Sunday, April 1, 2012

Strengthening Institutions to make Democracy Deliver: Learnings from Arab spring and after

(Text of the paper presented at the International Seminar on Arab Spring and After organised  by Centre for International, Strategic and Development Studies, Mumbai in Mumbai on 28-29-30 March 2012)

There are clear messages that the Arab spring has sent out to the outer world. The first and the fundamental message is that people have become restive. Aspiring societies in the modern world today are not going to remain silent in the face of deception, deprivation, and non-deliverability on the count of good governance. They want results. With the atmosphere full of uncertainty and insecurity, people all over the world are understandably losing patience. The desire for a promising tomorrow is now so acute that they would like to examine the seeds that are being sown to make sure that the crop is going to be as per the their expectations, both in quality and quantity. Besides patience, people are also fast losing whatever the faith in the system.

The Arab spring therefore has a multi-dimensional message. The popular unrest has served a notice to all those elements failing in ensuring a secured future. Secure, both politically as well as economically.  When Arab countries were witnessing this democratic upsurge, in India we had Lokpal movement. A year after the first protest fast undertaken by Anna Hazare, there certainly are question marks before the movement’s future. However, they should not make us unmindful of the challenge of finding answers to some issues thrown by the movement.
The three main factors behind the Arab spring were –

1. A very corrupt or weak government
2.Unhappy wealthy and military classes of people and
3. A desire for change supported and acted upon by different political and popular groups.

At the backdrop of these factors is the fact that most of the countries witnessing extempore popular uprising were governments working under a façade of democracy.

Sham Republics
Governments in Egypt and Tunisia were corrupt and more importantly weak on delivery count as well. Autocrats in both countries did not have genuine popular mandate and hence they severely lacked in legitimacy. The abysmal lack of good public administration added to the restlessness not only amongst the poor and disadvantaged sections but also the affluent and powerful sections of the society. Military, too had no reason to not to support and revolt against the corrupt heads of governments. In a situation of this kind, a desire for change got further fillip and people took to streets, without caring so much for the immediate consequences.

Were the uprisings in the Arab countries merely for democratic rights? To consider that replacing sham democratic structures by genuine one will leave the people happy thereafter is denying the hard reality. Democracy is essential, but perhaps no more enough. Along with democracy, people are now yearning for state building where quality public administration as a part of overall good governance is delivered. If democracy fails in delivering this; the specter of people preferring a dictator to a democratically elected government may not be all that remote. There is evidence to suggest that people may even prefer autocratic rule to democracy if there is a guarantee on the delivery count.
Yearning for effective governance
Senior American journalist and political commentator David Broder once pointed out that there is a widening gap between acceptance and effectiveness of democracy.[1] Analysing the reasons for the same, he says that death of ideology, decline of state, decline of religion, low esteem of politics as a profession, and the irresponsible role of media in general, are the causes behind democracy becoming less effective.
On the performance count, new and emerging democratic governments all over the world have more often than not, met with failures. Even countries where democracy was supposed to be already well established, such as Venezuela and Columbia, became “destabilized and seriously threatened in the past decade by economic mismanagement, corruption, and state decay as established parties and politicians grew complacent and distant from popular concerns.”[2] Many countries in South America, suffered a deep crisis of governance that inevitably resulted in sharp erosion in the authority and capacity of the state as also public confidence in democratic institutions. Similar is the case with some of the former Soviet countries. Even after a decade of democratisation, here, power is wielded with the same old style that smacks of authoritarianism, elections are still less fair and rule of law continues to be fragile. Little wonder then, that Richard Rose of University of Strathclyde in Glasgow found that 41 percent of Russians and 51 percent of Ukrainians   favored the restoration of communist rule.[3] As recently as in 2003, public opinion all over the world showed an alarming decrease in the support base for democracy. The results of ‘The Pew Global Attitudes Project for 2011’,[4] has brought out some interesting findings. The report says: In 1991, majorities of Russians and Ukrainians clearly favored democracy, rather than a strong leader, as the best way to address their country's problems. By 2002 opinion had reversed, with two-thirds or more in each country saying they preferred a strong leader. In Poland and Bulgaria views were mixed on the issue, while publics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia continued to strongly support democracy. A recent report about the State of Democracy in South Asia[5] has revealed that only 49% of Indians prefer democracy while 14% believe that democracy or dictatorship makes no difference to them.

