FOLLOWING the collapse of a wave of popular revolts that swept Europe during the mid-19th century, one French observer noted dryly: "The revolution has come before its time." A century and a half later, it seems, the time is right. Demands for political liberty have ripened into a force that is transforming governments around the world.
From "people power" in the Philippines to candlelight vigils in Eastern Europe to food strikes in Africa, ordinary men and women have been demanding accountability from their leaders and, in the process, producing an unprecedented peaceful revolution in political rights.
The democratic revolution reached critical mass in the heart of Europe, where the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the overthrow of entrenched communist regimes. It has gathered momentum in remote corners of Africa and Asia. In Latin America, for some time the preserve of autocratic military juntas, every nation is now governed by a popularly-elected ruler.
Fanned by demands for free elections and multiple parties, constitutions and parliaments, the desire for democracy has come, within a few short years, to rival nationalism as the dominant political emotion of the age.
"This is probably as close to a truly global turning point as we've ever seen," says Dankwart Rustow, a professor of political science at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. "The world is becoming more unified than ever before, and democracy has become a strong, possibly irresistible force."
In the broadest sense, political analysts say, it is because historical alternatives to democracy - 500 years of monarchy and a century of communism - have been intellectually discredited, leaving democracy as the only viable model for political development.
Since World War II, the process has been hastened as economic failure, inefficiency, and corruption have undermined both rightist authoritarians and leftist dictators in less-developed countries and the Soviet bloc.
"This is the first time in history there is no legitimate alternative to democracy," Dr. Rustow says.
The process of democratization has been energized by technical advances in mass communications. The computer, the fax machine, satellites, radio, and TV have helped erase national borders, breaking governments' monopolies over communication while fueling aspirations for freedom.
Political liberalization has also been abetted by parallel economic liberalization, in which decisions are increasingly made by the free market rather than centralized state agencies.
"If a society fundamentally disagrees on fundamental issues - the nature of property and what constitutes a legitimate political system - democracy can't handle it," notes Richard Feinberg, vice president of the Washington-based Overseas Development Council. "If people agree on what constitutes good politics and good economics, the preconditions for democracy are in place."
Beyond such global forces, regimes have been nudged toward democratic reforms by specific factors, such as international sanctions, in the case of South Africa, or the removal of powerful autocrats, as in Tunisia in 1987.
In Latin America, democratization was abetted by the Catholic Church's new emphasis on human rights and development and by the discrediting of military regimes for failed economic policies and repressive practices.
According to Rustow, the post-cold war era is the fourth in modern history in which the impulse for political liberalization has flourished:
*-The American and French Revolutions spawned new republics on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the notion that kings ruled by divine right was fatally weakened, a conservative reaction swept Europe's monarchs back to power.
*-World War I destroyed other vehicles of authoritarian rule, including the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. New democracies emerged from the ruins but succumbed to the dictators whose yen for conquest launched World War II.
*-The Second World War unleashed another liberalizing force as dozens of nations emerged from colonial rule. But communist governments, military dictatorships, and underdevelopment arrested democratic change.
Political analysts say with the end of the Soviet empire and collapse of communism, democratic gains may prove more durable.
"This time it's different because it's the first time in history that there's no one who opposes democracy in principle," says Rustow.
But pervasive economic and social forces could still arrest political reform. Infatuation with democracy could wane if newly elected governments in central Europe and the third world fail to live up to high expectations for improved social conditions.
The Great Depression swept away weak democratic governments like Germany's Weimar Republic, political analysts recall. In the same way, high debts, unemployment, and a scarcity of consumer goods could tempt today's democrats in countries like Poland and Brazil to turn again to more authoritarian rule.
"Democracy and development do not always go hand in hand; they may even advance in diametrically opposed directions," a 1990 UNESCO periodical says.
The accent on pluralism could also run into longstanding social and religious traditions. In Africa, the Mideast, and Asia, democratic ideals are in conflict with traditions that stress hierarchical authority, a limited political role for women, or a subordination of secular to religious values.
In Algeria and Jordan, recent elections have been won by Islamic elements who have filled an intellectual void created by the fading of anti-colonialism, state socialism, and pan-Arabism. But Islamicists are unlikely to perpetuate the political process that swept them into power.
"Democracy would be a vehicle to reach their goal, but not a goal in itself," says Shukri Abed, a reasearch associate at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
In Africa, many experts worry that loosening central authority too quickly could lead to tribal violence and national disintegration within multi-ethnic states with arbitrarily drawn borders.
"There is a danger that when central control is released, ethnic and religious cleavages will surface," Dr. Feinberg says.
Democracy could even founder where it has prospered - in Europe and North America - as fragmentation produced by extremism and special interests threatens political gridlock.