Thu, Jan 19, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Democracy is in distress, or is it?

The global economic crisis may turn out to have an even greater impact on non-democratic systems that seem to be more efficient, but are in reality much more fragile — we can see this in mounting unrest in Russia and China

By Dominique Moisi

Illustration: Mountain People

Is democratic time too slow to respond to crises and too short to plan for the long term?

At a time of deepening economic and social crisis in many of the world’s rich democracies, that question is highly relevant. For example, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has the necessary and legitimate ambition to carry out comprehensive reform. He is both competent and honest, but he faces a quasi-structural impediment — whereas leaders once had three years to convince voters of their policies’ benefits, they now have three hours to convince global financial markets to back their approach.

Caught between Italian legislators who, deep down, do not understand that change and markets in quest of near-immediate certainties, can Monti transcend his natural prudence and act with sufficient clarity and decisiveness?

In the US, too, the political system is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama goes so far as to say that “vetocracy” could triumph over democracy, regardless of who wins this year’s US presidential election. The separation of powers, a principle established by the US founders under the influence of philosophers such as Montesquieu, is leading today to near-paralysis.

Democracies suffer not only from their slow reaction time at moments of crisis, but also from the difficulty that they face in projecting themselves into the future and planning for the long term. On both sides of the Atlantic, political leaders know what they must do for their countries, but they don’t know how to get re-elected if they actually do it. They seem to be structurally condemned to short-termism.

However, it is not because democracies have a “time problem” that their era seems to some to be over. China is rightly proud to be able to project itself into the 22nd century, but it owes that quality of long-term thinking much more to its culture than to the nature of its political system. Chinese think long term because they are Chinese, not because they are not democrats.

China’s leaders can, of course, react to events without much regard for Chinese public opinion. After all, the great majority of Chinese do not dream of democracy, even if something like a civil society is emerging, generating new interests and demands that can no longer be totally controlled or manipulated, as in the past.

That is precisely the weakness of non-democratic regimes in a global age dominated by transparency — who dreams of becoming a Chinese citizen or even a citizen of Singapore?

In the aftermath of North Korea’s hereditary succession, strategic thinkers rightly emphasize China’s key role in shaping the peninsula’s future, but, despite the scenes of hysteria that followed the death of the “Great Leader” Kim Jong-il, most North Koreans probably dream of joining democratic South Korea (even if many South Koreans fear that prospect).

The majority of Chinese may not want to be governed like Westerners, but it would be wrong to assume that their only ambition is to spend like Westerners. The more successful they are, the more individualistic they will become, and the more they will expect the respect and consideration of those who govern them.

By contrast, if China’s economic growth slows, which is likely in the coming years, protest against corruption — a source of fragility for any regime — will escalate. Indeed, it is important to bear in mind that, ahead of the upcoming Chinese leadership transition, new occupants for only the top two posts have been chosen, and that through a process of gradual anointment by roughly 100 people at most.

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