Ins and Outs

India and South Africa today. Mexico, when? China, how long after that?

How fast is true alternating-party democracy spreading around the world?

In the turbulent halfcentury just past, the world map was vastly revised by World War II, decolonization, and rejection of the savagery and inefficiency of the Stalinist state. One result: a slow, steady increase in nations where ins and outs take turns at the helm. Germany, Portugal, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are all states that had voting and parties long before they had true alternating-party democracy.

That may be, as Churchill's oft-quoted aphorism argues, the worst form of government except for all the others. But generally it works well, precisely because it provides a mechanism for three huge benefits not afforded by authoritarian regimes:

1. Management of a nation's affairs is periodically refreshed, and tired old hands take their turn regrouping below decks.

2. Lawmaking is tested against an opposition that may gain power if too many decisions fail to please voters.

3. Corruption, patronage, and complacency have less time to take root before a new team takes the helm and handles the rigging.

India has had multiparty democracy for much of its halfcentury of independence. But until now, it had virtually no taste of alternating party control. Voting took place regularly; shifts of power did not. Today's search for a coalition government is fascinating because all the parties, from Communists to Hindu nationalists, seem to accept private investment as the best engine of growth. That's a remarkable change from Nehru socialism.

Mexico has lived more than six decades with one-party democracy. As in India, Japan, and Germany, regular voting existed. But not alternation. At last that seems about to change.

Often, as in Japan and the former West Germany, there was fear of changing one-party rule for the uncertainties of having a long-untried opposition assume power. But once the break with the past occurred, alternation became the accepted norm.

Russia and China, only partly rid of what Stalin and Mao wrought, provide the biggest questions for the next century. So far the Russian experiment with multiparty competition has muddled through. But moving on to routine alternation is far from assured.

China's arrival at ins and outs seems more distant. The argument for centralized authoritarianism to cement such a sprawling population remains strong among Chinese. But China lives increasingly in the world. It will be hard to convince new generations that what works for other major states shouldn't be tried in Beijing.

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