On the Political and Economic Challenges of Sustaining Democratic Transitions

The experiences of other regions teach us that in the wake of democratic breakthroughs the consolidation of a democracy is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Numerous reversals have taken place, though at a decreasing rate over the decades since 1960 and with notable variations from one region to another

(Kapstein and Converse, 2008).[1] Equally, the transition towards democratic governance may not be accomplished quickly but may go through phases of various forms of partial democracy as a prelude, over time, to more advanced forms of democracy.13

The experience of countries that have successfully consolidated their democratic transitions indicates major politico-institutional and socio-economic challenges that need to be met for this objective to be achieved.

At the politico-institutional level, a major challenge is the willingness and ability of the political victors in countries that mange to break the hold of autocratic rule to establish, or move in the direction of establishing, genuinely representative, accountable and transparent political institutions. Ideally these would guarantee basic human rights, primarily freedom of expression and free choice, and provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in the political process, institutionalising their right to make choices and challenge public policies, and to hold governments accountable. And therefore the issue of what type of institutions are in place and who is framing and enforcing policy decisions become paramount.!4

The political path to enforcing democratic reform (e.g. constitutional revisions, organisation of elections, etc.) will differ from one country to another (see undp, 2011). What matters is that genuine democratic institutions become established and operable and secure, whereby the toppled elite is not merely replaced by a new elite with a similar pattern of behaviour. Under these circumstances we need not fear an initial electoral success of particular politico-religious groups. Their initial success can later be democratically contained, if not reversed, especially if they fail at governing.

Developments in Tunisia demonstrate this question in a very encouraging way. The successful election of the National Constituent Assembly in October 2011 was an important step in the country’s transition process. The Islamist Ennahda party emerged as the most important single political party, capturing around 40 per cent of parliamentary seats. But it agreed to join a coalition government whose main task was to guide the process of moving towards a new constitution. Despite ensuing political crises, social unrest and an economic slowdown, a successful national dialogue among the competing political parties, including Ennahda, eventually led to the adoption of a modern constitution and the transfer of power to an independent technocratic government. The peaceful legislative and presidential elections that took place in October- December 2014 demonstrated that Tunisia had been undergoing a successful democratic transition, though major political and economic challenges lie ahead (see Boughzala and Ben Romdhane, 2017).

In contrast, in the case of Egypt the move to establish accountable political institutions and a space for democratic political competition in the wake of the uprising has so far been, at best, only partially successful. As a recent paper argues (El Mikawy et al., 2017), while the constitution passed in 2014 respects social and economic rights, it continues to sanction an authoritarian bargain whereby security precedes freedoms. The fact that certain institutions such as the military continue to enjoy an autonomy that shields them from real political accountability renders uncertain the future of liberal democracy in the country.

At the socio-economic level what would be required is the design and implementation of a broad based and what has come to be referred to as inclusive strategy, one that should create expectations that growth, expanding employment opportunities, and equity will play a major role in the transition to a new economy (see Makdisi, 2015). This strategy would imply modernising the public sector and, importantly, eliminating its ‘elite capture’ with a view to ensuring that emerging political and business interests in the transition phase

Arab Economies’ (November 4-5, 2015), http://erf.org.eg/events/monetary-and-fiscal- institutions-in-resource-rich-arab-economies/ (accessed on 7 April 2016).

are not capable of obstructing the implementation of policies supportive of inclusive growth.[2] At the same time, developmental experiences teach us that the extent to which developmental policies work depends on particular local, historical or institutional contexts.

Reconciling the objectives an all-inclusive strategy, basically implementing policies that at once promote growth and macro-economic stability while attending to the basic socio-economic needs of citizens, is of course not an easy task, especially when one considers the various social pressures and expectations that emerge during the transition process. Indeed, the record of democratic transitions elsewhere shows that such changes resulted, not infrequently, in economic recessions that either derailed or potentially could have derailed the process of substantive political reform. But, as noted above, if they are to succeed, it is a task that transition countries cannot avoid undertaking, with the determination that emerging political institutions assume the required supporting role. Of note are studies showing that transition countries that succeeded in implementing socio-economic reform have forged ahead economically more than those that failed to do so (Amin et al., 2012).

Chile offers a good example of a transition country that has been able to address the needs of the less privileged while implementing policies that have achieved growth and stability. Governmental policies supported low-income households, promoted education and allowed for investments in local health services and housing. Importantly, the government’s social development programmes were accompanied by tax reform including putting in place a progressive income tax system. Increased social spending was, thus, matched by new sources of tax revenue (undp, 2011). A major lesson of the Chilean experience is that mobilising the resources necessary for financing the increased spending required if long neglected social needs are to be satisfied is of crucial importance for the maintenance of economic stability while addressing these needs. In this context it would be incumbent on the responsible authorities to avoid wasteful social spending that does not serve its intended purpose. Egypt’s subsidy programmes are a case in point. Despite a high level of subsidy spending on safety net programmes, these programmes did not benefit the less privileged nor significantly address income and human poverty issues, though attempts have recently been made to improve their efficacy (El Mikawy et al., 2017).

Indeed, as recent research has shown with regards to Tunisia (e.g. Boughzala and Ben Romdhane, 2017), it would seem that the consolidation of the country’s nascent democracy could very well depend on the success of the responsible authorities in coping with the country’s existing socio-economic problems. Specifically, this implies the authorities’ ability to formulate and implement a coherent economic strategy that responds to key economic and social demands, mainly those of the young people that led the revolt. In particular, policy priorities should include creating new employment opportunities and implementing inclusive development strategies that, among other objectives, aim at narrowing regional disparities while (as the Chilean experience demonstrates) generating the financial resources required to maintain economic stability. If such policies do not succeed, Tunisia could risk a period of retrogression, though given the country’s human potential and its recent history, the probability of such a risk being realised seems low.

  • [1] 12 According to the authors of the work cited, of the 123 democratisations that took placeduring the period 1960-2004, 67 gave rise to democratic regimes that survived 2004, whilethe remaining 56 episodes had ended in a return to authoritarianism by the end of thatyear. Among those democratisations that were reversed, several later underwent second,third, or even fourth episodes of democratisation. Although fewer than half (47%) of thefirst-time democratisations were sustained, the survival rate of second-time democratisations approaches two-thirds (63%). Four of the six cases of fourth-time democratisationsurvived through to the end of 2004. These trends are closely aligned with the improvingsuccess rate of all democratisations over time. They point out that political institutionsplay the crucial role in democratic consolidation, especially institutions that place effective constraints on executive power. 13 The classifications adopted in both Polity iv and the eiu Democracy Index refer to political regimes that lie in-between autocracies and democracies. In a recent study by Mu-kand and Rodrik (2015) on the political economy of the liberal democracy, the authorspoint out it is characterised by three kinds of rights: property (elite interest), political(majority interest) and civil (minority interest). They explain why in the West liberal democracies came to be established while in the developing world most democracies thathave emerged are electoral democracies that provide property and political but not civilrights. 14 Recent research, focusing on oil-rich countries, has drawn attention to the critical role ofmonetary and fiscal institutions in promoting the development desired, and specificallyin countering the negative economic effects of abundant oil revenues. For analyses ofthis issue see the papers presented at a workshop organised by the Economic ResearchForum in Kuwait, under the title ‘Monetary and Fiscal Institutions in Resource-Rich
  • [2] As pointed out by some researchers, developmental opportunities are constrained notonly by available resources and access to finance and trade but also by the establishedinterests of the ruling elite rooted in existing political institutions (Currie-Alder et al.,2014).
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