What is democracy good for?

(A coda to my earlier post on Democracy, Authoritarianism and Development. Naïveté warning for political scientists: you may wish to skip this post.)

At the most immediate level it occurred to me that democracy confers the following advantages (I won’t go into the disadvantages here):

  1. A free contest of political ideas and approaches to government.
  2. A safety valve to eject unpopular or corrupt governments from power.
  3. A mechanism for delivering a smooth succession of power.

However, in many developing countries none of these work very well. Since the end of the cold war (during which time developing country political leaders had to adopt the language of their respective superpower sponsors’) it has become difficult to spot much in the way of policy differences between rival political parties (although the same could also be said for the UK), with all espousing economic development along the standard donor-supported model. Most politicians principle policy differences seems to be that they (and/or their tribe/religion etc.) should be in power, and not the other guys. Even in Zimbabwe, where ostensibly there are big political differences over land, many commentators have suggested this is just a cover for Mugabe to stay in power.

A safety valve against poor governance and corruption is very useful, but, similarly to the non-policy differences, too often it seems that when it comes to governance in developing countries the more things change, the more they stay the same. Typically a newly elected government  (e.g. Malawi and Zambia in recent years) spends several years pursuing corruption cases against those voted out of office, before dramatically losing their enthusiasm for the fight when the next set of targets are their own officials.

The lack of a clear separation between party and state in many cases also hampers the operation of the safety valve, which, moreover, relies, to a certain extent, on the third advantage; a smooth succession. However, election results in developing countries are so often contested that it has got difficult for those at a distance to ascertain who is crying wolf and who has a genuine grievance. (The recent election in Somaliland appears to be a welcome exception.)

I am not sure that any of the above necessarily constitute a solid argument against democracy given the clear perils of authoritarianism. I have probably also missed some important advantages of democracy; please post any suggestions in the comments.


One response to this post.

  1. Hm. I think Tanzania only qualifies for Advantage Number Three. And even that is restricted to the GoP. Still, something to be said about the realities that nepotism, ethnicity and religion are not in and of themselves the deciding factors in our general elections.


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