Navigating the Transitions to Democracy

This post is written by Ahmed Goher (Economic Research Forum)

The Economic Research Forum (ERF) brought together speakers Eva Bellin (Brandeis University), Erik Berglof (London School of Economics) and Larry Diamond (Stanford University) on the third and final day of its 21st Annual Conference to explore how MENA countries can best manage their transitions to democracy.

Bellin began the session, chaired by Bassma Kodmani (Arab Reform Initiative), by presenting on ‘Lessons for Democratic Transition in the Arab World.’ The core argument of Bellin’s presentation was that established findings in the literature that economic development better sustains democracy, that neighborhood democratization has a high chance of leading to transition, anHB__8914d that a professionalized military apparatus is more likely to ensure a smooth transition to democracy; none of these findings are actually deterministic. In this sense, per Bellin, identifying lessons of what has worked elsewhere will not provide a definitive roadmap for Arab countries’ successful transition to democracy. For instance, the idea that higher GDP is more conducive to democracy is not a set rule, since half of the poorest countries in the world are democracies, Bellin argues, adding that some authoritarian regimes can have high levels of economic development as happened in the cases of Chile and Argentina.

Bellin says that while this premise is worrying for intellectuals, it heralds good news for activists and policymakers since it shows that nothing is set in stone and that all countries could become democracies. The single perquisite factor, she argues, is a leadership that truly believes in and wants democracy since, in the end, democratization is a human process that requires consent building and persuasion. This is evient in leaders like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi who were able to overcome tremendous obstacles to establish democracies, Bellin said. Moreover, Bellin references Morsi’s Egypt and Tunisia’s Ghannoushi to highlight the instrumentality of political leadership to successful (Tunisia) and unsuccessful outcomes (Egypt).

Not only that, Bellin also argues that many of the supposed obstacles mentioned in much of the literature ( e.g., culture and religion) are quite overrated, with the only real obstacles being the resource curse and security concerns emanating from the threat posed by terrorism, for instance. Bellin concludes by saying that all of this indicates that ” the door is not closed on democratization in the Arab world,” provided that Arab countries empower their populations, cultivate a strong civil society, build institutions of accountability and, most importantly, possess credible political elites/ “powerful players” who are committed to democratization.

Following Bellin’s presentation, presented on ‘Navigating Two Transitions – Towards Democracy and Market Economy in European and Arab countries,’ Berglof tried to answer the questions of: Is democracy causally good for economic transition? Does lack of democracy impede economic reform? And, within a given political system, what can be done to invigorate economic transition and improve economic institutions?’

Berglof finds that democracy and market economy are strongly correlated: improved economic institutions help democracy, democratization can help unleash economic reform, early economic reforms help predict democracy and democracies can make countries richer.

Additionally, when it comes to what can be done to enhance reform in a given political system, Berglof identified three types of factors: (1) International external factors; (2) “Feasible political reform”: at the national level (e.g., electoral system) and the local/regional level (accountability and transparency); and (3) the ‘exploitation of windows of opportunity.’ When it came to this last factor, Berglof stressed that small political openings can offer windows of opportunity for reforms that sometime lead to better economic institutions. The successful exploitation of such windows, he added, hinged on a number of factors, including early transition histories, political polarization, leaders’ priorities, external anchor and support, and human capital and inclusion.

Based on the aforementioned, Berglof presented a set of recommendations for Arab countries in transition, advising them to “get political institutions right early,” pursue and implement local reforms, integrate internationally (both in terms of trade and finance) and exploit windows of opportunities.

Presenting last, Diamond titled his talk ‘The Democratic Recession and the Challenges for Democratic Consolidation’ and proceeded to outline his findings on a “democratic recession” occurring between 2005 and 2014.

Diamond, who argued for the necessity of taking “freedom” into account as meaHB__8962sured by U.S.-based Freedom House, said that there is an “intimate and durable” relationship between the quality of democracy and the quality of state institutions. He distinguished between two types of democracies, “electoral democracies,” which meet the bare minimum levels of democratization and “high-quality” liberal democracies that are “recognizable” by using Freedom House Data.” Diamond noted that while Freedom House was biased for the first 10-15 years of its establishment, after the Cold War this was no longer the case.

Furthermore, Diamond stressed that nothing is more important for new democracies than improving their political institutions and said if there is a future in the near time for democratization in Arab World, it has to involve success in Tunisia.

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