Stronger democracy will check ‘Old Guard in new Mexico’

PRI candidate Peña-Nieto. Pic credit:

“After voting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential residence, twelve years ago, the country looks poised to bring it back,” notes Shannon K. O’Neil.

The party “continues to be a club of corruption, a preserve of tightly linked political and business interests, a network woven together through the constant exchange of favors and positions, negotiated in the shadows,” says Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican political analyst.

But “whether the PRI set to take power is a new version of its old self is less important than the fact that Mexico’s democratic institutions will hem in the next president, regardless of party or personal preferences,” O’Neil writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Mexican democracy has evolved in ways that make a return to wholesale PRI dominance unlikely. Consider how the role and power of the legislative and judicial branches have changed since the 1990s. During the old PRI’s heyday, Congress was little more than a rubber stamp, with the PRI’s delegates rarely questioning the edicts of their president. Now, Congress is a real fulcrum for negotiations and debates between Mexico’s three main parties. Even if the PRI gains a majority in both houses, the administration will need the support of at least a segment of the opposition to pass the big-ticket items on the agenda — energy, tax, labor, and political reform — some of which would require constitutional changes. Unlike the PRI of the past, whoever wins will need to work with the opposition in order to govern.

Likewise, the Supreme Court is more powerful than in decades past. It now provides a check on the president and on vested interests. In the old days, the justices blessed whatever legislation came their way. But in the 1990s, President Ernesto Zedillo reorganized and professionalized the court, creating an independent institution as a hedge against an opposition takeover, which had begun to look increasingly likely. Since then, the court has become an independent and final arbiter on many political issues — it has passed judgment on topics as diverse as the constitutionality of new legislation, the rules governing elections, and the jurisdiction of civilian courts over the military. 

The elections “will pose a new test for Mexican democracy” and for the authority of a state that has been undermined by powerful narco-traffickers, said Dr. Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Commission, at a National Endowment for Democracy forum.

Endemic corruption has sapped the legitimacy of the state, the former Reagan-Fascell fellow recently observed.

“We have good laws. But they do not have an effect on the real world of corruption,” Ugalde wrote in Nexos magazine, in a dissection of corruption and impediments to cleaning it up:

Mexico’s civil society is also better placed to resist a PRI-led regression, especially its independent media, says O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently directed CFR’s Independent Task Force on U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality:

A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. 

“The job of Mexican journalists covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the Mexico-U.S. border has been called the most dangerous job in the world,” says a recent report from the Center for International Media Assistance (below). “And the danger has spread from journalists for traditional media to bloggers and citizens who post reports on drug cartel violence through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.”

 The threats to independent media confirm O’Neil’s suggestion that “Mexico’s democracy still struggles with deep-rooted vested interests, and the country has a limited set of tools for ensuring open, accountable, and responsive government.”

“A forward-looking democratic administration could push doors open further by investing in political reforms to encourage elected officials to be more accountable to their constituents, fully implementing the country’s judicial reforms, and ensuring the continuation of a free press and active civil society,” she concludes.


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As Putin ‘throws down gauntlet’ to critics, Russian liberals ‘losing faith in the West’

Russia’s don’t need Western assistance or democracy promotion, says a leading liberal, as President Vladimir Putin today “signed into law a controversial bill that dramatically raises fines on illegal protests.”

But growing discontent with the regime was confirmed by news that a growing number of Russians want to emigrate abroad.

Some 20 percent of respondents hope to permanently leave Russia, according to a Levada Center poll, a 7 percent increase over the last three years:

When asked to assess their country’s future prospects, roughly one-fifth of those surveyed said they believe that Russia will become as rich and developed as the West, with 7 percent anticipating development along the lines of Asian countries such as China and India. Seven percent had more dire predictions for the country, saying they foresee “impending collapse and ruin” for Russia.

The independent Levada Center* also finds that only 15 percent of Russians support protest marches and camps, news that is likely to prompt a re-assessment of tactics by opposition groups.

