I was reading a piece in The Economist this morning (linked on our Twitter page) discussing the increasingly illiberal nature of politics in Southeast Asia - Myanmar being the latest disappointment to those who put on their rose-tinted glasses and thought: "Well, once that awful military junta goes - everything is going to be just awesome!" How wrong (and ignorant of contemporary social science theory) they were. And how wrong that type of prediction has been throughout the region. Francis Fukuyama's prediction of the "end of history" and the inevitability of the establishment of liberal democracy clearly took a hit after the third wave of democratization as we continued and continue to observe roll backs of individual rights across the globe. So, why has this been the case? What exactly do we know about democratization?
To simplify a bit (understatement), we know quite a bit. Aristotle equated the causality of democratization with with wealth (oops, Singapore and Qatar would seem to falsify that conjecture). Seymour Martin Lipset in his seminal work on the topic, related it to the question of development (education, urbanization, etc); granted, this led to an inevitable clash with those who contended that middle class led democratization was inherently a "limited" version of democracy and continuing along with the class-based perspective argued that it was the agency of the working class which was vital for real democratization to be achieved. Since then, we have seen states with massive middle class growth move not an inch towards democracy. Survey work in China has indicated that when the middle class has been heavily tied to the state - through employment in state owned enterprise or the state itself or membership in a ruling party - the likelihood of democratization is quite low (and that's just initial democratization, we haven't even made it into the topic of how a country shifts from unstable to consolidated democracy, although for my money, Linz and Stepan's classic Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation remains required reading, even if a bit dated. The working class, in recent surveys, have shown stronger support for democracy and the rule of law as have entrepreneurs and small business owners.
More recently, the "elite pacting" theory has gained greater popularity, arguing that as the economic interests of elites shift away from state dependence and when those elites have low fears that a logic of accumulation (focus on growth) will be shifted to a logic of redistribution (focus on equality), democratization will follow. This approach has been used fruitfully to explain the growth of democracy in South Korea (as the country shifted away from the state-led model and saw the rise of firms dependent on exports rather than state allocation of funds) and Mexico (where NAFTA supported the creation of an entirely new wave of SMEs and a new middle class that was rather fed up with 70 years of pseudo-democracy under the rule of the PRI).
But perhaps, more interesting is the shift away from the question of the causality of liberal democracy, and rather (and particularly for observers of the Greater Mekong Region) what we know about the collapse of authoritarian regimes and semi-authoritarian regimes. In the last decade, the term "competitive authoritarianism" has come into fashion thanks to the excellent work of Linz and Stepan, with Russia as the primary case study. In these states the facade of democracy - de jure democracy - exists. However, de facto democracy remains elusive. Yes, there are loci of genuine democratic contestation - the media, the courts (to an extent), legislatures, etc. However, it would be tough to call elections in these states free and fair in the technical sense. In my view, it is this form of governance that we are most likely to observe in the region for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, we know quite a bit more about the breakdown of authoritarian regimes. Military regimes tend to be the most vulnerable. Soldiers - having guaranteed employment when they leave the halls of government and return to the barracks - being much more likely to find a negotiated way out of the problem. Single party regimes, e.g. China, tend to be the most stable owing to various shared interests and close ties among ruling cadres (along with the fear of penury once they lose access to state assets). Moreover, they tend to be remarkably successful as regards co-opting opposition figures and agendas (something that one observes nearly daily around the region). The smart move for the dictator seeking to maintain a legacy for his descendants and cronies is party strengthening. The so-called "sultanistic" regimes, one man rule, tends to be the worst (Libya being a solid case in point) - supporters find on until the bitter end and these transitions rarely end without significant bloodshed.
So, whither liberalism and liberal democracy in Southeast Asia? Well, we obviously have some problems. Declining support for free trade in the OECD states, if effective in undermining the expansion of global trade, will cut off the engine that creates new political entrepreneurs who promote democracy. Working class organizations that tend to be supportive of democratization - unions when it is in their economic interest (i.e., when not significantly privileged compared to a rural, peasant majority) - are much too fragmented to act along these lines and often are co-opted into ruling parties. Finally, party consolidation appears to be the order of the day around the area - lessons have been learned. So for those looking for that Paul on the road to Damascus moment where enlightened elites choose liberal democracy, well, that just doesn't happen. It's a long process - a very long one, without any guarantees. Prediction: get used to "competitive authoritarianism" and "more of the same" for the foreseeable future.