How Can We Know for Sure When a Country Has Succeeded in Becoming a Democracy?

News Abroad

Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and a contributor to HNN's group weblog Cliopatria.

There's been a lot of talk lately about creating democratic societies and systems, most prominently in Afghanistan and Iraq . But aside from the basic definitions -- popular sovereignty, voting processes, fair representation, individual rights -- how can we tell if the democracies being built are healthy, successful ones, or failures? A quick look at one of the oldest democracies, and two of the newest, is revealing: democracy is not institutions, but process.

One of the greatest days in U.S. history was the day after Abraham Lincoln died. Mere months from the end of the most vicious and divisive war in U.S. history, the architect and symbol of Union victory was shot and killed by a Confederate partisan. Did the South rise again, taking advantage of confusion and unseasoned leadership to renew its bid for independence? Did a succession dispute break out? Did Union partisans take vengeance on Southern leaders or communities? No. Andrew Johnson took the oath of office and the nation moved on. Johnson would go on to be one of the very worst presidents in U.S. history, but he was nonetheless accepted by all as the legitimate head of state. That seamless transition symbolizes for me the resilience and the depth of democracy in the U.S. It was the passage of the third test of democracy.

As an Asianist and historian, there's nothing quite so thrilling as watching a new Asian democracy emerge, and the 1990s have seen two particularly striking turns in that direction: South Korea, aka the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan, aka the "breakaway province." Both saw a slow birth: autocratic founding rulers whose successors slowly legitimized election processes, then opposition parties, then turned over power without a fuss when an election went to the opposition. That's the first stage: a clean transfer of power. A country that has taken that step is nearly full-fledged. The election of Nobel laureate democratic activist Kim Daejung in Korea and pro-independence leader Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan were great moments, landmarks of human history.

The second stage, the part that most people forget to watch, is the next election: a country that has gotten through two transfers of power really knows what it's doing. An opposition that does not take the opportunity of power to entrench itself is essential to a healthy democracy. At that point, there's no point in having any reservation about the democratic process: it is a democracy. South Korea is well past that point, having had several changes of government; Taiwan has just narrowly reelected Chen, so the question of successful transfer remains unanswered.

The third test is political crisis: can the system resolve questions of political legitimacy and return to normal function? Failure usually manifests in political violence, though sometimes a stage of apathetic disaffection precedes it as the loss of legitimacy sinks in. Both South Korea and Taiwan are in political turmoil. South Korea just impeached its president, and power has passed temporarily to the head of Parliament while the charges against Roh Moo-hyun work through an appeals process. Taiwan's election was extremely close, with Chen's DPP pulling ahead under the shadow of what appeared to be an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Chen and his VP Annette Lu. The Taiwanese Supreme Court has ordered the ballots sealed, rejecting former-ruling-party Nationalist (KMT) calls for a recount; calls for investigation into the shooting incident are ongoing.

I'm much more confident about Korea's successful passage through crisis than Taiwan's. Korea's democracy is more mature: the impeachment, though disruptive, seems to be proceeding along clear procedural lines, though they are having to make up a few things, like how to treat presidential testimony at the Constitutional Court, as they go along. Taiwan's democracy is less well developed, which is exacerbated by the scrutiny it gets from mainland China, aka the People's Republic of China. Healthy democracy in Taiwan would be a serious challenge to PRC autocracy, even in its economically liberal phase. Hong Kong is already struggling under "one nation, two systems" autonomy, and the transfer of power from colonial overlord Great Britain to China seems to have mobilized a populace previously considered apolitical. A fully democratic Taiwan would be even harder to reintegrate, particularly if it moved toward an open declaration of independence. Whether or not they are true, rumors about China 's heightened alert status and intent to strike in chaos in the wake of Taiwan's troubled election are entirely indicative of the pressure under which Taiwan's voters and leaders operate.

Then there is the question of the Taiwanese election itself. Aside from the assassination attempt, which even a conspiracy skeptic like myself finds hard to fathom, the rapidity of the Taiwan Supreme Court's decision to seal the ballots in the wake of a 0.24 percent margin of victory (and 2.3 percent invalid ballot rate) is a procedural mystery. KMT candidate Lien Chan has announced that he will abide by court decisions regarding the recount, which is a healthy sign. But it is hard enough overcoming the lack of mandate of a narrow victory without having to struggle against charges of procedural impropriety, manipulation or electoral fraud. Taiwan is facing both the second and third tests of democracy simultaneously, and the stakes for success or failure are no less than the political and economic stability of East Asia.

