Given the events of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa, there is reason for optimism, as well as skepticism, about how the democratic process may unfold in MENA, and elsewhere. No realist would have honestly imagined that cookie-cutter mini-Americas would sprout up across the landscape, but by the same token, the evolution of extremist Islamist states was also not broadly anticipated since the Arab Spring came to be. Formidable challenges remain. Young democracies are inherently fragile and can quickly revert to chaos or dictatorship. Many of the world's older and more established democracies have stagnated and floundered over the last several years. And authoritarian countries -- such as China -- have delivered impressive gains to their people without resorting to the ballot box.
Convincing research shows that the longer a country is democratic, the more likely it is to stay that way. Once democratic institutions permeate a society, it is much less likely to slide back toward authoritarianism. Unfortunately, fully functional democracies usually take decades to fully materialize, and young democracies tend to be much more fragile in the early years following a democratic transition.
This is particularly true in Iraq, a country that has not yet developed the institutions necessary to buttress itself against severe internal and external threats, nearly a decade after being reborn. Indeed, there is considerable doubt that the Iraqi version of democracy will survive. While Iraq's sectarian divisions may be unique, democracy faces similar challenges in other Arab states. The principle of separation of church and state has never been as strong in the Muslim world as it has been in the West. Many fear that when the Islamists are forced to choose between the will of the people and the interpreted will of God, they will unfortunately choose the latter.
Democracy also seems to be under threat in more established young democracies, such as Hungary. Hungary's center-right party has used its super-majority in the parliament to manipulate the news media, threaten the independence of the judiciary, and pass legislation to cement its hold on power. These rash actions have drawn criticism from the US and EU. There are also concerns that other central and eastern European countries hit hard by the recent economic crises may follow suit. And, of course, Russia's democratic gains are under serious threat.
The world's older democracies are setting a poor example for their younger counterparts. The recent economic crisis has succeeded in deepening the political polarization across the West. Many wealthy democracies cannot even balance their budgets, despite broad agreement that fiscal patterns are unacceptable and unsustainable. The leaders of the US and EU seem unable to come together to safeguard their future. In the US, congressional approval ratings stand at little more than 10%, some of the lowest ratings in US history. To put this in perspective, the corrupt and war-torn Afghan government managed to secure an approval rating of over 30% in 2010.
While young democracies teeter on the brink and the old democracies stagnate, Asian authoritarianism has gained traction among many who are examining successful alternatives. Although riddled with corruption, like most governments in the world, few can deny the efficacy of China's 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' over the past 30 years. More than 600 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty since the 1970s, average Chinese lifespans have increased by six years since that time, and infant mortality has decreased by 70%. While poverty rates in China are in the single digits, America's rose to 16% last year.
Singapore, which has been ruled as a de facto one party state since 1965, is perhaps the best example of how successful Asian authoritarianism can be. Based on the "Lee Thesis" (named after Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore), it portends that developing countries do better by choosing a strongman to lead their country rather than submitting to the capricious whims of a democratic electorate.
Although sophisticated studies have found little systematic evidence to support this view, there is anecdotal evidence, especially in East Asia, that authoritarianism works. In the first half of the 20th century Japan managed to make great strides under a totalitarian government headed by its emperor. Both Taiwan and South Korea experienced their growth miracles before adopting democratic governance. Indeed, both countries made their democratic transitions rather late in the development process. Kazakhstan, Singapore, and many Gulf Arab states have also reaped impressive gains without fully embracing democratic institutions.
While democracy continues its imperfect and uncertain advance, we should remain realistic about its long-term prospects for success. Autocrats around the world will point to evidence -- as noted above -- to counter indigenous movements in favor of democracy, and to legitimize their grip on power. They may call attention to the looming civil war in democratic Iraq or to the Islamists coming to power in North Africa, emphasize how premature democratization can be easily reversed (as is happening in Russia), or point out that democracy can lead to chaos, as it did in Lebanon. They can claim that democracy leads towards polarization, stagnation, and gridlock -- particularly in Western countries with the most established democratic traditions. They can mock Western politics as being dominated by wealthy donors, narrow special interests, and uncompromising ideologues. They will point out how, in stark contrast to richer nations, the autocracies of East Asia have managed to deliver massive increases in wages and living standards to their people, in spite of being far less wealthy and powerful.
Although there are many reasons why it can be argued the world's remaining autocrats should give up power, there are plenty of reasons why they should not -- particularly given the ongoing economic crisis. The outcome of the elections that have occurred thus far in Egypt should be all the evidence anyone needs that extremists can be elected into power just as easily as moderate democrats. A brief look at recent democratic electoral history elsewhere -- such as in Palestine and Venezuela -- further supports this point. Democracy's greatest challenge is to demonstrate that what may ultimately emerge from the process of transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy is a fully functional, truly representative political system that improves living standards, raises incomes, and reduces poverty. That is a reasonable definition of success. Does it necessarily matter how it is achieved?
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (CRS), a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.