Democracy – Inevitable Or Not?

In the second of a two-part series, Sami Steinbock discusses whether democratisation is inevitable, once a society reaches a certain level of development.

One of the most popular axioms of political theory is that economic development leads inexorably to democracy.

Cassinelli (1961) argues that “a modern democratic state can exist only in a society that has solved the problems of material well-being” thereby stating that economic development is instrumental in survival as a demos. Lipset (1959) takes this further, stating that economic development not only leads to a strengthening of democracy, but rather is essential for the democracy to come into being. Toerell (2010) explains  further factors to democratisation, advocating that development is not the only one. He argues that democracy is promoted by long-term structural forces, of which increasing economic prosperity may be one but it is not just that alone: peaceful popular uprisings are often important.

Economic development is often categorised on its own by GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), and the University of Pennsylvania provides a study from 2010. The UAE ranks in third with Singapore ranking fifth. Russia meanwhile ranks within the fifties at 51. With all these countries thereby having high levels of economic development (except possibly Russia) yet low rankings of democracy with The Economist’s Democracy Index of 2011 and Freedom House’s own rankings, it is clear that democratisation is not inevitable just because of high levels of economic growth.

Although Singapore and the region of which it forms part did not experience a large, peaceful, popular uprising, in the current Arabberlin-wall-down peninsula one occurred/is occurring. In the May 2011 G8 Summit in France, a senior White House aide drew comparisons with the Arab Spring and the fall of the Berlin wall saying, “in terms of moments in time when important democratic and economic transitions begin, this [the Arab spring] is a comparable moment [with the fall of the Berlin wall]”. The destruction of the Berlin wall is an example with the former Warsaw Pact countries experiencing a wholly peaceful transition to democracy at varying successes. It is questionable, though, how successful the Arab Spring was: although it began spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, and (possibly) Syria, it seems to have stopped short of countries such as the UAE and lost momentum in the Gulf. The question here though is: what fuelled the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings and whether they are a causal factor of democratisation.

To start with, Singapore is a country that gained independence only in 1959 and since then has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP). Even though it has such high levels of development that neighbouring countries often call it a ‘miracle’, any peaceful protest to the system has not been allowed. As pointed out by Feltzer (2008) in any other ‘democracy’ no one would care how it was with such levels of material/economic development, but in Singapore citizens are being put in prison without trial for dissent, and protest can only occur with license from the authorities. Although things are seemingly changing with Burma, in the region already managing to go from authoritarian regimes to democracy, there are some worrying signs with the ruling party, Thein Sein, having huge problems such as corruption and violence sufficient to threaten reform.

UAE-islandThe UAE has, geographically, been right in the centre of the Arab Spring. With it having happened only so recently, the dust has not yet settled, and it is hard to judge the situation: but it seems as though the wealth of the UAE may have protected it from much of the protests its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have suffered. In the UAE citizens are offered, amongst other things, free health care, education and housing benefits. Given these conditions there is not much to protest about, and when protests to begin, they are quickly put down by fellow citizens. There has been an assertion that the UAE’s rulers have bribed the masses into silence through the generous social-welfare pact, but what is clear is that, given the conditions in this nation, high development has not led to a drive for democracy. This is even beyond the religious factors that must be taken into account, thereby proving again than high development does not automatically lead to democracy where, in this region, it was quite the opposite. It was arguably economic hardships in Tunisia that started the protest for democratisation that ensued in the region, rather than high economic growth which kept certain countries such as the UAE safe from it.

In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama foresaw the ‘end of history’ in, what was, a landmark essay. This later translated into his book The End of History and The Last Man (1992). What occurred to spur this reaction of ‘the end of history’ was the destruction of the Berlin wall. This symbolised, postulated Fukuyama, the triumph of liberal democracy and the free markets that come with it over what was considered their last serious ideological rival. Now, according to Gat (2009), history is back. He says that although democracy is the most favoured system in history, it will still have to demonstrate its advantage over a new rival, that of authoritarian capitalism as practised in countries such as China and Russia. With the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989, there was a near-universal adoption of capitalism, but, with retrospect, the same cannot be said of democracy. These governments are said to be able to deliver better when it comes to prosperity, security and national strength. Even with the peaceful protests taking place in Russia and much pressure from the media all over the world it does not look like this situation will change in the near future.

Today, according to Freedom House (2012), 46% of countries are fully democratic, up from 36% in 1989. At the same time the world has become more developed, with an increase of globalisation partly contributing towards this trend. The former Soviet satellites in Central Europe like Poland have achieved dramatic economic advances under democracy. In recent years though, the spread of democracy has stalled, with only 46% of the world being classifiable as “liberal democracy” in 1999.

Democracy---Two-wolves-and-a-sheep-voting-on-whats-for-dinnerMany countries have gone more democratic in recent years, like Serbia, Slovakia and Croatia, yet Russia, Singapore and others have stalled or, as is the case in Russia, is sliding back towards authoritarianism. Meanwhile despite high development, especially the abnormally high levels in Singapore and the UAE, democracy does not look like taking over. Singapore, according to Gat (2009), has strict paternalistic rule and is an example showing there is more than one path to development, particularly economic development. In the same way democracy is now considered by many experts, including Fukuyama (2012), as unimportant to development: they even go so far to say that the reason countries such as the UAE and Singapore are experiencing such high levels of development so far is ‘because they’re authoritarian’. Not only is democratisation not inevitable given high development, but there are many opinions that is no longer axiomatically ‘the best way’.


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