10 lessons on democratic transitions and its development impact

Supporters of the National League for Democracy wave flags during a rally in Yangon in the run up to Myanmar's general election. Photo by: judithbluepool / CC BY-NC

Myanmar is Asia’s newcomer to democracy. Its general elections last November capped off six years of political reforms ending almost half a century under military rule. But the Southeast Asian nation is just the latest in the region to undergo a democratic shift in the past decades.

Although the payoffs for sustainable growth are clear, transitioning to democracy is no easy task. Becoming democratic isn’t simply a matter of overthrowing an autocrat or a military regime, but rather a continuous process that shapes a country's mindset, principles, and development, Yves Leterme, International IDEA secretary-general, told Devex during the Annual Democracy Forum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, last month.

“There is no uni-linear and predictable path to a fully fledged democracy,” Leterme said. “Democracy building is complex and is unpredictable. Gains can be achieved only to be backtracked and reversed to later re-emerge. There is a lot of volatility at these processes.”

Despite the diversity in countries’ experiences from democracy, there are lessons to be drawn, according to a book published by the Stockholm-based International IDEA, Democratic Transitions: Conversation with World Leaders. Leterme, who wrote a preface to the book, offered 10 ideas for countries in transition.

1. Move forward incrementally when beginning a democratic transition.

Democracy by definition must include the full range of stakeholders, interests, and principles. “There are no shortcuts,” Randolf David, sociology professor at the University of the Philippines, told Devex. Political and social movements aren’t built overnight and take time to mature.

While some political transitions in the past have been characterized by mass mobilizations, Leterme said that incremental changes can work in democratic transitions because it allows stakeholders to adapt and mature with the process.

“Transition from authoritarianism to democracy may work best when moving sometimes slowly but steadfastly,” he said. “Small steps are better, rather than waiting for a major change to occur.”

2. Retain a positive and inclusive vision at all times.

Transitions to democracy carry expectations for significant change. That can pose a risk if the reality doesn’t match up as quickly as people hoped. One key aspect, former Tunisian president Mohamed Moncef Marzouki said in the book, is to “avoid excessively inflating people's expectations.”

Political leaders and other officials shaping the transition process must be able to present a global vision of the transition through both long-term goals and modest promises “to combat public fear and avoid disillusionment amongst the people,” Leterme said.

3. Build coalitions.

Partnerships and alliances are important in every multistakeholder undertaking, and democracy is no exception. Collaboration and cooperation are at the core of a democratic system centered around inclusiveness, transparency and accountability.

Government agencies, opposition forces, and social movements such as workers, students, religious movements and women's groups “need to be included in every process [including] constitution building and strengthening of political parties and civil society organizations,” Leterme told Devex. Bridges must be built across and between sectors, particularly linking to the private sector.

“Transition, needs to focus more on what unites people and with patience and persistence, signal to all actors that they will have a stake in the new regime,” he said.

4. Create and protect spaces for dialogue.

Despite recent incursions of civil space in democratic countries — at least by name — such as Russia, Cambodia and even India, promoting space for discussion and dialogue is important if democratic transitions are to yield development gains.

“Dialogue is necessary to increase trust between the opposition, regime, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens, which will in turn affect the transition success,” Leterme said. He suggested that discussions focus “on future common goals” rather than previous disputes.

5. Focus on constitution building.

A constitution is crucial to a country's future because it serves as a basic guide post. Nepal, for instance, has gone through various revisions of its constitution since the country’s civil conflict came to an end. The latest version, completed just last year, is already being scrutinized by interest groups within the country that are asking for amendments.

“Drafting the new constitution … should be a truly inclusive process engaging a wide range of participants,” Leterme said. He called for countries to focus on broad goals rather and maintain transparency throughout the process, to help ensure all sectors of society are on board.

6. Manage eventual tensions.

Some transitions to democracy are preceded — or even succeeded — by civil and social unrest, at times triggered by a faltering economy. “In many cases, economic problems are a major cause behind popular mobilizations and often act as the crucial trigger to many transitions,” Leterme said.

The former Belgian prime minister said that political leaders and involved stakeholders should be able to manage these tensions and provide a solution that does not derail the transition process. The focus should be on equity, fairness, and inclusiveness for the most vulnerable in society. “The new regime needs to make economic issues [that may have caused the unrest] the priority. This entails quickly balancing fiscal reforms ... and addressing inflation and unemployment.”

7. Understand the importance of political parties.

Political parties often elicit negative connotations such as vested interests and partiality. But Leterme said parties — if transparent, accountable, and impartial — can positively shape democratic transitions. “Political parties play a crucial role in providing networks, in training cabinets, in organizing elections and develop[ing] transition strategies,” he said.

Political parties can also be a form of checks and balances while democratic institutions are being built or are maturing. “Ensure that the opposition is strong enough to compete with the existing regime,” he said.

8. Deal carefully with military, security and intelligence services.

Authoritarian regimes are often associated with firm military control. Martial law imposed by former President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in the 1970s, for instance, gave the president a tighter grip on the country's military and armed forces.

“It is necessary to act firmly to achieve real democratic [and] real civilian control over these services,” the International IDEA head said. “Leaders should therefore recognize the responsibilities of the military, security and intelligence forces, while simultaneously showing their restraint from political activities and partisan involvement.”

9. Recognize the need for real reconciliation and transitional justice.

Authoritarian regimes often leave a legacy of political crimes and human rights violations. These incidents may even trigger democratic transitions, with various groups demanding justice and due process, Leterme said.

“There can be intense pressure to hold the perpetrators of these [crimes] accountable … [and] ignoring unresolved issues is more problematic in the long-run,” he said. “Leaders, thus, need to provide truth and justice, while simultaneously assuring the safety of those leaving power. Victims need to be recognized without defending the growth of neutral tolerance in society. Justice can be achieved through dialogue rather than revenge, blaming and shaming.”

10. Bring the gender lens to democratic transitions.

Looking at transitions from a gender sensitive perspective validates democracy’s true essence of inclusiveness, empowerment and equality.

Leterme explained that women play crucial roles in social movements, state bureaucracies, political parties, and civil society. Women have served as president, for example, in countries including the Philippines, with Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as well as Indonesia, with Megawati Sukarnoputri.

“It is important [for women’s groups] to form a range of alliances both in civil society and across sectors; to participate in all phases of the transition process; to develop platforms that can unite different groups of women and to maintain momentum during the implementation and consolidation phases,” Leterme concluded. “It is also critical that political parties and leaders open up spaces for women to ... make sure that the constitution, policies and institution designs reflect gender equality concerns.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.

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