Coda: Democracy Now?

from the Fall 2011 Innovation issue

By David A. Andelman

Dawn broke over Bangkok at 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning, October 6, 1976—my 32nd birthday. It was already 77 degrees, en route to 91, balmy, though the air was already dripping with 81 percent humidity. The “cool” season, with its moderate temperatures that sent children scurrying for wool sweaters, was some weeks away.

Still, it would be one of the rare rainless days in the Thai capital at the tail end of the rainy season—in itself, perhaps, an omen in a nation that pays attention to portents.

The capital was on edge. On Monday, some 2,000 left-wing students had barricaded themselves inside Bangkok’s politically volatile Thammasat University where demonstrations, often violent, by both the left and right had become a routine component of the core curriculum. The leftists, who dominated the campus, demanded the nation’s former military dictator, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who’d returned to Thailand nearly three weeks earlier and took refuge in a Buddhist pagoda, be deported and called for the punishment of the policemen who garroted to death two leftists for distributing anti-Thanom posters.

There were reports the students had armed themselves with automatic rifles and pistols, which were ubiquitous barely 18 months after the end of the wars in neighboring Indochina. The rumor was that the left-wing students were preparing to defend their campus against assaults by the police and right-wing students who had surrounded the grounds.

By mid-morning, the worst fears had been realized. Police and students were locked in pitched battles that killed 30 and wounded hundreds. One of the victims was my close friend, NBC producer/cameraman Neil Davis, who’d survived years of war in Vietnam and Cambodia only to get caught in a vicious crossfire in what was supposed to be one of Southeast Asia’s bastions of peace, tranquility, and democracy.

The conflict also produced one of the iconic pictures of the 1970s—a crowd looking on at the burned body of a left-wing student, hanging by his neck from a tree, a right-wing youth beating him with a metal folding chair. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Neal Ulevich of the Associated Press.

At 6 p.m., with the blessing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Thai military made its move. Defense Minister Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu announced over the state-controlled radio and television that the armed forces had seized control of the country—Thailand’s eighth change of government in four years. The nation of 45 million people, he said, would be ruled by an Administrative Reform Committee—a junta, headed by himself.

Meanwhile, the new Constitution, ratified just two years earlier, was abolished (not suspended), all newspapers and periodicals were banned, and a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew was in force. The defense minister, a noted anti-communist, attributed the military’s decision to the failure of the six-month-old democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Seni Pramoj to cope with the protests of the students who, Admiral Sa-ngad charged, were backed by communist elements.

“We’ve set our sights too high as far as democracy was concerned,” the leader of the junta told the Thai people in his broadcast. “The people in charge were not highly qualified. We have taken this action to have a change at every level and then, after everything has been set to order, to hand it over again to the civilian government.”

It would take nearly three years for the military to set the nation to order and hold a new general election. During that time, the junta embarked on a widespread roundup of writers, journalists, educators, and political activists, indeed anyone who’d demonstrated any leftwing sympathies—imprisoning hundreds without charges, driving thousands more into neighboring Laos and Cambodia or even farther abroad.

Today, 35 years and six coups later, Thailand has a new, democratically elected government. Again, there is a leader-in-exile—the brother, as it happens, of the newly elected prime minister.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the first woman ever elected to that office. And there is talk of yet another coup. The military is not happy that the 44-year-old businesswoman might simply be a puppet for her brother, Thaksin, the former prime minister. The billionaire businessman was supported, ironically, by large swaths of Thailand’s rural and urban poor, who have never before had a real voice in the nation’s affairs.

Thaksin was ousted by a coup in 2006 and forced to flee Thailand, winding up in Dubai, after the military accused him of flagrant corruption—itself hardly a rare occurrence throughout Thailand’s history. The military’s actions against him provoked widespread, violent demonstrations by throngs of his red-shirted supporters, under the banner of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. The demonstrators converged on Bangkok, occupying vast stretches of the central business and tourist district for weeks, battling police and military units.

In the aftermath of the parliamentary elections that allowed Yingluck to form a majority coalition government, there was some question whether the nation’s election commission would certify her overwhelming victory. Yet Thailand is one of the few putative real democracies in Southeast Asia, and the commission endorsed her. Still, this hardly makes Thailand a model for stability and peace.

Indeed, I would argue, in much of the world, democracy as we practice it in the West, and certainly our efforts to impose it, are seldom a force for stability. The drive toward this goal that many Western societies consider the highest, most liberating form of human political organization, can lead to unrest, chaos, violence, and much worse. Certainly, there have been many cases of autocracy and dictatorship, even genocide emerging from efforts to change political systems.

Real democracies have been snatched from power by just such actions, including many of the post-World War I governments of Eastern and Central Europe, which were removed at the hands of Soviet forces in the aftermath of World War II. So what should it mean for a nation to aspire to democracy?


Without question, the ability of a people to rule themselves, to choose the form of government that suits them and the individual or individuals who govern them, is indeed the highest form of human organization. I have long believed that left to their own devices most nations and their citizens will ultimately find their way to a government in a mold that somehow works for them—democracy, perhaps, not necessarily in the American sense of a two-party, tri-cameral system—but one that takes into account their history, culture, geography, climate, and social structures. Where the West runs into trouble is to assume that our own forms of democracy should be the aspiration of people in every corner of the globe and needs to be imposed on them whether by coercion, bribery, or force.

For even in the West, we have many types of democracy—each more or less appropriate for the nation where it is found. In the course of a lifetime traveling through and reporting on at least 70 nations, I have observed a considerable number of democracies—many quite permanent, some evanescent.

I often wonder how well the United States would do with a parliamentary democracy in the classic European sense. This is the nature of the system in Israel—a country that has delighted in describing itself as the only real democracy between Greece and India. But in the Israeli parliament there are by current count 18 political parties—a few with only three resolutely determined members (and if you ever want to see political determination, visit Jerusalem while parliament is in session).

However, the nation has another 21 parties that have contested local or national elections but have failed to reach the threshold of two percent of the vote that allows them to claim a seat in the Knesset—and that figure had to be doubled from the one percent that was a requirement for decades to avoid total chaos. France has so many political parties that it often needs two rounds of presidential elections since no single candidate manages to eke out more than half the votes in a first round.

The Russian parliamentary system works well for its people. Four parties are represented in the Duma (yes, even a Communist Party), and three others are registered but have not managed to win any seats. Yet with 315 out of 450 seats, only the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin has any real clout, since the entire body looks to the Kremlin for guidance on even the most trivial of matters.

In Iraq, a nation where we have established or underwritten every political and military institution currently in existence, the parliamentary democracy is deeply beholden to issues far beyond traditional political give-and-take.

The 325-member unicameral Council of Representatives, or Majlis an-Nuwwab, meets inside the Green Zone, the patrolled international ghetto where entry is strictly controlled to prevent terrorist attacks—from the outside. But there is a host of challenges from within the parliament itself to whatever structure of democracy may exist there—and remember, this is a democracy in our image that we imposed and continue to guarantee.

A year ago, a leader of the Majlis came to visit us at World Policy Journal. He happened to be a Sunni, and he told us a story that, he admitted quite sadly, illustrates the true nature of this parliamentary democracy. A committee of the parliament charged with drafting a new constitution met frequently, but at every juncture found itself stymied by efforts of some Shiite members to wrest concessions from their fellow Sunni parliamentarians. Each time a compromise was proposed, the Shiite leader would request a recess of 48 hours for “consultations.” Finally, completely frustrated, our visitor called in the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. “Why don’t we cut out the middleman?” the Sunni parliamentarian asked the Iranian diplomat. “Just tell me directly what you want.”

Each of these systems is, at least in the classic definition, a democracy—a term derived from the ancient Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power).