Which brings me back, I'm sorry to say, to the United States. A narrow victory with allegations of procedural manipulation and electoral fraud is precisely what the 2000 election brought. As in Korea and Taiwan, the judiciary played a vital role in mediating and resolving the conflict. The result was a president with technical legitimacy but a very weak mandate. All other issues aside, the voter turnout in 2000 was barely above 50 percent, while in Korea and Taiwan it is 70 to 80 percent. But the questions of electoral procedure were largely limited to Florida. The proliferation of computerized voting systems designed and operated by corporations with strong Republican ties has created a situation in which broad, not narrow, questions of electoral legitimacy can be raised, but not easily answered. We passed through the test of crisis last time, but we face the prospect of regressing to the test of power-sharing. We must treasure and monitor the processes of democracy. The stakes are no less than the political and economic stability of the world.

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Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

I was thinking of Shang and Yu, and I will grant that I always thought it was just as you said, that Yu represents a sort of "Star Search" winner, and that was the best thing for China.

Maybe if I was more familiar with the original text, I'd get a better sense that Yu is never blamed for the declines.

Yu certainly didn't find another shepherd, and just chose one of his minister's, right?

Sadly, we can't insist we know what "truth" is, in order to prevent people like Murdoch/Ailes from making money by lying.

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

I thought I was talking about the political problem of truth.

The government can't interfere with media lying, unless there is a direct national security concern, otherwise you let the government dictate what the truth is. In such circumstances, you can be sure "the government is wrong" would not be found in "the big book of official truth."

I'd love broader perspectives. I'm not represented by anyone, even if they could get on television, except me!

I e-mail journalists, constantly expecting them to become slightly more responsible. I've seen nothing to make me feel good.

I'm listening to AirAmericaRadio.com now.

As far as party lines work, well, perhaps you should write M Racicot and T McAuliffe and tell them to tell their troops to be less enthusiastic.

Racicot and McAuliffe aren't trying to be bad, but it is only natural for them to encourage party loyalty.

Try to imagine a thought of theirs that might end with a "...and that's why I should tell our party to be more fractious."

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

The problem, in both cases, was not with the shepherd, or his "minister" who ruled after him, but after that point.

The problem of succession.

How is the next leader chosen?

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

Throughout the world, and throughout time, most leaders avoid the suggestion that they need to find bright, new people to invigorate their administrations.

China has an ancient, pre-historical story of an Emperor who tries to find the best person to succeed him, and ends up settling on a pig shepherd.

I think, according to the legend, that system broke down quickly after that, and it might just be a tale to get the idea of peasant rulers out of the people's heads.

My current inclination is to reduce suffrage dramatically. My doorman thinks HMOs were the result of the passage of Hillary Clinton's health program!

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

s/My doorman thinks/My doorman thought, until I corrected him,/

That's computer-ese (a Unix dialect) for "_s_ubstitute the stuff right after the / with the stuff after the second /".

William Livingston - 4/2/2004

Now, let's not knock shepherds who become kings, after all when Samuel went to Jesse to choose, at the command of our Lord & God, a new king for Israel. The Lord through Samuel examined each of Jesse's seven oldest sons, but found each lacking. Of course, in the end He chose the shepherd boy, Jesse's eighth son. In contrast to China, Israel grew stronger under the kingship of its shepherd/king than it hads been under its previous king. But then, of course David was the chosen & annointed of the Lord, not merely a shepherd chosen at random, nor even by some worldly test of ability.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/2/2004

Why can't we insist on a broader perspective, more responsible journalism, and a closer adherence to facts instead of party lines? I'm sorry, but the epistemological problem of truth and the journalistic problem of truth are two very different things.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/2/2004

Actually, the Chinese legend (if your thinking of the story of Shang and Yu) is considered a case of privileging ability over inheritance, responsibility to the people over personal connections, and humility in the face of great honor.

Things do go downhill after that, but it's the result of the lack of able and moral rulers, rather than the flaws of the humble Yu.

Perhaps we should start boycotting sponsors of the worst information sources: we know, for example, that Fox News listeners have a decidely less accurate view of the world than NPR listeners. It should be our responsibility to pressure Fox, through its sponsors, to be more responsible. It worked on CBS.....