Why does the modern concept of democracy meet with difficulties in developing countries?
By Yin Jiwu (China Daily) 2010-06-02
In a country like Thailand, the growing social polarity and deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots have resulted in class opposition. That perhaps is why the red shirts (anti-government protesters) marched the streets of Bangkok to voice their anger against the government. Economic backwardness and cultural differences could be blamed for such inconsistencies, but does that mean true democracy will be established if democratic values are spread and the economy is propelled forward?|
Obviously, that does not happen. Developing countries often tend to accept democratic principles and ideas from Western countries while their political structure lags far behind.
The Thai people don't lack the enthusiasm or willingness to participate in politics. In fact, just the opposite is true, because it is impossible for a group of people without a strong political belief to hold mass demonstrations in the streets. But the Thais have to face reality. Politically speaking, Thailand is far from being a totally democratic society. Its parliament lacks universal representation and its government has not even been granted complete legitimacy, with the king enjoying a higher authority and position. In some sense, Thailand's monarchy is based on military heads, giant corporations and senior officials.
That reflects a kind of political dislocation which is common among many developing countries, and which often causes social instability. Economic development has created social opposition and class polarity, while the people have gained ideas from Western politics, and gradually accepted Western values. Under an authoritarian regime, the people may be forced to follow the leaders in their political pursuits and expressions, but in a semi-democratic society, the government will be unable to provide and defend perfect channels for political participation, which prevent the political regime from operating normally. This causes disorder, even chaos.
Developing countries pursuing political modernization should learn some lessons from what happened in Thailand. The most important and urgent of them is that instead of putting too many Western democratic thoughts into action, they should concentrate their efforts on maintaining order in society.
Without a strong and totally legitimate government, one faces the risk of making a mess of democracy, because in societies run by such governments there are not enough channels of political expression and participation. Blind pursuance of democracy can neither help solve problems of economic development and political progress, nor ensure the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of different classes. In other words, the mere lack of cultural and social foundations cannot sufficiently explain why even developing countries with open thoughts could not provide good governance and development.
Therefore, the key to the problem is not simply social enlightenment by spreading democratic values. The most important factor in maintaining order, thus, is a strong and stable government that operates normally. Without ample proper channels of political expression and participation, democracy would get embroiled in conflicts, which could mean danger and instability for all. In the process, the initial meaning of democracy gets distorted - for it is dangerous to gain true and lasting social stability through violence. Thailand is only one case of societies undergoing transformation. To solve their problem, they need a strong legitimate government more than democratic principles.
The author is a research fellow at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy, Beijing Foreign Studies University.