People power, or as Plato, not democracy’s biggest fan, described the system five centuries before Christ, “rule by the governed.” But each such system should also be eminently suited to the nation and the people from which it emerged.

It’s difficult for most Americans to imagine Congress with a dozen political parties—we have a hard enough time arriving at any consensus with just two—yet such a system works in Israel, where, as the old jokes goes, in any single gathering of three Israelis, there are at least four opinions.

Equally in Russia, which a succession of American administrations in the post-communist era has been striving to persuade or coerce onto a more democratic path, with clearly little impact, our system of tri-cameral “checks-and-balances” democracy is hardly what the people might choose. Back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first czar, who assumed the throne in 1530—or even earlier to Vadim the Bold, the first ruler of the Principality of Novgorod in 859 AD—Russians have known only rule by strong leaders. Certainly the 75-year interregnum of a communist oligarchy was but an interlude, so should we have expected a return to any form of government that lacks a powerful, even czar-like head of state? Today’s Russian democracy works very well, thank you, for most of the Russian people.

So if my thesis—“a people, if left to their own devices, will ultimately arrive at a government that suits them”—holds, then we should allow the Kremlin to rule its people in a fashion that works for them. And if democracy may also be defined, beyond demos and kratos, as providing political, social, and economic stability, then many of today’s democracies or would-be democracies may work very nicely for their people.

Without question, many may read this as in some fashion condoning abuses of the most basic of human rights that are, or should be, an inalienable right of all people. But it is all too easy to forget that Western democracies evolved over centuries, and during much of this time, many failed miserably in their efforts to achieve the kind of respect for human dignity we would impose with a single stroke on nations. After all, it took the United States 84 years (longer than the entire existence of Soviet Communism) and a civil war that per capita was bloodier than virtually any other conflict in history, before we were able to rid our nation of the scourge of slavery.

Indeed, there are many Americans who would suggest we still haven’t completed that process. Striving to serve as an example is commendable, but we in the West still live in a succession of glass houses.


Beyond political stability, can a real parliamentary democracy solve fundamental problems more effectively than the system it replaces? This is the fundamental dilemma in places like Egypt and Tunisia—and, perhaps by the time this column is being read, in Libya as well. These problems are not political in any of the classical senses of the word, but rather economic, social, and even religious.

Three years ago, when the Arab Spring was only the vaguest whisper of a dream in the minds of some young turks in Egypt or the Maghreb, I spent a month traveling around Saudi Arabia. This nation—then and now among the most stable in the Middle East, and doubtless one of the least democratic, however we might construe that term—has some profoundly disturbing and potentially unsettling problems. I spent most of my time in Jiddah, the port city that by virtue of its strong ties with the outside world is also unquestionably the most liberal region of the kingdom.

Even then, with oil prices beginning their rise past $120 a barrel, there was a major socio-economic problem. There simply weren’t enough jobs for the vast numbers of young Saudis of both sexes graduating from local universities or returning from long years of study abroad. Instead, an entire sub-culture of mall rats had developed—packs of jobless youths who spent their days roaming aimlessly through the corridors of the sprawling malls that dot the urban landscape.

These young people, talking and texting on their cell phones, pose the principal problem for the long-term stability of the regime headed by octogenarian princes, with their septuagenarian successors waiting in the wings. One young prince, an accomplished business executive, a product of Yale College and Harvard Business School, doubted he’d ever be in line for the throne. “First they have to work through the entire first generation after ibn Saud (the founder of the House of Saud), then they have to work through the next generation, which they haven’t even started on, before they get to my generation,” he smiled wryly.

Yet jobs, especially their absence, and only superficially dynastic rule, were the proximate causes of the Arab Spring.

From Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian pushcart vendor who immolated himself in front of the provincial offices of Sidi Bouzid to the students and other youthful protestors who lit up Tahrir Square and brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, an economic and social malaise sweeping across the Maghreb and through the Middle East has led to renewed calls for “democracy” in a host of countries where such a political system was unheard of throughout much of their history.