“People are angry about the new law. It’s going to drive turnout up,” said Sergei Davidis of the Solidarity movement, referring to a planned opposition rally.

Analysts believe the rally will be an indicator of the opposition’s ability to maintain momentum, but is unlikely to represent a major watershed.

“It’s an important day, but it’s not likely to be a turning point,” said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technology. “It’s important for the opposition to show that people continue

Russian democrats are confronting “a phenomenon that until recently was unthinkable: emerging anti-Western and anti-American liberalism,” says a leading observer.

“We Russians don’t need any assistance from the West! We don’t expect any help in democracy promotion!claims Lilia Shevstova, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.  Russian democrats need the West to recover its confidence and “reinvent” itself as a model for the rest of the world.

Beset by economic crisis, apparently dysfunctional political institutions and a crippling lack of self-confidence, the West’s democracies, no longer provide the compelling pole of attraction and ideologically assured alternative to authoritarian rule they represented during the Cold War, she writes in a must-read polemic in the American Interest.

I am only describing how Western developments and Western policies are seen from the outside by those who have traditionally looked to the West as an example and even an icon….. Western observers themselves admit that the West has problems. Francis Fukuyama, for one, writes about “American Political Dysfunction.” Walter Mead declares, “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore.” William Galston says, “We need a fundamental renewal of the liberal tradition in America.” ….. Even Robert Kagan, whom we can hardly suspect of declinism, agrees that “the United States must adjust to the new” (p. 140).

Europe is no different. Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Zbigniew Brzezinski concludes that Europe has become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (p. 36). Europeans themselves lament the crisis of Western civilization as well. Constanze Stelzenmüller acknowledges a “toxic polarization of domestic politics” and discrediting of “politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government.”

“The Western project is beginning to resemble a house with a shaky foundation,” Shevstova suggests, lamenting that the West’s opinion-formers and decision-makers are plagued by a politically disabling cynical pragmatism, rationalized as realism or realpolitik.

Recent trends mark a pronounced regression since the Cold War, when the existential challenge of Soviet Communism “forced the West to pay close attention to justice, fairness, equality and social aspects of capitalism” and to adopt a values-based approach to foreign policy:

The universalization of human rights and respect for dignity and freedom blurred the boundaries between domestic and foreign policy, entailing rejection of the concept of absolute sovereignty in the global arena. The Helsinki process and its Final Act were simultaneously a sign of the new vitality of Western civilization, an effective instrument to contain the U.S.S.R. and a catalyst for the “third wave” of democratization. The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 owed at least part of their success to the influence of liberalism in the area of international relations.

By contrast, “it seems that there is no intellectual or political force in the West that would dare repeat the breakthrough of the 1970s by re-energizing liberal civilization with a return to values and principles. Looks like we are back in the Kissingerian world,” Shevstova notes:

Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo…..

But how can Western civilization reinvent itself while pursuing a foreign policy pragmatism based on turning inward and making trade-offs with the non-democratic world? Western states do indeed face a multitude of internal challenges, but if foreign policy is a projection of the domestic agenda, how can liberal democracies hope to reform their political systems and revive their principles while refusing to follow them in the international arena?

My Western friends would argue that in order to think about values abroad, the West should first sort things out at home. And then…liberal democracies will start thinking about the integrity and popularity of their foreign policies, and of democracy, in the outside world. I just don’t get this: How can one re-energize liberal democracy while continuing with the same foreign policy model that is one of the causes of the liberal democracies’ normative crisis?

Charles Kupchan is typical of many Western analysts in claiming that by pursuing illiberal, paternalistic routes toward modernity,  capitalist autocracies like China and Russia provide ”an appealing alternative to the Western model,” says Shevstova.

