In 1974, there were only 35 democracies in the world, among them the United States, Canada, western and northern European countries, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. That was less than 30 percent of the world’s countries. A lot has changed since that time. By 2013, the number of democracies had expanded to about 120 countries, or more than 60 percent of the total.
But if we look at what has happened more recently, we will find a pretty discouraging picture. In many non-free countries, we have witnessed numerous, sometimes quite exciting popular uprisings—such as the Orange and Maidan revolutions in Ukraine and the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. In different continents and cultures, people have risen up against corrupt governments and have shown strong aspirations for freedom, their rights, and life with dignity. However, these mass uprisings have yielded a “modest harvest” (in reference to a paper written by political scientists Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds).
In the last 10 to 15 years, transitions to democracy have more often failed than succeeded. There are several factors that have undermined democratization efforts. In some countries, stubborn regimes were ready to use extreme repression while enjoying the loyalty of the army (think Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Belarus and Venezuela). Many countries were deeply divided along identity lines, so after the removal of the previous authoritarian, repressive regime, they slipped into fragmentation, destabilization, civil war and state failure (Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Libya and Syria). As we have long known, oil and natural resources are more often than not a curse, rather than a blessing.
In many countries where democratization failed, we find disunited, fragmented opposition (Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Egypt). In a bad neighborhood, active external spoilers can be pretty detrimental. Just look at the extent to which Vladimir Putin’ s Russia played an active role in undermining democratization efforts in Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, or the role of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and Egypt, or the Iranian and Russian role in Syria.
We also know that it is harder to consolidate democracy in poor countries, and in countries lacking historic experience with political pluralism.
If we now compare these negative spoilers of successful democratization with the situation in Burma, we see that Burma has all the spoilers and obstacles. Burma is a poor, undeveloped country that lacks historic experience with political pluralism. Its military has internal command cohesion and is most likely still ready to use harsh measures to protect its own interests. Burma is a deeply divided society, abundant with natural resources and with more non-democratic neighbors than democratic neighbors. So without wishing to be doom prophets, we can conclude that Burma’s transition will be rocky.
Elections in 2015 will create a high-risk situation. High stakes, high emotions and heated competition can easily lead to violence. In Burma, many factors are already instigating mistrust, hate, tensions and violence today.
One more insight is important. Whoever wins the 2015 elections will have a very hard task. He or she will be squeezed between many inherited and deep problems, with huge pressure from the public for quick changes and improvements in welfare. Many problems are not easy to fix, even if the best government in the world were to come to power. After decades of predatory military rule, any elected government will need to run a largely dysfunctional state that is incapable of collecting taxes or controlling natural resources revenues, has a low level of capital in domestic banks, poor roads and railways, a chronic lack of electricity, and broken education and health care systems. None of these problems can be solved in a short time, but people will not be patient, so any government will be under huge popular pressure. If that government is additionally engaged in constant competition with political opponents, it will not be able to focus on problem solving.
For these reasons, the best scenario for Burma will be “cooperative competition” between key political players and a pre-election deal about a power-sharing government for after the election. A power-sharing government focused on national reconciliation and unity would include the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the military and key ethnic parties—depending on the results of the free and fair election. According to a power-sharing deal, the winner of the parliamentary election could nominate the president and 50 percent of ministries, including the Home Affairs Ministry. The second best in the election (the de facto “loser”) could, according to the power-sharing deal, take the post of Lower House speaker and 25 percent of the ministries. Ethnic parties that were successful in the election could nominate one vice-president, the Upper House speaker and 25 percent of ministries, including the Border Affairs Ministry. The military could keep 25 percent of the reserved seats in Parliament and the post of the defense minister.
With such an arrangement, there would still be much room for competition in the 2015 election, but all key players would be included in the future government. The government would be legitimate, popular, inclusive and with a strong mandate to focus on problem solving—and on deepening reforms, kicking off economic growth and undertaking major developmental reconstruction in the country. On the other side, Parliament would be legitimate, representative and inclusive enough to start serious discussions and consultations about amending or re-writing the Constitution. It is also important that Parliament has enough time and is not pressured by the impending election to discuss constitutional changes.
Unfortunately, things are not developing in that direction because the military, the USDP and President Thein Sein’s government are, according to events in the last six months, not ready for genuine negotiations and a deal. It seems that they believe in the possibility of electoral victory that would keep post-military junta elites in position of dominance. It seems the strategic goal is to keep the executive power for five more years so that post-junta elites can finish the job of concentrating even more economic power in their hands, and keeping the army in the role of supervisor and arbiter (as in Pakistan and Thailand).
It seems more and more obvious that the post-military pseudo-civilian “reformist” regime does not want to bring democracy, but rather a hybrid, semi-authoritarian regime (like in Cambodia). Behind the friendly face of the reformist government, we have the Iron Triangle (from a political theory known as the “iron law of oligarchy”) of military, economic elites and an ultra-religious movement. The Iron Triangle can easily capture and control all changes so that the underlying interests of keeping privilege and dominance are not endangered by opening, liberalization and elections. The strategic intention of the Iron Triangle is not democracy, but a stable, pro-business hybrid, semi-authoritarian regime (“disciplined democracy”). This choice is putting the country on a highly risky path.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party are activating their own support base and mass politics. On the other side, the government and military are allowing (and probably also instigating, through intelligence services networks) the development of an ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious movement. Mass politics has been activated on both sides, and now two bulls are running straight at each other. They are not running at full speed and full strength, but that might happen if there is no compromise between competing political elites. If the two bulls crash into each other in 2015, in an election year when stakes are high, this country can go to hell.
I hope that will not happen. As somebody who has personally experienced democratization going wrong in many places, starting with my own former Yugoslavia and Bosnia, I hope Burma’s political leaders on all sides will understand the risks and dangers of further escalation of political confrontation. I hope they will return to the elites’ negotiations and reconnect in some sort of minimum consensus before we enter the highly emotional and inevitably highly competitive year of 2015.
A zero-sum attitude—“I win, you lose”—can easily create in Burma a “lose-lose” situation for everybody. Just ask ex-Yugoslavs, Syrians or Egyptians. Compromise seeking and a power-sharing deal before the election can lead all players, and the country as a whole, into a win-win situation. Ask the Poles, the South Africans and the Tunisians.
Igor Blazevic is the head teacher at the Rangoon-based Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists.