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Flickers of Democracy

Flickers of Democracy

Small shifts towards democracy in restrictive countries offer their own unique lessons in how democratic progress can be obtained.

Thomas Carothers, Benjamin Feldman

As part of a diverse set of new U.S. pro-democracy programs and platforms, the Biden administration is pursuing a new policy initiative that gives special attention and support to new democratic openings—what USAID Administrator Samantha Power calls “democratic bright spots.” In a February 2023 Foreign Affairs article on U.S. support for democracy globally, Power argued that “nowhere is that task more important today than in societies that have managed to elect democratic reformers or throw off autocratic or antidemocratic rule through peaceful mass protests or successful political movements.” The administration has named various countries, including the Dominican Republic, Moldova, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zambia, as early targets of the U.S. initiative, and is working to mobilize new resources for them, including through new aid platforms such as the Partnerships for Democracy fund.

Giving greater attention to global instances of democracy’s forward momentum makes sense. The daunting landscape of the worldwide democratic recession has produced a frequent emphasis on the defensive and protective side of supporting democracy globally—such as combating disinformation and pushing back against democratic backsliding. Yet as the recently released annual assessments of global democracy by Freedom Houseand the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute highlight, the nascent democratic reform occurring in these countries reflects a real trend worthy of our attention.

To offer analytic grounding and some potential policy insights for this initiative, we carried out an in-depth study of democratic bright spots that have occurred around the world in the past ten years. Focusing on thirty-two cases, our research found that these bright spots come in at least four major varieties.

The first, which is perhaps the archetypal democratic opening in the popular imagination, occurs when citizens mobilize in large numbers to drive a democratically challenged leader from power. This has happened only rarely with full-fledged autocrats in recent years—in Sudan and Algeria—and neither case has turned out well. The Sudanese military’s continuing political dominance has dashed hopes that the massive protests and eventual ouster in April 2019 of President Omar al-Bashir would shortly lead to democratic civilian rule. Similarly, the inspiring 2019 Hirak protest movement against Algeria’s aging autocrat, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has led to frustratingly little improvement in the country’s repressive politics. More leadership changes have occurred in places where citizens have mobilized against political leaders who, though not fully autocratic, have been undercutting accountable, responsive governance—like with Burkina Faso in 2014, Guatemala in 2015, and South Korea in 2016. Here too, however, the results have been mixed; there’s been some progress in South Korea, but Guatemala is still gripped by kleptocratic elites, while Burkina Faso is once again under military rule.

More common and often more positive in outcome over the longer term are the democratic bright spots that have been sparked by pivotal elections. These are the elections where a leader who has been undercutting democracy loses power to a more pro-democratic person or party, despite the original leader’s attempts to manipulate the electoral process or deny its legitimacy. The electoral defeats of Donald Trump in November 2020, and of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in October 2022, are the two most notable recent examples. Less prominent cases include The Gambia, the Maldives, Slovenia, and Zambia.

Furthermore, elections can also produce democratic bright spots when they inject a new pro-democratic reform impulse into systems that, while not necessarily sliding backwards democratically, have stagnated significantly—often, through entrenched corruption. This was the case in Honduras in 2021, when Xiomara Castro’s victory ended a decade of the National Party’s corrupt rule, and also in Moldova, where Maia Sandu’s pro-reform Party of Action and Solidarity won a landslide in parliamentary elections in 2021, after more than a decade of oligarchic rule. Our research revealed that democratic bright spots produced by pivotal elections have the best track record: eight of the twelve best performing bright spots in the last decade have stemmed from pivotal elections.

Blocked power grabs—where either a country’s judicial courts or huge public protests stop a leader from overreaching politically (such as trying to extend the presidential term beyond the established constitutional limit)—are another, third, important source of pro-democratic political junctures. In the Dominican Republic, mass protests stopped then President Danilo Medina’s bid for an unlawful third term in 2019. In Nepal in 2021, the country’s Supreme Court overturned the president’s decisions to dissolve parliament—twice. The successful blocking of an attempted power grab at least temporarily rebalances power between a leader with autocratic tendencies and a pro-democratic political and civic opposition, opening the door for democratic progress.

A final, fourth category of democratic bright spots—less frequent and often less widely noticed than the three aforementioned—are promising authoritarian successions. These instances feature an autocrat exiting the political scene, usually due to death or infirmity, who is followed by a successor who exhibits (usually unexpected) reform impulses, despite having been installed as an intended continuation of the prior regime. In Angola, President João Lourenço has pursued governance reforms especially relating to corruption since longtime autocrat José Eduardo dos Santos retired in 2017. In Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan has carried out some liberalizing reforms relating to media and civic space since succeeding the autocratic former president, John Magufuli. True, these and other cases of promising authoritarian succession in recent years have not produced substantial democratic breakthroughs, and they have fallen short of initial hopes. Nevertheless, they do represent potential junctures where some democratic progress becomes possible.

An overarching policy lesson that emerges from the record of recent democratic bright spots is that policy makers seeking to help need to move quickly. Such moments often fade with disheartening speed. Entrenched antidemocratic power structures may survive the initial democratic dynamic, almost immediately working to regain the reins of power. Promising reformers sometimes prove weaker and less capable than hoped, and begin flailing in the face of opposition. Moving quickly to support democratic openings is therefore crucial.

Yet while speed is critical for effective policy responses, so too is nuance and differentiation. The significant variability of democratic bright spots necessitates differentiated strategies of support to match the particular context. In discussing its bright spots approach, the Biden administration has emphasized its intention to hurry economic aid to new reformist governments, to help “make democracy deliver.” Such aid may sometimes be the ticket. But in other cases, different types of help may be more decisive, whether it is diplomatic acceptance and reinforcement of new political powerholders, bolstering key democratic guardrails that help block a power grab, or strong incentives to move quickly on anticorruption. Policy responses must fit the specific dynamics of various types of openings and avoid the one-size-fits-all impulse of economic aid.

One final lesson concerns managing expectations. Some democratic bright spots do lead to significant, sustained democratic progress, and they serve as a potent reminder that democracy remains up for grabs in diverse contexts all around the world. Nevertheless, approximately one half of the democratic bright spots of the past ten years have ultimately led to little democratic progress. The significant gap between the early excitement surrounding democratic bright spots and the uneven and rarely transformative change that results risks souring senior policymakers on the overall idea of a bright spots policy. An effective policy therefore will be one that squares the circle of drumming up real energy and support across various parts of the government and from private actors, while conveying significant realism and staying power regarding execution.

You can find their new report, “Understanding and Supporting Democratic Bright Spots,” here.

Thomas Carothers is Co-Director of the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading authority on global democracy and international democracy support.

Benjamin Feldman is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a specialist in comparative politics.

Image: Prime Minister of Moldova Maia Sandu offering remarks at NATO. (NATO)

AfricaAsiaDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyU.S. Foreign Policy