It is a fact that strengthening institutions that facilitate the expression of democratic demands is extremely important. Introducing elections is an essential ingredient of this process, but that alone is perhaps not enough. If this process eventually fails in enhancing governance capacity in managing the delivery of basic public goods and services, it will ultimately end up promoting greater public disenchantment. Hence, the future of Arab spring movement is pregnant with the grave challenge of establishing state mechanisms that are open, participative and democratic and at the same time efficient and productive while making democracy deliver.

Unified Theory
In this context, it is worth examining what noted political scientist Pippa Norris has presented as ‘unified theory’.[6] This theory predicts “that the institutions of both liberal democracy and state capacity need to be strengthened in parallel for the most effective progress deepening human security, within the broader enduring fixed constraints posed by structural environments.  Democracy and governance are rightly regarded as separate and distinct phenomena both conceptually and empirically.”    Norris’s ‘unified theory’ underscores that regimes reflecting both these dimensions are necessary (although not sufficient) for effective development

There is a particular pattern in the way dictators of the Middle East, whether they are called kings, presidents, and prime ministers, some of them disguising their authoritarian regime better than others. This pattern involves a two-pronged approach. Keeping the wealthy elite in good humour on the one hand and satisfy the lower classes through providing heavily subsidized essential commodities. However, while this pattern helps a dictator stick to power, it also makes his position vulnerable. When economy is in bad shape, the elite expect more than the leader can give, and the now educated population wants jobs, prosperity, and the voice in the government, which has previously been denied to them. This leads to the end of legitimacy of the leader and people gather courage to raise a banner of revolt.

