In 2013, nothing more important than protecting hopes for democracy
The world faces serious issues in 2013, including debt and climate change. But nothing is more important to international stability and human progress than the aspirations of people upending authoritarian rule in pursuit of self-government. A look at three cases: Egypt, Myanmar, Malawi.
Across the range of international concerns today the one common theme is urgency. Debt. Climate change. The spread of nuclear weapons. These are all serious issues requiring earnest, immediate responses. Yet nothing will be more important to international stability and human progress in 2013 than advancing the aspirations of people who are upending authoritarian rule in the pursuit of self-government and a fair shot at success.Skip to next paragraph
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From the Middle East to Asia to Africa to Latin America, people of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds are agitating for change. Although democratization has been going on almost constantly since the end of the cold war, the stakes are different today for three reasons.
First, the greater Middle East is faced with burgeoning youth populations and complex regional tensions. Emerging democracies there have little margin for error.
Second, transnational terrorism and insurgency warfare have altered the security conditions in many of the places where democracy is budding – endangering new freedoms and posing an international security threat.
Third, the past three decades of democratization have brought many valuable lessons, but they have also raised expectations.
People do not just wake up one morning as democrats. The norms and practices of democracy, the understanding of rights and how to both act on and protect them, must be cultivated across society. That mainly involves the patient growing of trust between the governing and the governed – a trust that's rooted in good democratic soil (a representative constitution, a free media, a fair court system, etc.) and watered with a continuous, wide stream of public input.
If the revolution falters in the Arab world's most populous country – Egypt – it may well be because of not enough public buy-in.
Emerging from six decades of authoritarian rule, the country quickly developed a lively discourse in the public square. But the constitutional process, culminating recently in a national referendum, was imbalanced toward the ruling party and its Islamist allies. The Supreme Administrative Court had dissolved the body charged with drafting the new national charter for being unrepresentative. When the panel was reconstituted, similar charges quickly emerged. The constitution passed the popular referendum with 64 percent in favor; but voter turnout was low, only 33 percent, and the run-up to the ballot was marked by boycotts and street protests.
A vital opportunity to engender credibility was needlessly jeopardized.
Myanmar, long one of the most sealed-off countries on earth, is making credible strides toward democracy after decades of harsh military rule. Celebrated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was held under house arrest for 15 of the 20 years prior to her release in 2010, was elected to the national legislature last April. That election was monitored by foreign observers and media enjoying the freest access to the country in years.