Democracy Can Be Coaxed, But Not Rushed

(Bloomberg View) -- Former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron now heads a commission on "state fragility, growth and development" formed by the London School of Economics and Oxford University. There's a certain irony to that -- after all, didn't Cameron's disastrous gamble with the Brexit referendum make the U.K. more fragile, putting its further growth and development into question? The commission's first recommendations, however, are sober and sensible: Take care that people feel economically secure and at peace before building a governance system that looks like those of old democracies.

The report argues that developed nations trying to help fragile ones have been doing it wrong. They have pushed the "best practices" of wealthy nations, demanding quick multi-party elections and often unpopular, harsh economic policies backed by global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. This has resulted in deeply flawed and easily subverted or overturned democracies in countries such as post-Saddam Iraq, post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Gaddafi Libya. In Yemen, according to the report, the program proposed by the international financial institutions demanded a radical transformation of the country within two years."The reform program was aborted because the state collapsed through rebellion triggered by one of the reforms," the report says.

Forcing events, including by calling for multi-party elections right after major upheavals, doesn't work, the authors write:

Conventional elections may inadvertently undermine checks and balances by handing power to majority groups, as happened in Iraq. Further, since in the conditions prevalent in fragile societies elections are easily manipulated, the results are not widely trusted by citizens. As a result, until effective checks and balances have been built that are trusted within the society, elections typically do not confer legitimacy on the declared winner.

In Somalia, for example, donor demands for an election absorbed all the energy of national leaders for three years between 2014 and 2017 -- and resulted in a "token election held at the airport with only 14,000 voters."

External players interested in stabilizing a fragile country should be more interested in the indigenous version of checks and balances, in mechanisms to build national cohesion rather than in a rush to representative democracy as practiced in the West. "Shared identity needs to supplant identities that are fragmented," the report says.

A civil peace, a deal that minimizes divisions, is necessary to give the government the power to collect taxes, secure the streets and build some institutions that can ensure the rule of law and property rights for private investors, both foreign and domestic. As the government goes about it, it shouldn't be forced to follow specific economic policy prescriptions -- it's enough that its policies are realistic and growth-oriented. More important are quick wins that most of society can appreciate, like the new Tunisian government's 2014 program to clean all the mosques, and popular signals aimed at building credibility, like the Rwandan government's decision to strip ministers of their state-provided cars.

One can read this as a blasphemous endorsement of populism from top establishment academic institutions or as a set of pragmatic, non-ideological advice for Western nations and institutions working to reduce poverty and instability in what used to be known as the Third World. I'm more interested in a third possible reading, however. In effect, the report argues that certain attributes of successful, wealthy states' governance have priority over others; namely that social cohesion, the rule of law and property rights trump the trappings of democratic politics. 

That's an interesting framework for thinking about countries that aren't as fragile as Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo. At which point, for example, should the European Union start worrying about the seeming erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary? Perhaps these countries are merely dealing with a backlash to the mistake highlighted to the report -- going too quickly to a government system typical of old democracies without fixing the fundamentals first.

For example, in both Poland and Hungary, the nationalist governments have made quick progress in beating dysfunctional tax systems into shape and increasing collection. In both, the governments took unconventional economic steps to provide more social benefits, increasing their support base but also increasing poorer citizens' confidence in the state and giving them a stronger feeling of inclusion. These actions appear to be in line with the recommendations in the Cameron commission's report -- as long as the governments preserve the key institutions that ensure a decent investment climate, such as the independence of low-level courts and the enforcement of property rights. Both in Hungary and in Poland these basic institutions remain strong despite the nationalist governments' judiciary reforms. So perhaps it doesn't make sense to push the ruling parties in the direction of Dutch or French best practices, at least until the living standards in Poland and Hungary are closer to those of these older democracies.

One could also wonder about the direction of Ukraine, a country with all the trappings of a Western democracy but without solid property rights, a functioning court system or much social cohesion. What if Western pressure focused on ensuring the sanctity of contracts and the independence of judges, as well as on working with the country's pro-Russian minority -- including in the areas held by Russian proxies -- to forge a power-sharing arrangement? Perhaps that would ensure faster growth and a smoother transition to a European-style democracy.

It's possible that Ukraine's rogue neighbor, Russia, was lost to the Western world because it went for non-core democratic change in the 1990s without securing property rights and a confidently independent judiciary -- and because it pursued non-inclusive economic policies that fostered mistrust in the government and cleared the path for Vladimir Putin's authoritarian project.

Even the world's most powerful nations suffer from some symptoms of fragility. The U.S., for example, is a deeply divided society in which many citizens doubt the legitimacy of Donald Trump's presidency. But the U.S. legal system makes sure investment is protected and basic justice is achievable in most cases, order is maintained and the state retains citizens' fundamental trust. The U.S. today is a powerful example of how what might be called the Maslow hierarchy of democracy works. At its foundations lie property protections and the economic confidence that comes with them; an enlightened, well-functioning, popular, inclusive government is desirable but not a must for a country to resist fragility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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