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.

Amr Nabil/AP
An Egyptian woman holds a poster that says in Arabic, 'My Christian siblings, Happy New Year' in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 31. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'The norms and practices of democracy...must be cultivated across society....Shortcuts don't pay off. Inclusiveness in building strong institutions and durable constitutions is vital to success.'

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.

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.

The unfolding experience in three countries – Egypt, Myanmar (Burma), and Malawi – highlights the importance, and difficulty, of getting the right mix of soil and water.

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.

But the foundation for a democracy doesn't really exist yet. True, a recent cabinet reshuffle replaced old-guard conservatives with technocrats and the first woman minister. However, the national legislature is still overwhelmingly controlled by the ruling military party, and political rivals cannot reach accord on power-sharing terms in a new draft constitution.

And while a greater diversity of voices is being heard, some are being willfully and dangerously ignored. Human rights abuses and ethnic violence continue almost unimpeded in sensitive areas of the country.

National reconciliation is a prime concern ahead of the 2015 elections, which, if free and fair, would almost certainly elevate Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to power. A truth commission, such as the one that helped South Africa after apartheid, could investigate the history of human rights abuses and underpin a new constitutional system in Myanmar.

Other than being one of Africa's most persistently impoverished countries, Malawi seldom garners attention, even on the African continent. But last April something significant happened. It began with the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, an economist and the country's third president. The late leader's brother and supporters saw an opening to take over, but the military stepped in to prevent them from circumventing the Constitution and ensured the legal succession of Joyce Banda.

As political scientists Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst observe, simply the operation of the Malawi Constitution under stress is encouraging on a continent once plagued by military coups d'état. They write that Malawi's successful succession during a time of political upheaval shows why "even the partial liberalization of most African countries, still falling well short of institutionalized democracy, is such an important development." 

In the coming months and years, countries such as Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe will arrive at the threshold of democratic reforms. The choices they make and the processes they follow will be influenced and reinforced by events in neighboring countries and lessons from farther afield.

Building democracies is slow work. It is an imperfect project. But it can be mutually affirming. Twenty-five years ago, strongman rulers dominated Africa. Today no leader can avoid at least the language and motions of democracy. Will similar progress take root in the Middle East? Shortcuts don't pay off. Inclusiveness in building strong institutions and durable constitutions is vital to success.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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