Arab spring was a surprise for many. The general impression was that the Arab republics were generally doing well. Most of them even today are republics for namesake. There were houses comprising representatives elected by the people and at least ostensibly, the governments were run by these elected representatives. People were fed up of this façade of democracy, as it did not deliver at all. They tolerated the autocrats who were ruling under the garb of a republic state till such a point as things became absolutely intolerable.
Democracy being a holistic idea, mere elections or mere freedom of expression is not enough. With technological advancement as it is preventing access to information and avenues for expression of thoughts has become lot more difficult, if not impossible. Besides, universally there is an acute sense of insecurity filled in the climate and hence somehow, people want to express their pent up feelings. Uprisings in the Arab world as well as the largely extemporary character of the Anna Hazare-led Lokpal movement are a pointer to this state of mind of the people.
Delivering democracy
Developing sound institutions for facilitating a delivering democracy is fundamental to the idea of effective democracy. If democracy is all about free exercise of the right to select then availability of worthy options of groups and leaders for selection, and evolving smart electoral systems facilitating undistorted expression of genuine public opinion become extremely important. This has to be coupled with a deliberative system for result oriented and decisive governance mechanism. Political parties, Electoral system and Parliament are therefore the three critical corner stones of any democratic edifice.  Absence of sound institutional development and the resultant poor quality of governance coupled with muzzling of public opinion has arguably proved to be the lethal cocktail for overthrowing of the established regimes in Arab spring. On this backdrop, it is high time for democracies like India to look within, audit the performance of its institutions and adopt an agenda for massive reforms. In democracy, traditions and precedents are important and tokenism too is a part of this. But too much of tokenism often leads to hypocrisy. A feeling of deception is inherent to hypocrisy, and this very feeling of being deceived all along seems to have caught the imagination of the masses in India too.  When the entire edifice of democratic governance is perceived as unproductive, democratic institutions evoke not respect but revulsion. India is passing precisely through the same process. Anna Hazare-led movement could rightly be described as an expression of the deep- seated popular disenchantment with the entire political class.
In order to understand the striking similarities in the ground situations both in Egypt and India, it would be enlightening to read what an article in Foreign Affairs has said about Egypt. The article says,  “Everything in Egypt -- from obtaining a driver's license to getting an education -- is formally very cheap but in practice very expensive, since most transactions, official and unofficial, are accompanied by off-the-books payments. The government pays schoolteachers a pittance, so public education is poor and teachers supplement their salaries by providing private lessons that are essential preparation for school exams. The national police were widely reviled long before their brutal crackdowns at the inception of the January 25 revolt because they represented, in essence, a nationwide protection racket. Ordinary citizens had to bribe police officers all too ready to confiscate licenses and invent violations”[7]
Both, in Arab countries as well as in India, the young activists in each country have been sharing ideas, tactics, and moral support, but they are confronting different opponents and operating within different contexts. Now that the euphoria about Arab spring is over, it is high time efforts for building strong democratic institutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are taken up by social and political leaders with all dexterity at their command. Much has been said about the role and impact of social media in the context of both, the Arab spring and the Lokpal movement. It does have a role, important but also limited. It allows informal association, temporarily overcomes the lack of leadership and enables free flow of information. All this helps greatly in organising protests. But it must also be remembered that communication can start the process of democracy but it cannot complete it.
Challenges ahead
Preventing corruption, arresting economic decline and establishing a rule of law are the three basic challenges in all Arab spring countries. Corruption and economic decline have remained common obstacles in the path of successful new democracies. While these factors added to the popular skepticism about democracy in Latin America, in Russia they seriously undermined the country’s democratic experiment during the Boris Yeltsin presidency.
If the challenge in Arab world is that of building institutions, in India it is that of preventing their collapse and revitalizing them. India, will have to pay urgent attention to all encompassing democratic reforms about which little is being discussed. In Arab world as well as in India the common point to be placed high on the agenda would be reducing the gap between those who are empowered and those who are not, both politically as well as economically.
In the Indian context, it would be misleading to get unduly impressed by the increased percentage of voting in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Winning elections has already become a technique and with flawed electoral system, rarely it turns out to be a genuine popular mandate. The sooner we stop boasting about being the largest democracy of the world and start introducing reforms to wipe off the wide spread cynicism and frustration about the political system, the better.
Pippa Norris[8] noted political scientist from Kennedy School of Government presents a brilliant analysis of similar conditions, which is worth understanding. She says, “…development is most effective where regimes combine the qualities of democratic responsiveness and state effectiveness.” According to her, regardless of whatever the theory suggests, in practice, liberal democracies often prove imperfect on the count of accountability and good governance related procedures “particularly where party competition is limited, electoral systems are manipulated, or channels of participation are skewed towards money votes over people votes.” Norris further argues that “The institutions in liberal democracy can limit the abuse of power, but curbing Leviathan does not ensure that leaders will necessarily have the capability to implement effective public policies addressing social needs.” Norris further points out that “Moreover the initial move from autocracy, and the rhetorical promises commonly made by leaders during transitional elections, often encourages rising expectations among ordinary citizens. If these cannot be met by elected officials, due to limited state capacity, this can be a recipe for frustration.” [9]
Learnings for India
What Pippa Norris has analysed is significant in the context of India. Venomous statements of the likes of civil society leaders Arvind Kejriwal will come always under flack, and perhaps rightly. However, how exactly we as a nation are going to meet the questions that are posed by the situation continues to be a big challenge. Continuously widening gap between the electors and the elected is a pointer to the grave situation. When we have 78% of the Lok Sabha members today winning the election despite the fact that 50% of the electors in respective constituencies have voted against them, legitimacy of the representative democracy itself has become questionable. Should this continue for long, we will have neither good governance nor genuine democracy.
While describing the huge popular response to Lokpal movement, media had compared Jantar –Mantar in Delhi to Tahrir Square. Comparisons like these have limited meaning. But, like those spearheading the Tahrir Square upsurge, Lokpal movement also loses its way and fails in unveiling a larger agenda for political and institutional reforms for an effective democracy, people will have a new set of reasons to be more cynic about the system. One certainly cannot rule this out. Strong visionary leadership with organisational skills and strategic thinking after all is in short supply on the banks of both Nile and Yamuna.

[1] David Broder, Lecture at the Salzburg Seminar session 384, on Democracy. June 13, 2001
[2] Larry Diamond, “The Global State of Democracy”, in ‘Current History’ Dec. 2000, Vol.99, No. 641 p.416
[3] ibid p.417
[5] SDSA team, State of Democracy in South Asia p.228-229
[6] For reference, please see -
[7] Demystifying the Arab Spring, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011

[9] ibid