The problem is that the confluence of demos and kratos may neither solve these problems nor attack their underlying causes. This is the rub.


For deep beneath the surface, there lurks a host of other even more profound issues that jobs alone may not satisfy. The sources of the pressure to move toward democratic institutions are all deeply embedded in and central to the passions that inflamed many of the revolutionaries and their leaders, many of whom were themselves hardly chosen by democratic means. These motivations include religion and a generalized hostility to or suspicion of foreign—especially non-Islamic—interests in the West.

At the same time, many of these forces may prevent the economic development that could lead to jobs and at least a veneer of stability that might allow true democracy to emerge. Foreign investors are unlikely to arrive bearing jobs in the face of potential hostility to all they represent—capitalism, free trade, religious freedom, free expression.

And then there is the whole social ethos of work. In the Summer issue of World Policy Journal, Greek political scientist Ioannis N. Grigoriadis observes that “Greeks will have to give up living beyond their means and expecting every unfulfilled need to be met by the state.”  One Greek-American, embarking on a return visit to her homeland, puts it more directly. “They have to give up the idea that they can spend all their days singing and dancing in the sunshine.”

Finally, there is an even more profound question—whether economic and social stability trumps religious and ethnic feelings. The jury is still out on that one. One of the earliest post-Mubarak moves in Egypt was against the Coptic Christian minority. Egyptian Salafists, intensely anti-democratic theocrats, suddenly found themselves free to unleash their darkest passions.

Most Egyptians are not known for their zealous religious feelings—certainly by no means approaching the passions unleashed in Iraq when, post-Saddam Hussein, the pent-up hatred of that nation’s Shiite majority erupted  against their minority Sunni overlords. Such hatred was born of intense religious rivalry dating back to the earliest days of Islam, followed by simmering resentment of repression for centuries of Ottoman, then Baathist rule. Here, democracy appears to be taking a back seat to religious prejudices.

In China, the passions of many of the ethnic minorities conquered through the centuries by the current ruling Han Chinese, are increasingly boiling to the surface—particularly in such fringe regions as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, where military forces have been called in to suppress violent protests.

Clearly China, where some 70 million communist party members rule a nation of 1.4 billion people, is far from any democratic form of organization, notwithstanding a widespread belief, or hope, that the spread of prosperity and capitalism will lead to democratic institutions.

Right now, there are two Chinas we should be considering. The bulk of the nation’s wealth and its political clout are still centered around a relatively narrow crescent that hugs the coastline and stretches a few hundred miles inland from Beijing in the north through Shanghai and winding up in Hong Kong. It comprises barely a third of China’s population, scattered across 3.8 million square miles. Much of the other two-thirds of the nation hovers just above the subsistence level.

But the nation’s ruling Communist Party is in the process of bringing the vast interior into the modern world. China’s booming inland cities are a testament to this transition. A host of powerful forces—few of them based on democracy, but many grounded firmly in basic human or capitalist notions of acquisitiveness—are being released in some form or other. Any democracy that might emerge will likely look very different from any model based on an American ethos. But its foundations—and its motivations—will most likely skew toward the economic rather than the purely political. Again, the West must learn to adapt and adjust its own expectations.


Charles Robertson, chief economist of Renaissance Capital, cites Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 work The End of History and the Last Man, which in turn relied on the thinking of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel “to suggest that only the democratic political system gives us the sense of esteem that we seek once we have met the more basic needs. So while autocracy is the constant starting point for all political systems, as we achieve higher incomes we make the transition to democracy.” Robertson’s team puts the maximum risk to autocratic regimes when per capita income in a nation tops $6,000. Tunisia topped that level in 2008.

Still, it’s hard to believe that democracy alone would solve any political problems stemming from economic or social dislocations. Yet this is precisely what we are being asked to believe for Egypt.

