hope to be taken care of, either by their family or the state. They take pride in themselves, in their own tribe, community or country. They don't want to be bossed around or humiliated by outsiders. These are taken for granted by people living in rich and powerful countries. But they are not a given in any of the countries that have experienced convulsions from the Arab spring. Here, a change of government can be a matter of life and death.

Elected or not, a government in a poor country that can provide all or most of those basic public goods has achieved a degree of legitimacy. It is a contemporary political fallacy to think legitimacy is overwhelmingly or only a function of fair and democratic elections; it can be, but not always nor everywhere. There is an alternative democratic narrative. This allows for an extended period of authoritarian rule and economic development before making a democratic transition. Places like Hong Kong with strong social and political institutions have a better chance of making a successful transition than those without.


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