Democracy – A Historical Perspective

Can one country bequeath a full-blown democracy to another? 

There are two ways to approach the answer to this question. The first is to examine the outcomes of all the cases where such an experiment has been tried. The universe of such cases would include most of the ex-colonies of Western countries.

In any such examination of the historical record, it would be hard to find too many examples of a successful graft. More often than not one would find a caricature — a democratic form distorted by a reversion to authoritarian rule. The genotype of the latter would be determined by the type of governance that existed prior to the attempted graft — rule by a monarch, a tribal chief, or a warlord.

This is an easy, empirically verifiable approach to determining whether an alien system of governance can be transferred instantly from one country to another. Based on the evidence, the answer would have to be in the negative.

The second approach is more involved but also more interesting because it provides an explanation for the lack of success of the attempts to transplant democracy. Instead of looking at outcomes, one would look at how democracy evolved in the now developed countries. From that perspective one might be able to understand the reasons for the failures of the democratic experiments.

It is quite well known that democracy evolved in Europe over a long period of time from within monarchical systems. It is not as much appreciated that it evolved in very small steps giving the societies a prolonged period of adjustment for the establishment of an institution and a tradition. For example, when voting was first introduced it was limited to a miniscule minority of property-owning males usually over the age of 30.

In France the vote was extended between 1815 and 1830 only to males above 30 who paid at least 300 francs in direct taxes. This limited the vote to about 100,000 out of a population of 32 million. Between 1830 and 1848 the franchise was relaxed to another 100,000 males. Universal male suffrage was achieved in 1848 and the vote was extended to women only in 1946, almost a hundred years later. 


In Italy, the voting age was lowered to 21 and tax-paying requirements were reduced in 1882. Even then only seven percent of the population was eligible to vote due to the remaining tax payment and literacy qualifications. Universal male suffrage with restrictions was extended in 1919 and women became eligible to vote in 1946.

There were numerous reversals along the way. During the late nineteenth century, universal male suffrage was abandoned in Saxony when unfavorable electoral outcomes appeared imminent. A three-class voting system was introduced in which each of three income classes elected the same number of delegates to parliament. By this mechanism the top two classes, comprising one-fifth of the population, could always outvote the poorest class.

In Spain, universal suffrage was introduced in 1931 and resulted in a series of left-leaning governments. Conservative groups put an end to that with a military coup in 1936 suspending democracy till the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1977.

In the USA, a constitutional amendment gave the vote to blacks in 1870. But Southern states succeeded in disenfranchising them by adopting poll tax and property requirements as well as by physical intimidation. It was only in 1965 that this situation was remedied through the Voting Rights Act that was passed as a consequence of the Civil Rights Movement. 


There is one other dimension of the evolution of democracy that is even less appreciated than the very slow extension of the franchise. This pertains to the fact that none of the now developed countries granted universal suffrage below a per capita income of $2,000 (in 1990 dollars). When France granted universal suffrage in 1946 its per capita income was $3,800; that of Italy was $2,450. By contrast, almost all the ex-colonies were given the gift of universal suffrage at per capita incomes that were well below the $2,000 benchmark, typically around $500.

The present-day implications of dealing with universal suffrage, a much lower voting age, very low levels of per capita incomes, and wide income disparities can be readily grasped. In any free and fair elections the young and impoverished are always likely to vote the entrenched elites out of power. In the real world such a transformation cannot be allowed or tolerated. Referring to Yugoslavia of the 1990s, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke is reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”



Hence it is no surprise that attempts to thwart the will of the people begin as soon as the gift of full-blown democracy is received by developing countries. An elite form of governance based on the preceding order re-emerges now cloaked in democratic garb. Unlike the case of the now developed countries who had no one exercising power or moral judgment over them, an expensive façade needs to be maintained; very soon people start to live in a make-believe, Alice-in-Wonderland, world in which ‘true’ democracy is always around the corner.

This historical perspective suggests three conclusions. First, that the colonists parting gift of democracy was not much of a favor. Second, that any elite group’s claim or promise to bestow true democracy needs to be met with skepticism. And third, that the relationship between democracy and development needs to be re-examined. It might well be that “democracy is more an outcome of, rather than a pre-requisite for, development, and is therefore not really a variable we can manipulate, whether or not we think it is good for development.”



Certainly the experience of East Asia in the twentieth century seems to bear out the above-mentioned hypothesis regarding the relationship between economic development and democratic governance. 



The information in this article and the quotation in the conclusion are from Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective by Ha-Joon Chang (Anthem Press, London, 2002).

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