Democracy’s Miller Test

by Nathan Hamm on 1/20/2012 · 9 comments

Joshua Kucera has a very good article at EurasiaNet on the deflection of election criticism by Kazakhstani officials and a handful of DC analysts. They argue that the deficiencies in the parliamentary election are less important than overall progress toward democracy.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular have argued that they are on gradual, managed path to democracy. While Kazakhstan’s claims are always more plausible than Uzbekistan’s, where the strings are clearly visible, the case that democracy is being prepared low and slow is harder and harder to make on anything but faith. Like so:

Critiques of the election held Kazakhstan to an inappropriately high standard, Idrissov complained. “The OSCE … was expecting Jeffersonian democracy to fall on Kazakhstan on the 16th of January. We were not that naïve and we were telling our partners and our critics, please do not expect that situation,” Idrissov said.

“Kazakhstan is an evolving democracy, and many things are a work in progress,” the ambassador continued. “We have made a very significant step in our growth.”

Surely defenders of Kazakhstan will say it is unfair to characterize this as a faith-based argument. Yes, democracy is difficult to build and maintain. Nobody expects Kazakhstan to break out with a sudden case of pristine democracy. What, however, are the indicators that steps really are being made?

Democracy is not easy to quantify, but neither is it judged by a vague equivalent of the Miller Test, as defenders of Kazakhstan’s progress seem to be doing. Last April, Kazakhstan’s presidential election provided a good jumping off point for a discussion of backsliding throughout the region, and the more recent vote provokes some of the same reactions.

Kazakhstan has elections, true. It has a nice, new capital. It is the wealthiest and most tolerant of the Central Asian states. It does a better job of providing opportunities for its citizens than its southern neighbors. It has multiple political parties and a not-entirely-suppressed political opposition. But these tell us almost nothing about its progress toward democracy. That elections or multiple parties or dozens of newspapers exist are all meaningless if the state’s relationship to society is that of a shepherd to his flock.

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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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Kzblog January 21, 2012 at 6:44 am

Citing Jefferson just undermines the argument that democracy happens slowly. The US went from being ruled by a monarchy to a democracy, largely shaped by Jefferson, in less than 20 years. Why shouldn’t we expect the same from Kazakhstan? When exactly should we expect it? And if Kazakhstan is genuinely serious about improving why doesn’t it welcome criticism and advice from outside? but the elections aren’t the problem.

Kazakhstan chose Ak Zhol as the second party a long time ago. They put Nur Otan people in Ak Zhol. They created a fake party. Isn’t it amazing that election monitors were allowed to visit 3 parties on the morning of the election and those three were the winning parties? What a coincidence. How amazing that so many government officials long before the election started predicted that Ak Zhol would win. The sham wasn’t in the election process itself. It was in the choice.

Realist Writer January 21, 2012 at 11:20 pm

According to the Polity IV database (a database that measures the level of democracy in all states with a population of 500,000 or more since 1800’s) the United States was NOT a democracy until 1809. Before 1809, the United States was a semi-democracy, with a total Polity score of 4 (you need a score of 6 or higher to be classified as a democracy). It didn’t even get a score of 10, the highest score you could get in the Polity IV database, until 1845, and then the United States actually “backslided” starting in 1850, reaching a low score of 8 in 1854. It was only in 1871 did the United States once more get a score of 10.

Considering the United States had its Constitution signed in 1787, it took a total of 22 years for the United States to turn into a democracy. If we decide to date the foundation of the United States with the signing of the Articles of Confederation in 1776, then it took a total of 33 years for the United States to be a democracy.

Either way, it took MORE than 20 years for the United States to become a democracy, and even then there was problems with said democracy as well as backsliding on democratic reforms.


Dilshod January 22, 2012 at 2:30 am

You mean black Americans got the right to vote too?

Nathan Hamm January 22, 2012 at 2:41 am

Assuming you’re responding to Realist. If so, bingo. It took the US a LONG time to become a modern democracy. But, the time isn’t important. The metrics are. Lots of countries have done it quickly and successfully and it’s pretty easy to measure. That’s the point here. The metric used seems to be having elections or allowing multiple parties in parliament. Those are the wrong measures, especially if the major opposition party has almost no substantive disagreement with the ruling party.

Dilshod January 22, 2012 at 6:15 pm

You got me right. With electoral democracy not being The most important benchmark , what is/are or should/would be ones?

Nathan Hamm January 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm

There are plenty, but some important ones here are the legal existence and free operation of political parties and movement representing a broad swath of the public’s interests and ideals and having equal access to elections are a couple worth noting here.

What Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been doing are all form and little to no substance. To say “it takes time” is ridiculous. It takes time to do what? If Nazarbayev and his government have a theory that the acceptable boundaries of political debate need to be narrowly defined and only slowly opened, then they should be able to point to benchmarks along the road that will allow for more liberalization. I suspect, especially since Kazakhstan has backslid in important areas like press freedom, that they’re making this up as they go and that the “it takes time” argument is just to deflect criticism.

Kzblog January 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

That was my point as well. I am aware that neither blacks not women were allowed to vote in 1787. And sure we had and to some extent still have issues with local political machines. I was just amused that he said Jeffersonian. Last time I checked Jefferson had a fair amount of influence on our early democracy. He didn’t say a perfect democracy or a fully representative democracy.

And the fact remains that the issues in Kazakgstsn stem from the fake opposition parties, the inability to criticize the powers-that-be, and the fact that most government officials are not elected. In fact only the President is directly and personally elected by the people. The US was doing way better than that in 1787. And let’s not forget that the US was the first modern democracy. Kazakhstan has plenty of world experience to draw on.

Realist Writer January 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm

It STILL took 22-33 years for the United States to be considered a “democracy” by Polity IV, even the very flawed one without votes for women and blacks. You said that it took less than 20 years; I disagreed with that statement.

interested party February 1, 2012 at 2:32 am

Silly to compare with the USA. In the modern age of communications everything can happen in a fraction of the time it did 300 years ago. All that is needed is the will to change.

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