The notion that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an attractive model for anyone is risible, she suggests, while noting that “if Fukuyama, Minxin Pei and Andrew Nathan are right in saying that the Chinese system ‘embeds plenty of hidden problems that will make it in the long run unsustainable’, and that the Chinese model ‘is expedient, something temporary and transitional,’ then China may soon cease being a success story and prove that its culture and past do not ‘contrast’ with liberalization.”

Equally absurd are Western analysts’ claims that engagement with so-called modernizers like Dmitri Medvedev will in some way facilitate an incremental form of democratization:

The most frustrating aspect of this hypocrisy is the role played by the Western political and intellectual communities in the Kremlin’s staged “operas”, like the Valdai Club and Yaroslav Forum, which have been used by the Kremlin to legitimize its authoritarian rule. The annual participation of Western politicians, pundits and journalists in meetings with Kremlin leaders has helped to make Russian authoritarianism appear more civilized and acceptable for the West. …. Western participation in the Kremlin’s show will only exacerbate Russia’s disenchantment with the West and highlight its double standards.

The history of Western civilization has proven that the best environment for progress is one of competition and a certain clash of ideas. Having lost its former opponent, Communism, the West has acquired, without even noticing, a much more dangerous enemy: the corruption and cynicism exported by authoritarian systems. The Russian political and business elite has personally integrated into Western society, and it has succeeded in creating there a powerful laundry machine and a multi-layered “service class” that operates that machine (made up of lawyers, bankers, politicians, journalists, experts and even entire think tanks). This service class has been successfully lobbying on behalf of the interests of the Russian system in the West.

Nevertheless, many Russian liberals believe the West can reinvent itself and rebound, says Shevstova:

We believe that there is a chance to turn global interdependence in the opposite direction, to force the new West to influence Russia and the other transitional societies that got stuck in the doldrums. But we doubt that the new West can emerge without changing its current foreign policy paradigm and the ways it deals with the world. We doubt that the West can revitalize itself with its current crop of political leaders and intellectual elites.

We Russians don’t need any assistance from the West! We don’t expect any help in democracy promotion! Indeed those words should be erased from political dictionaries. Any Western attempt to preach democracy or to assist our civil society will only discredit our agenda (especially given the West’s current reputation).

Russia’s democrats need the West to “revive the principles that it is built upon,” she asserts:

Constraints on the freedom of the corrupt elites of authoritarian states to operate in Western society (the Magnitsky bill could be one) would be healthy, first and foremost, for Western society. Raising the issue of politicians and intellectuals who damage their reputations by working for authoritarian regimes would also help us both—but would help Western society most of all.


* The Levada Center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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One year later, is Libya cracking up?

Is Libya’s transitional process likely to produce “only another Somalia-like failed state?

The authorities are making great strides – technically, at least – in advancing the country’s political transition. But the government’s inability to secure a monopoly on the use of force is undermining the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council and the integrity of state institutions, while the “judicial system remains in a state of paralysis” as widespread political retribution threatens the rule of law.

“The interim government registered 90 percent of the country’s eligible voters for what would be the first elections in 60 years,” the Washington Post reports. Some 4,000 candidates have presented themselves for the election of a 200-member national assembly that will be charged with writing a new constitution, appointing a new interim government and overseeing another election a year from now.”

In the absence of a robust civil society and strong state institutions, the NTC’s authority is consistently flouted by the revolutionary militias, or thuwwar, and it remains “unclear whether the forces working against the elections will allow them to proceed on time,” says The Economist’s Nicolas Pelham.

“With the collapse of central authority, militias rule in and around Benghazi,” he writes:

The day I arrived there hundreds of militia members had converged on the city for a congress aimed at unifying their ranks and reclaiming what they see as their rightful inheritance from the NTC and whatever elected authority might follow. “Benghazi paid the price, and Tripoli takes the profits,” declared the organizer, as he spoke from the podium after the militiamen had feasted beneath a golden canopy, regaling each other with past exploits…..Revolutionary committees” continue to exercise sway as part of a shadow government. Katibas, or brigades of paramilitaries, remain beyond the control of the formal military chain of command. “After forty years Qaddafi lives in our minds,” I was told by the minister of industry.

