The Arab Spring may be a great source of inspiration for popular movements around the world. However, a study assessing social, political and economic freedoms points to a steady, global shift towards authoritarianism.
Democracy in steep decline around the world
The popular movements in the region have inspired democrats from around the globe. In China, online activists have called for a "Jasmine Revolution" designed to press the Communist Party to open up. While in Africa, reformers have called for their own "African Spring".
But the Arab Spring is, in many ways, a mirage. Several nations in the region may eventually make the transition to democracy - this is hardly assured - but in reality, democracy is faltering throughout the developing world, from Asia to Latin America, from Africa to the former Soviet states.
In its annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political and economic freedoms, found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row in 2010, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. In fact, there are now fewer elected democracies than there were in 1995.
A mountain of other evidence supported Freedom House's findings. One of the other most comprehensive studies of global democracy, compiled by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation, uses data examining the ability of democracies to function, manage government and uphold freedoms to produce what it calls the Transformation Index.
The most recent index found "the overall quality of democracy has eroded [throughout the developing world] ... the key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion ... these developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance". The index concluded that the number of "highly defective democracies" - democracies with institutions, elections and political culture so flawed that they no longer qualified as real democracies - had roughly doubled between 2006 and 2010.
The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy only further confirmed these findings. The unit analyses democracy using categories for electoral process, pluralism, political participation, political culture, functioning of government and civil liberties. It found that democracy was in retreat around the globe. "In all regions, the average democracy score for 2010 is lower than in 2008," it reported.
In 91 of 167 countries it studied, the democracy score had deteriorated in that time period and in many others it had only remained stagnant. Of the 79 nations that it assessed as having some significant democratic qualities, only 26 made the grade as what the EIU calls "full democracies", while the other 53 were ranked only as "flawed democracies" because of serious deficiencies in many of the areas it assessed.
In Latin America, Africa, Asia and even most of Africa, coups, which had been a frequent means of changing governments during the Cold War, had become nearly extinct by the early 2000s. But between 2006 and 2010, the military grabbed power in Mauritania, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh, Fiji and Madagascar, among others.
In many other developing nations, such as Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines, the military managed to restore its power as the central actor in political life, dominating the civilian governments that clung to power only through the support of the armed forces. "It's almost like we've gone back to the [Ferdinand] Marcos era," prominent Filipino rights activist and lawyer Harry Roque Jr said, as he waited in his office for the security forces to come and interrogate him. "There's the same type of fear, the same abuses, the same attitude by the military that their actions will never face consequences."
Support for democracy has become so tepid in parts of the developing world that many of these coups were cheered: in Niger last year, thousands celebrated the military takeover in Niamey, the capital, in part because the overthrown leader had been destroying the country's democratic institutions.
Overall, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past 20 years, conducted by David Silverman, my Council on Foreign Relations research associate, found that in nearly 50 per cent of cases drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup, or, in polls or prominent media coverage afterwards, expressed their support for the army takeover.
Opinion polls also reveal that the quality of democracy is declining, but also that how the public views democracy is deteriorating as well. The Barometer Series of polls uses questionnaires to ask people in a range of nations about their views on democracy. The survey of the African continent has found declining levels of support for democracy in many countries.
Meanwhile, in Russia, where hope for democracy was high in the early 1990s, today the New Europe Barometer shows that half of Russians believe it is acceptable to stop having elections if this decision strengthens the country.
Elsewhere, in Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru, Honduras and Nicaragua, either a minority or only a tiny majority of people think democracy is preferable to any other type of government.
Polls and studies of South Asia have revealed similar dissatisfaction. In Pakistan, roughly 60 per cent of respondents in a comprehensive regional survey said the country should be ruled by the army.
Even in East Asia, one of the most economically vibrant regions of the world, polls reveal the same rising dissatisfaction with democracy. In fact, several countries in the region have developed what Yu-tzung Chang, Yunhan Zhu and Chong-min Park, who studied data from the regular Asian Barometer surveys, have termed "authoritarian nostalgia".
"Few of the region's former authoritarian regimes have been thoroughly discredited," they write, noting that the region's average score for commitment to democracy has fallen in the most recent studies. Even in South Korea, one of the supposed success stories of democracy, the percentage of respondents saying an authoritarian government was preferable under certain circumstances, doubled between 1996 and 2006.
During April, the hottest month of the year in Thailand, all activity in Bangkok slows to a crawl. With temperatures rising, many residents leave town, heading north or to the islands east and south of the city.
But in recent years, Bangkok has been anything but quiet. Tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters have, at several points, descended upon the city to demonstrate against the government, which they viewed as illegitimate and unsympathetic to the poor. Most hailed from villages in the rural north-east of Thailand or from working-class suburbs of Bangkok. At first, the protests last year seemed like a street party. Demonstrators snacked on sticky rice and grilled chicken, and danced in circles as bands played mor lam, a form of music that originates from the north-east of the country.
The mood would turn violent. On April 10, 2010, some protesters opened fire on police and launched grenades at the security forces. The troops cracked down hard in response. By the end of the day, 24 people had been killed.
