Democracy’s Death?

by Nathan Hamm on 7/10/2006 · 5 comments

I find it maddening that leaders and political analysts in the former USSR accuse the West and particularly the United States of not being interested in democratization so much as they are interested in overthrowing local governments for whatever reason best fits the arguments of whoever happens to be making such claims. So, when American supporters of democratization in the former Soviet Union say that who is in charge of government is more important than processes of governance in determining a state’s democratic credentials, it is quite a gift to those who claim Westerners could give two figs about democracy.

We can now say the the Orange Revolution is officially over. The once-orange Socialist Party has changed sides and teamed up with pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, along with the Communists, and forged out a new coalition agreement nominating him for the position of prime minister. And they have the votes to get it through. A year and a half later, politically Ukraine is in the same place it was before.

Robert Mayer thinks that this will usher in a litany of horrors and that this marks the death of the Orange Revolution, or, as one should probably understand it, democracy in Ukraine. But to me, this sounds exactly like what one should expect in a properly functioning parliamentary democracy in a politically divided society (and especially in one with partial proportional representation). Sometimes the team you like loses. And the process of democratization (and let’s not kid ourselves that any of the “color revolutions” swept away all the ills of their respective lands) is not without it’s ups and downs–something Glenn Reynolds, who often says that democratization is “a process, not an event”, would do well to remember.

It is nice to see thought that some of the commenters, including the too-rarely-seen ’round these parts nowadays Andy Young, make similar points to those above at length though.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Richard R July 10, 2006 at 7:46 pm

The problem is the “one man, one vote, one time” phenomenon.

Once someone like Yanukovich (or Castro, or Saddam) gets their hands on the voting aparatus, they’ll never lose an election. Yanukovitch learned the last time. Next time, he won’t let those protesters get together. He’ll just shoot the first hundred or so, and that will discourage the rest.

Nathan July 10, 2006 at 7:50 pm

Or not… It didn’t happen in most of the former communist states of Eastern Europe when communist parties came back into power. And it remains to be seen whether or not Yanukovich would behave in such a manner.

What democracy is there to protect if competition isn’t open to all?

carpetblogger July 11, 2006 at 2:41 am

I agree with you Nathan, to a point, that the current soap opera is how new democracies evolve and isn’t conclusive evidence at all that the OR is finished.

However, it’s hard to factor out Russia’s overt meddling in Ukraine politics — factors largely absent in Eastern Europe. Yanukovich is an opportunist (nothing against that…). He never used to have a problem with NATO and WTO, but his benefators are aggressive and aggrieved now and smell Orange blood in the water. It’s naive to to think that Yanukovich and the thugs and murderers around him have undergone a democratic transition, no matter how many US-based PR firms they hire to convince us otherwise.

Yanukovich runs the risk of overplaying his hand — POR’s 33% does not a majority make. However, he is a much more skilled politician than Yushenko and is creating the perception of public support more effectively than the Orange team. All elections are referenda on the incumbent and Ukrainians sent a strong message in March that their president wasn’t living up to his potential. They just didn’t give anyone else a mandate.

I don’t believe Ukraine is politically in the same place at all as it was before the OR, by any stretch. Civil society is vibrant and increasingly organized around countless issues. I have a hard time imagining that ordinary Ukrainians will let their hard work in 2004 slide down the drain.

Andy July 11, 2006 at 9:37 am

Mostly these days, I’m so busy trying to bring democracy to my tiny little corner of the medico-political sphere that I don’t have time for blogging on the gloabl scale. But it’s nice to drop in now and then, and I’m sure I’ll be back more permanently in the not too distant future.

I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts to Richard and Carpetblogger’s comments.

Richard notes the ironic “one man, one vote” principle beloved of many dictators. I’d argue that all politicians (except the *really* deranged) are actually quite happy to work within whatever system they see has the most benefits to them. The trick with emerging democracies is to make playing by the democracy rules seem more attractive than stepping outside the rulebook. It’s tricky, but it’s why we should be trying to build up a framework for democracy, rather than simply trying to prop up a candidate with democratic credentials.

Carpetblogger notes that 33% does not a majority make. Which is mathematically spot on, of course. But, in terms of politics, not really so important – especially when it comes to coalition governments. There, simply being the largest party counts for so much, as it provides the opportnity to lead and frame the political debate.

I feel that this is one of the key areas that political commentators in both the US and the UK tend to overlook -and it’s a trap that I unconsciously fall into on a regular basis. Being so used to first past the post electoral systems, and two party systems, we tend to underestimate the importance of being skilled political operators, able to work within, lead, and hold together, fragile coalitions. Instead, we have an underlying tendency to see politics through the zero-sum paradigm.

Jonathan Taylor July 18, 2006 at 12:16 pm

I totally agree – I think its a bit premature to call the Orange Revolution dead. Significant progress has been made and I think that with Yush as Pres as well as a strong opposition, Yanu as PM is not necessarily a fatal blow.

I more thoroughly explain my view in a post here:

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