“Where the state does not function, there are impulses toward anarchy,” as “establishing law and order has proved to be the hardest task, not least because many militias want to provide an alternative,” Pelham observes in a must-read account in the New York Review of Books:

The government has succeeded in cajoling the militiamen to make a formal decision to leave the capital’s airports. But whole units have simply switched uniforms and painted their cars the red and white of security vehicles. “We call them policemen,” a security official tells me; but the new Libya still has no criminal justice system, because judges are too nervous to issue verdicts, and the police too powerless to enforce them…..In their absence, the militias offer what little rough justice exists.

“The main threat to Libya’s stability are the local-level conflicts as communities seek to defend their interests and see justice served,” the Los Angeles Times’ Glen Johnson reports.

That justice often entails summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and indefinite detention driven in large part by political retribution against which the state lacks the capacity and authority to intervene.

“The main reason [rebel] militias are not being pursued is that they can’t be. There are not sufficient security forces in place to even begin this process” says William Lawrence, North Africa director at the International Crisis Group:

Lawrence believes the interim government is caught between the reality of having to engage with former Kadafi regime workers, who are highly trained and experienced in the machinations of governance, and its promises to hold to account those with blood on their hands.

“Finding the right balance for transitional justice is really important, as it is in Egypt, Tunisia and the other Arab Spring countries,” he said.

“In practice it is very hard to draw the line, to find the right balance. If done incorrectly, pursuing this type of transitional justice in an overzealous fashion could lead to a witch hunt, which is in no one’s interests.”

“It is part of an ‘Arab Spring ‘search for dignity,” says Lawrence. “In my estimation, this will continue for the foreseeable future — the complex realities of Libyan communities negotiating.”

As a National Endowment for Democracy forum predicted, the violent conflict that accompanied Kaddafi’s ouster was always “likely to exacerbate problems already inherent in a democratic transition and to lead to demands for retribution” and raising the “risk of revenge-driven politics.”

The forum highlighted the “hierarchy of imperatives” identified in the Rand Corporation’s Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building as priorities notably relevant to the Libyan case: 1) securing the freedom of operation that institution-building requires; 2) providing basic infrastructure for the delivery of social services; 3) stabilizing the economic sector to ensure the basic functioning of markets and international trade; 4) democratization; and 5) economic development.

Given the transitional authorities’ failure or inability to realize these imperatives, it is no surprise that tensions between the thuwwar militias and the NTC are undermining prospects of a democratic transition.

Nevertheless, the elections scheduled for mid-June “remain the best chance to replace the militias with the legitimacy of the ballot box, Pelham writes:

Behind the scenes, Ian Martin, the UN’s special representative in Libya, drawing on his experience overseeing elections in East Timor and Nepal, has been trying to get the NTC to keep to its timetable. Voter registration has proceeded remarkably smoothly, even in the south. According to the UN more than two million of Libya’s estimated three million voters registered within the first two weeks.

“Many of the former militiamen appear as mentally battered as the buildings they fought for in the eight months of bloodshed,” Pelham notes, but their “capacity for being spoilers is substantial, whether of the electoral process or the system of government.”

The Washington Post concurs:

The sooner Libya can stage elections, the sooner it will have authorities with sufficient legitimacy to complete the work of extending the government’s rule, dismantling militias and providing sufficient security to attract foreign investment…… Yet even now, the evidence is against those who argue that the overthrow of Libya’s dictatorship has produced only another Somalia-like failed state.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012
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‘Inspire action, change history’ by advancing democracy

“Recent events in China, Russia and the Arab world vividly demonstrate that democracy remains a universal aspiration, but also that the forces of repression have powerful means to resist the tide,” the Washington Post notes:

Thirty years ago, on June 8, 1982, President Reagan delivered an address to the British Parliament that stands as one of the greatest of his presidency and a milestone in the final years of the Cold War. At a time when the Soviet Union seemed to be a permanent, if foreboding, presence in the world, Reagan predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

The Westminster address proposed a new initiative to promote democracy around the world, echoing a proposal that Democratic Congressman Dante Fascell (right, with Reagan) had been pushing for several years. A year later, Congressional Democrats and Republicans joined forces with organized labor and business to establish the National Endowment for Democracy, an initiative marked by a bipartisan commemoration earlier this week.