That was just a prelude to the following month. By that time, the Red Shirts had been camped out for weeks in the central business district, shutting down commerce and paralysing traffic. The government and the armed forces, who had previously rejected the protesters' demands for an immediate election, decided to take a tougher line. Advancing into the Red Shirts' encampment, heavily armed soldiers opened fire.
The Red Shirts fought back. On the evening of May 19, smoke obscured the Bangkok skyline, the temples of the old city and the glass-and-steel high rises of the financial district. Most of the Red Shirts would return to their homes by the end of the month, but the battle had come at a terrible cost. The clashes had killed more than 100 people, most of them civilians.
Such violence has become more common in a country that was once one of the most stable in South-east Asia. Four years before the Red Shirt protests, a different group of demonstrators had put Thailand into turmoil, gathering on the main green in the old city of Bangkok, near the Grand Palace. Then it was thousands of middle-class urbanites from Bangkok - lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers and others - demanding the removal of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.
Dressed in the yellow of Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the protesters were led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but PAD was neither democratic nor representative of the masses. It called for the reduction of the number of elected seats in parliament, to restrict the power of the rural poor who comprise the majority of Thais.
In 2005 Thaksin had trounced the Democrat Party, the party favoured by most Yellow Shirts. A year later, when he called a new election, the Democrats simply refused to participate. Instead, the Yellow Shirts tried to paralyse the country. They stormed parliament, forcing some senior ministers to flee over a fence. Later, they laid siege to the main international airport. Thaksin's government was ousted by a military coup months later.
For nearly five years now, Thailand has weathered one street protest after another, with both sides refusing to resolve their differences at the ballot box rather than on the streets, often with bloody results.
After Thaksin, Thailand's working classes formed their own movement. They donned red clothing - Thaksin's colour - and they also laid siege to parliament, forcing legislators to flee once more. In April 2009, they stormed a meeting of leaders of South-east Asian nations in the resort town of Pattaya, forcing many visiting dignitaries to hide inside their hotel. Finally, in the spring of 2010, the Red Shirts converged on Bangkok.
Now, this month, the pro-Thaksin party supported by the Red Shirts, called Puea Thai, won national elections in Thailand. But the elections are unlikely to end the political deadlock. The Democrat Party, supported by Thailand's establishment, is pushing to have the poll annulled on technicalities, a move that probably will only spark further unrest.
In less than two decades, then, Thailand's middle class has progressed from fighting a military takeover in the early 1990s to calling for a coup to crush a democratically elected government, and now trying to annul a free and fair election. And in this new-found disdain for democracy, the Thai middle class is at the forefront of a trend. Theorists such as Samuel Huntington once argued that a growing middle class was the key to successful democratic change. But in Thailand and elsewhere, Huntington's theory has been turned on its head.
In many developing nations, middle-class reformers have been badly let down by the first generations of democratic leaders, who often seem unable to demonstrate much real commitment to democracy. Urban middle-class men and women, who have often spent years fighting an authoritarian regime, and who naively assumed that when opposition leaders finally gained power, they would govern more inclusively than the deposed autocrats.
But that is hardly the case. Across the developing world, the first generation of elected leaders, like Thaksin, initially elected in 2001, have often governed like elected autocrats. Many have spent long years in opposition to a dictatorship, where holding a movement together in the face of a repressive regime requires a high degree of cohesion, even autocracy. These were required survival skills in opposition, but in power they easily translate into autocracy.
Throughout the former Soviet Union, nearly everywhere except the Baltics, the first and second generations of elected leaders have revealed themselves as autocrats at heart. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was one of the leaders of Kyrgyzstan's 2005 Tulip Revolution against Askar Akayev's regime, proved himself to be nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor. His tough policies sparked another revolution in 2010.
In Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili was also a leader of a rose revolution. But as president in 2007, faced with demonstrations against him, Saakashvili unleashed overwhelming force against protesters and later declared a state of emergency, closing down media outlets, detaining opposition journalists and silence much of the protest. Other important factors have contributed to democracy's decline. In many countries, the first wave of democratically elected governments has been poor at economic management or, worse still, corrupt.
In theory, an era of more open politics should reduce foul play. This may be true in the long run, but in the short term the opposite often appears to happen. During an era of authoritarian rule, corruption often remains relatively centralised and predictable, allowing citizens to understand and manage established networks of wrongdoing. The regime siphons off a certain percentage of money from local businesses, but the number of actors involved remains relatively small.
Yet, as countries democratise, the old channels of corruption tend to vanish and new or different actors - local political bosses, broader segments of the bureaucracy, staff of members of parliament - put their hands out. As one Thai businessman who had survived decades of military rule told me: "Before, you knew who to pay to, and as long as you did, you could do business. But now [in the democratic era] even if you make those payments, you still don't have security you can do business. But if you don't make them, it could be even worse."