The absence of a concrete answer as to how democracy will fix unemployment and questions whether democracy may ever arrive (at least in a form they can accept) sent young people back into Tahrir Square for a second round of protests this summer. What seems to be happening is that traditional power structures—those adept at pulling the strings—are trumping most new revolutionary or democratic forces whose only real power stems from taking to the streets en masse. How long can such actions, or threats of such action, be recycled before many of those being summoned to the barricades appreciate that any real power they have is fleeting—more imagined than real?

So when Egypt’s new rulers embarked on the process of drafting a new, democratic constitution, it should have come as no real surprise that the military would play a significant, even dominant, role—as it has in modern Egyptian life back to the moment when a young colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, first seized power with a cadre of fellow mid-level army officers in a July 1952 coup. Ironically, the CIA supported the coup through an operation, run by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., code-named “Project FF [Fat Fucker]” in reference to the corpulent King Farouk who was unseated by the revolution. Thanks to inadequate follow-up and some disturbing early turns by the coup organizers, the United States never got “credit.”

Though many of the initial military trappings of a junta were eventually removed by Nasser and then by his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the underpinnings of a government with military backing never evaporated. As far back as 1948, Nasser rejected any alliance with a Muslim Brotherhood that still sits patiently—perhaps vainly—in the wings, hoping for a return of true democracy as a path to power.

Any civilian constitution would have to render the military immune from civilian forces that might seek to rein it in—immunity from budget or parliamentary oversight and the protection of its vast economic interests that render it effectively a shadow economy. Such a bureaucracy cares far more about the protection of its own prerogatives and profitability than social objectives like job creation or freedom for outside, especially religious, forces that might aspire to determine the nation’s political future.

In this respect, while Tunisia was the revolutionary model for the Arab Spring, Egypt may prove to be the political, or politico-military model for the Arab Fall. Governments that do emerge from this time of chaos in the Middle East, or emerge from chaos or confusion in other parts of the world, may look very little like the democracy that most Western nations would understand or even recognize. Does that mean they won’t work for their people? Not at all.

All the international community can, or should, do is to watch all such developments with an eye toward basic norms. Are these new forms of government, and their leaders, abusing their people—or, perhaps more immediately important, are those seeking to prevent change or retain power abusing their authority and those they govern for their own narrow interests?

Are new democracies playing by international rules laid down for the broader good—especially when it comes to economic stability and the accumulation of a level of debt or restraining standards of trade and commerce capable of destabilizing the international system, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction or hostile intentions toward neighboring states, exploitation of natural resources, and preservation of the environment of our entire globe (imagine the potential catastrophe of 500 million more gasoline-burning vehicles traveling the new freeways of China’s resurgent interior)?

How might we most effectively encourage the development of democratic forces? Certainly not by overt pressure to redraft their political or economic structures—all attempting to remake other societies in our own image. When such tactics were tried with Russia in the early post-communist era, it only reinforced the least democratic forces who were able to cast our system as truly anathema to all that the Russian people desired.

Instead, we must encourage trade. It’s a travesty that Russia, the world’s 11th largest economy and the world’s largest oil producer, has still not managed to gain membership in the World Trade Organization. We must also encourage direct investment, which should lead to job creation and eventually, indeed all but inevitably, political stability. And above all, we must reward good behavior in the community of nations—encouraging would-be democracies to join in the structures that promote good and discourage tyranny or repression, bigotry, or gluttony.

Should any of these wannabe democracies arrive at levels of sustainable wealth—the ability, perceived by their citizens, to offer lives that are better than under the old systems—then the likelihood rises of their ability to sustain norms that begin to approach standards we in the West might recognize as democracy.

We have had little success—back to the days of Kermit Roosevelt Jr. and his ill-conceived Operation FF in Egypt and in a host of similar escapades before and since—engineering change abroad. Serving as a model that all may work toward is entirely laudable. But, again we must return to the ultimate standard of whether or not systems foreign to our own truly work for their people and enable nations to become, or remain, good global citizens—hardly a hopeless goal at all.


David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.

[Illustration: Damien Glez]

(Downloadable PDFs of individual World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGE.)

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