When Freedom Fails: Why Democracy Pivots Aren’t Always Successful

As countries which were formerly run by dictatorships or authoritarian regimes either gradually or suddenly pivot toward democracy, there is a wealth of unrealized promise for citizens and their newly elected governments.

But democracy, which is often taken for granted in countries like the United States, can be difficult to sustain in other parts of the world. In fact, many nations have experienced failure in democratic reform time and time again.

Here are some examples of how, under certain circumstances, new democracies have floundered in their transition toward freer governance.

The case of Tunisia and the Arab Spring

In 2010, countries in the Middle East and Africa from Syria to Egypt saw wide-scale revolutions, during which citizens demanded freedom and democracy from oppressive regimes.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”2FtEvDdhJV8z2p3etekJyTSCj4i3UtLl”]The success of such revolts varied, and the results were bumpy to say the least. Nations that had never experienced true democracy before have floundered, and in many cases failed to establish stable governments.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, which became the one country that emerged from the revolution with the democratic state they sought.

According to an extensive New York Times report, this freedom lead indirectly to the gravitation of 3000+ fighters toward the militant group ISIS in Iraq and Syria, in spite of the nation’s significant strides in other areas.

The case of Thailand and Southeast Asia

In its history, Thailand has seen 18 different successful or failed coups, evidence that in spite of numerous attempts, democratization has lead to chaos time and time again.

Part of this failure has been due to endemic corruption, including rigged elections and bribery. Another is due to the country’s location: within Thailand’s vicinity are fairly authoritatively-ruled countries China, Vietnam, Myanmar, which are in theory strengthened by Thailand’s democratic struggle.

Next door, with Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” underway, it’s uncertain how protests for democratic elections will affect China, whether they continue, fail, or succeed.

The case of Ukraine and the Color Revolutions

As was the case with the Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions were brought about due to pushback against unfair regimes in Georgia, the Ukraine, and other former Soviet states in the early 2000s.

In the case of Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, democracy promotion actually lead to a suppression of voter outcome by 5 percent and stagnant reform. Though on a whole, transparency in governance has increased in Georgia, there have been reversions to old patterns within the system and few social changes a decade later.

After Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, the country’s newly elected leadership failed to deliver on promises and instead fell into the same corrupted path of prior regimes. By 2013, the unrest boiled up again in the EuroMaiden revolution, and citizens demanded once more the democratic principles they fought for a decade prior.

What it all means

In the end, “freedom” and “democracy” do not always align perfectly, and the simply declaration of democracy can crumble depending on local context. Old habits of corruption and elitism, after all, die hard — and there’s no easy way to make the switch.

Though a perfect democracy is likely a myth, it’s a goal worth striving for: even flawed democracy generally facilitates long-term economic growth, and is much healthier, still, than dictatorship.

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Jennifer Markert