Sep 29, 2012 Editorial
Democratisation is one of the most important concepts and trends in modern political science, one whose significance is just beginning to be understood by conflict-resolution practitioners.
On one level, it is a relatively simple idea, since democratisation is simply the establishment of a democratic political regime. However, in practice, democratisation has been anything but easy to understand, let alone achieve as we in Guyana should appreciate.
Democracy, as we know it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. While some of the ancient Greek city-states had democratic aspects, modern democracy only dates from the late 18th century. To be considered democratic, a country must choose its leaders through fair and competitive elections, ensure basic civil liberties, and respect the rule of law. Some observers also claim that a democracy has to have a capitalist economy and a strong civil-society and civic culture, although not all political scientists would include these two criteria.
Democratisation is the process whereby a country adopts such a regime. There is less agreement among political scientists about how that process occurs, including the criteria to use in determining if democratisation has, in fact, taken place. Many countries have adopted democratic regimes only to see them collapse in a military coup or other revolt that yields an authoritarian government instead.
Typically, we do not think that democracy has truly taken root until at least three national elections have been held. Another criterion raised by many experts is the peaceful transfer of power from one political party or coalition to the former opposition. Such a transition is critical because it indicates that the major political forces in a country are prepared to settle their disputes without violence and to accept that they will all spend periods of time out of office. Can we say we have achieved the latter condition in Guyana?
Less clear is how democratisation occurs. It took an extended period of time to develop in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America. In the United States and Great Britain, it took well over a century before all the institutions and practices mentioned above were firmly in place. France, Germany, and Italy saw their democratic regimes collapse and replaced by fascist ones. It is undoubtedly true that democratisation can take place faster today. However, it certainly is not something that can be instituted overnight. Democratisation takes time, because it requires the development of new institutions and widespread trust in them, which almost never happens quickly.
As with the definition of the term, the importance of democratisation is easy to see at first glance, but is much more complicated in practice. Between states, democratisation is important because of one of the most widely (but not universally) accepted trends in international relations, referred to as “the democratic peace”. Put simply, democracies do not have wars with other democracies: they have achieved what Kenneth Boulding called “stable peace”.
Whatever the exact set of factors that contribute to democratic peace within states, democratisation is particularly important in those countries that have gone through an extended period of intractable conflict. The institutions and value systems that make democracy possible are based on the development of the trust, tolerance, and capacity for cooperation that make stable peace and reconciliation possible outcomes of a conflict-resolution process.
Unfortunately, the same reasons that make democratisation important make it difficult to achieve. The ethnic and other tensions that give rise to intractable conflict create so much mistrust and intolerance that cooperation is very difficult to achieve. Indeed, there are very few countries that have been able to move from intractable conflict to democracy quickly or easily. One exception is South Africa, where the black and white political elites summoned up unprecedented political will and commitment to the multi-racial democracy that came into effect in 1994.
What most citizens can do, however, is to engage in the political process of their home country to promote policies that help democratisation. For one, we can put pressure on our political elites to pursue the politics of accommodation as Mandela did in South Africa. Their Executive power-sharing arrangement for one term did much to diffuse suspicions and create trust between the previously warring factions. We can also become involved in civil-society organisations that are working to build democracy itself.
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