The dilemma of defective democracies

Socioeconomic and institutional variables, which exist before the conduct of elections, are normally ignored not only by most developing countries’ political and military elites but also election observers and scholars

The dilemma of defective democracies

The other day, I asked one of my MPhil students whether Pakistan, at present, is a democracy or otherwise. Jumping to conclusions, he said “yes”. There was a similar answer with regards to the political system in the US. When asked which democracy is better, the US or the Pakistani one, the answer was conceptually vague and empirically ambiguous. This puzzle gets larger when one attempts cross-regional and cross-cultural comparison between the nature and character of political organisation in India (South Asia) and Thailand (East Asia). What is democracy? Are there types of democracy? Are the US and Spanish democracies the same? What is democratisation? Are there levels of democratisation? Such questions are taken up by political scientists, among others, during and after the so-called ‘third wave’ of democratisation.

Little wonder then, literature on the subject is replete with terms such as ‘procedural democracy’, ‘electoral democracy’ and, referring to North American experiences, ‘liberal democracy’. Huntington, Dhal and Diamond are, of course, the exponents of such normative and data-oriented analysis of a variety of Asian, Latin American and European interaction with the electorate, party systems, voting behaviour, rule of law and constitutionalism. Interestingly, certain non-profit organisations ventured to collect data on politics and state internationally. Freedom House is one such source of understating the empirical aggregation of political and civil rights as well as the number and types of regime worldwide.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, owing to the changing nature of regimes, mostly in Asia and Latin America, scholars of the field started relooking into the existing theoretical and empirical construction of political organisation and regime structure. Resultantly, in academia, terms such as ‘the democratic rollback’, ‘the end of the transition paradigm’, ‘electoral authoritarianism’, etc, got currency. Undoubtedly, such works were helpful to explain a given case. Nevertheless, issues related to conception of rule, transition, for example from autocracy to democracy and vice versa, and cross-cultural comparison lingered on. This probably was the reason behind German political scientists — Wolfgang Merkel being the trendsetter — to investigate a wide range of experiments with democracy in (east) Europe, Asia and other affected regions. Merkel, while normatively criticising notions such as ‘electoral democracy’, postulated that elections, even if they are held fairly and regularly, cannot be a necessary condition for the sustenance and consolidation of democracy. Socioeconomic and institutional variables, which exist before the conduct of elections, are normally ignored not only by most developing countries’ political and military elites but also election observers and scholars. In other words, is the level of democracy the same in India and the US despite the fact both states have a history of regular, if not free and fair, elections? Ironically, there are countries in Asia as well as Africa that have returned to authoritarianism after having experienced a semblance of electoral politics.

In trying to solve the above mentioned normative issues of democracy and democratisation, Merkel has introduced an altogether innovative concept of ‘embedded democracy’. This embeddedness is dependent on both internal and external variables. Internally, a constitutional democracy consists of five partial regimes: electoral regime, political liberties, civil rights, horizontal accountability and effective power to govern. Externally, these partial regimes are embedded in the prevailing socioeconomic context, civil society, and international and regional integrative environment. Judged on the outlined criteria, a democracy becomes stable, consolidated and ultimately liberal if and when the five partial regimes are mutually connected and resourceful to each other in an (democracy) ‘enabling’ regional and international environment.

Inversely, if there is a singular and/or collective disconnect in the five partial regimes’ matrix or the regional and global environment is not democracy-friendly, the embedded democracy then transforms into a ‘defective democracy’. In Merkel’s own words, “Defective democracies are democracies in which the partial regimes are no longer mutually embedded, the logic of a constitutional democracy becoming disrupted.” This concept of defective democracy is subdivided into exclusive, domain, delegative and illiberal democracy. Fareed Zakaria’s thesis incidentally falls into the last category.

At the operational level, the foregoing theoretical framework is applied to certain cases cross-regionally by another German political scientist, Aurel Croissant. During my long stay in Heidelberg, I had the opportunity to academically interact with Professor Croissant who is considered an expert on civil-military relations in East and Southeast Asia. In his analysis, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh, Cambodia and even Pakistan can be viewed as defective democracies. The defects are caused by multiple factors ranging from colonial history to cultural heterogeneity. Interestingly, however, in a given context, transition from one type of defective democracy to, for example, the electoral one is possible though it is not a common and consolidated trend in such and similar cases.

For instance, in 2004, regarding Thailand, Aurel opined, “The situation in Thailand is unclear. Progressive tendencies in essential aspects of democracy provide a contrast to some regressive trends. The new constitution of 1997 improved the institutional framework for an effective rule of law and for the guarantee of civil liberties. Most successful was the institutionalisation of civilian control over the armed forces. Since the 1930s, the Thai military had exerted a decisive influence upon politics in Thailand. Today, soldiers are still influential in domestic politics but they cannot control the political process as they used to do. At the same time, however, new defects emerged, for example the restriction of suffrage concerning the provisions to become a candidate for the parliament.”

Unfortunately, the stated defects were institutionalised in Thailand over a decade. Little wonder then, even the semblance of (defective) democracy has been, once again, derailed by the General Prayuth Chan-Ocha-led military. Political scientists have added this case to the long list of failed democracies. I am sure even Freedom House would have corrected its database accordingly. Comparatively, Pakistan’s case, in my view, falls under the ‘domain’ type of defective democracy where “the military, guerrillas, militia, entrepreneurs, landlords or multi-national corporations take certain political domains out of the hands of democratically elected representatives.” This may occur by constitutional and/or extra-constitutional means. If Thailand wants to retrieve its political system (illiberal democracy), and if Pakistan desires to go up the democracy ladder, all stakeholders need to ensure the survivability and functionality of partial regimes. The regional and international actors should also provide these countries with an enabling environment. Otherwise, the dilemma of defective democracies shall only persist.


The writer is a DAAD fellow. He holds a PhD in Political Science and works as assistant professor at Iqra University, Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty