Fareed Zkaria’s highly cited paper The rise of illiberal democracy was written in 1997, but it can’t be more relevant to analyze nowadays politics. in this paper Zakaria argues that a distinction should be made between democracy and constitutional liberalism, where the later does not necessary come with the former. This distinction is of great importance because it points out the flaw of USA, and some European countries, approach to democracy issues in the Middle East. A resume of this long essay is presented here, for the full essay and references, please click here.
The Rise of Illiberal Democracy
By Fareed Zakaria
It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy -- a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms -- what might be termed constitutional liberalism -- is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.
Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. In contrast to the Western and East Asian paths, during the last two decades in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, dictatorships with little background in constitutional liberalism have given way to democracy. Democratization has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance.
The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty.
Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems..
Elections require that politicians compete for peoples' votes. In societies without strong traditions of multiethnic groups or assimilation, it is easiest to organize support along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. Once an ethnic group is in power, it tends to exclude other ethnic groups. Compromise seems impossible
While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step. In an age of images and symbols, elections are easy to capture on film. (How do you televise the rule of law?) But there is life after elections, especially for the people who live there.”
Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is -- instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections -- to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.
Interesting article although I am not sure I fully agree with his clear separation of democracy from constitutional liberalism. For example,take his statement that "Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use". If there is no separation of power, then a democratically elected leader could easily assume absolute power; that is no longer a democracy. I don't see how a democracy can exist if there is no what Zakaria calls constitutional liberalism.
I think we are talking here about two different definition to democracy, you are using the broad definition (the one which includes how the government got elected and their modus operandi) but I think this definition is misleading since it can confuse both aspects of a government, since a democratically elected one can abuse the minorities if the society is divided based on ethnicities or religions but it is still somehow democratic since it is the result of free elections. Zakaria’s distinction is important to understand what went wrong with the “spread democracy by imposing elections” approach. The resulting government is democratic in the sense that it represents the majority, but this doesn’t mean that it is going to act as a democratic one, he concludes. “But there is life after elections, especially for the people who live there”
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