In addition, in democracies the general public can learn more about corruption simply because a freer media investigates the government and publishes reports on graft. In the long run, again, this is a positive development: exposure of wrongdoing will encourage politicians and civil servants to think twice about their actions. But in the short run, the freer media coverage tends to increase public perceptions of government corruption. These perceptions heighten economic uncertainty, since average people simply hear more about the graft than they used to under the authoritarian regime, and they also add to civic disengagement from a political elite perceived as cynical and uninterested in the public welfare.
In China, Wen Jiabao has successfully maintained an image as a caring, earthy grandfather type, despite the fact that political insiders - and foreign journalists - know that his wife, Zhang Peili, wears staggeringly expensive diamond jewellery, which makes one wonder how she can afford such items given Wen's meagre official salary. But because the tightly controlled Chinese press never reports on the business interests of Wen's wife, most average Chinese have no idea about her wealth. By contrast, the free and scandal-driven press in the Philippines produced numerous reports about the alleged corruption of Mike Arroyo, husband of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Indonesia provides a clear illustration of how political opening leads to the liberalisation of corruption. At the beginning of the transition from longtime dictator Suharto, whose regime collapsed in 1998, graft became decentralised, following decades of tightly controlled networks of corruption run by the military. "Actors in the bureaucracy, judiciary, political parties, and in the army have re-emerged as central players in a corruption free for all in democratic Indonesia," writes economist Michael Rock in a study of the country.
A truly competitive legislature, a sharp change from Suharto's compliant parliament, also added to an increase in corruption. Indonesian legislators could no longer count on winning office, but the young democracy had developed few rules governing how politicians should raise money to campaign. "With the emergence of a confrontational relationship between newly empowered legislatures and embattled presidents, members of parliament, who needed ample war chests to win re-election, used their new political powers to extort funds," Rock writes. What's more, while in the past decade a new group of emerging powers - India, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey and China - have played a larger role in global politics, none have pushed hard for democratisation around the globe.
That China, the most powerful authoritarian nation in the world, would not push for democracy in Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, is hardly surprising. But India, South Africa, Brazil and Turkey have not either. South Africa has for years tolerated Robert Mugabe's brutal regime in Zimbabwe, and, in 2007, it helped block a UN resolution condemning Myanmar's junta for human-rights abuses.
Similarly, Brazil has cosied up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the elected leader of Iran, and to Cuba's Raúl Castro. Turkey has done the same, working with Brazil to supposedly last year achieve an agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear programme, which was viewed by many outsider observers as a joke. Concluding the agreement, Brazilian premier Luiz Ignacio da Silva and Reccep Tayip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, embraced Ahmedinejad.
Given their own histories, though, these emerging powers' pragmatic worldviews are not entirely surprising. Many of these countries were leading members of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, and weathered western efforts to foment coups in their countries. Today, they feel extremely uncomfortable joining any international coalition that could undermine other nations' sovereignty.
What's more, they often want to avoid criticism of their own human-rights records in places like the Kurdish regions of Turkey or Kashmir in India. During a state visit to China by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, he and China's leaders together affirmed their aversion to "meddling" by foreign actors in their internal affairs.
The United States, too, distracted by its own economic problems and battered by the failed efforts of George W Bush, who linked democracy to the ruinous war in Iraq, also has taken a more realistic stance on the global stage.
During a visit to China in 2009, Barack Obama studiously avoided any serious criticisms of Beijing's human rights record, a sharp contrast to the tough stances of his predecessors. "At first, I had a lot of hope for human-rights [from Obama,]" Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer and well-known critic of the Chinese government, told reporters. "But President Obama only touched upon these issues ... Even if he brought them up, he did it without force - it was very disappointing."
Later, though, the Obama administration belatedly endorsed the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, it said almost nothing about similar demonstrations in Bahrain, a critical US ally, and even seemed hesitant to support protesters in Syria, hardly an American friend but a country where Washington worries about what might replace the government of Bashar al Assad.
To be sure, as the Middle East shows, average people in many nations have hardly given up their desire for greater freedom. Though the middle class in many countries has actually proven an impediment to democracy, in some nations, like Iran, or Egypt, or Syria, the middle classes remain at the forefront of reformist movements.
Unfortunately, if recent history proves any guide, the Iranian or Egyptian middle classes will not, in the long run, prove to be such democrats. Just as in Thailand, a real democracy in Egypt or Tunisia would empower working-class men and women, many of whom might support a leader who would promote policies - populist economic strategies, or more use of Islam in lawmaking - that would be opposed by many urban middle classes. Indeed, in Egypt some of the middle-class men and women who supported the revolution have already grown disillusioned with some of the policies that the poor, whose vote finally would matter, would support.
Worse still, even if the middle classes in the Middle East did continue to back democracy, they can hardly count on long-term support from the foreign powers in the region. As the United States becomes ensnared in Libya, and the US's own economy weakens still further, the Obama administration will be even less willing to take on hard foreign policy choices. And the US's replacement, in the long term, as a major power in the Middle East, China, can hardly be counted on to back democrats.
In fact, the Chinese government was so worried that its own citizens might learn about Egypt's revolt that, for weeks, it blocked searches for the word "Egypt" on the internet in China.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for South-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book on the decline of democracy will be published next year.