“Although Mr. Reagan’s focus was on the Soviet bloc, his vision has endured long after Soviet communism expired,” the Post observes, noting that the NED supports democratic activists and groups in more than 90 countries:

The National Endowment for Democracy, and like-minded agencies that other democracies subsequently established, have found useful ways to aid and nurture freedom movements. Words, too, are important. Reading the Westminster speech is a good reminder of their power to inspire action, and change history.


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Economic crisis threatens Tunisia’s transition

Tunisia’s government is struggling to deal with the economic grievances that sparked last year’s popular uprising and a fresh wave of protests could threaten the country’s fragile political transition, according to a new report.

The Islamist-secular coalition running the government needs to do more to address rising unemployment, regional economic discrepancies and corruption, says the latest International Crisis Group.

The growing influence of militant Islamists is also spreading social intolerance and undermining the country’s secular democratic culture, reports suggest.

“It so far has been unable to address them rapidly enough and is failing to quell the impatience of workers and unemployed youth who expect to reap the fruits of their involvement in past struggles,” said the report, Tunisia: Confronting Social and Economic Challenges. “Economic grievances are churning right below the surface. They could once again reach full boil.”

Tunisia has the best prospects for securing a democratic transition, say analysts (indeed, some experts suggest such a transition has already occurred), but the government risks losing legitimacy is it fails to deliver on the socio-economic grievances that provoked the anti-authoritarian revolt.

“Under a veneer of normalcy, economic grievances are festering”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “The economic and social problems that sparked the uprising a year and a half ago are not adequately discussed and could boil over again”.

Growing tensions between militant Islamists and secular democrats are feeding a sense of insecurity and undermining the authority of the country’s political institutions.

“The state has failed to restore its authority in several regions — indeed, it appears to be limping along ever since the dissolution of the omnipotent former ruling party. Corruption persists and provokes discontent and indignation,” the report adds:

A succession of caretaker governments has maintained a relative economic peace by resorting to emergency measures, but the situation inherited by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s government requires more drastic action. Tunisians of all stripes are expressing growing resentment that could disintegrate into a situation of every man for himself.

Many urgent tasks are at hand. Corruption persists and provokes discontent and indignation. Local economic and political relations are being restructured in sometimes dubious and opaque ways. This is happening in places where the central state – at times limping since the dissolution of the former ruling party – has failed to restore its authority. Likewise, the government so far has been unable to adequately curb corruption, local violence related to the redistribution of power, or the proliferation of smuggling networks which fuel inflation. Its margin for manoeuvre is constrained, caught between bureaucratic inertia, popular sit-ins and protests, political questioning of its legitimacy and a depressed global environment.

To restore socio-economic stability, the state must address popular demands without stirring up new ones that will further undercut the private and public sectors’ ability to function effectively. It needs to maintain an increasingly fragile peace, keep a complicated transition on track and regain the confidence of local communities, where people measure progress primarily in terms of material well-being. All of which must be done in an increasingly polarised political environment.

“The principal social and political forces are not itching for a political showdown”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “The various parties appear to accept democratic rules of the game and are seeking to reposition themselves on the political playing field in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections. But the risk is that socio-economic insecurity and instability could snowball into a legitimacy crisis for the government and undermine the largely peaceful political transition underway”.

New York University’s Brademas Center has launched a website devoted to the Arab Revolts.

John Brademas, a former chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy National Endowment for Democracy, was a recipient of the NED’s 2001 Democracy Service Medal.

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