Backsliding into tyranny

May 26, 1994|By Alison Brysk

PHOTOS OF newly enfranchised voters thronging polling places have become commonplace, from Russia to South Africa to El Salvador. But just as Americans begin to replace our image of the guerrilla with the citizen, nagging rips appear at the edges of the new picture. Why has democracy been reversed so quickly in Peru, Haiti and Serbia? Will political openings in Mexico and Indochina be endangered by social unrest?

Elections, we must remember, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. If elections do not include major sectors of society (like peasants or former communists) or address key issues (like land reform or economic adjustment), new citizens will quickly become alienated and anti-system.

Democracy must also include human rights, civilian control of the military and some measure of accountability for the new government once it has been elected. Citizenship implies empowerment, and elections are only the first step in that process.

Regardless of the previous level or path of economic development, recovering authoritarians experience poverty because unaccountable states have been inefficient and predatory economic managers. This is more than the conventional wisdom about distorting markets; market-oriented authoritarians have also dismantled infrastructure and looted the national patrimony.

New democracies often face a crisis of policing because social order has never been rooted in a social contract that rewards restraint with security and opportunity. When massive coercion is removed -- or shifted from the military or secret police to the police proper -- no "thin blue line" can stem the tide of self-seeking, anti-social behavior by citizens bereft of social guarantees or guidance.

Finally, democratizing societies quickly polarize along lines of ethnicity, class and ideology. Civil societies never developed where social institutions such as churches were controlled by the state or closed off entirely. In many cases, a society temporarily integrated by the authoritarian regime -- or by opposition to it -- suddenly collapses with the transition to democracy.

What is to be done? As sympathetic outsiders, we cannot repair the damage of authoritarianism but we can support, with our policies, the general principles of recovery.

First, the recovering polity itself must accept responsibility and come to terms with the past. This may involve measures such as human-rights investigations (as in Chile) or reconstruction of social and economic infrastructure (as in East Germany).

We also need to make it clear that new democracies cannot afford the "first drink" of a postponed election or suspended constitution.

Finally, the world community can form support groups for democratization and its challenges. The Organization of American States seems to be moving toward this role for Latin America. Different cases will require different levels of U.S. involvement. Where possible, however, we must provide reparations and multilateral support. At the same time, we must shed the dysfunctional bonds that all too often propped up the previous authoritarian regime.

Alison Brysk is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College in California.

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