Democratic Transition and Transformation

The Allied victory over Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II was hailed by the West as a victory for democracy and soon led to the establishment of democratic governments in those countries. Shortly after the war, India and many countries previously under colonial rule, notably in Africa (e.g. Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda), gained their independence. All of them adopted democratic constitutions. Other examples of transition from oligarchic or authoritarian control occurred in Spain and Portugal, as well as in several Latin American countries (e.g. Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile) and some in Asia (e.g.

Malaysia). But perhaps the most dramatic transitions to democracy occurred in the late twentieth century. Notable among these were the democratic revolutions which occurred in former communist-ruled countries of eastern Europe (e.g. Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union), and in apartheid South Africa. Many more countries across the globe have begun to follow suit.

These transitions to democracy, whether initially imposed from without or achieved from within, have changed the face of global politics. They have demonstrated the potential of democratic rule, but also its fragility and hence the need to implement measures which can help new democracies to reach maturity.

Countries with a long democratic tradition are obviously in a different historical situation from those that have undergone a sudden transition to democracy from colonial or authoritarian rule. In the former, it is unlikely that elections will be disrupted by widespread violence, whereas in the latter holding free and fair elections without violent intimidation is often a problem. Democracy requires the development of an ethos, and accordingly cannot be built overnight. Such an ethos includes political tolerance, a working relationship between opposing political parties and leaders that excludes violence for the sake of the common good, and, of course, the building of a strong civil society. This takes considerable effort. In established democracies the challenge is to keep the democratic spirit alive and not take democracy for granted. Hence the need both for civil society and for a growing appreciation of the democratic vision. In those countries where democracy is a recent introduction there is a need for consolidating what has been achieved, for the development of appropriate institutions, as well as to press on urgently toward the democratic transformation of society. There now exists a growing network of institutions and agencies around the world whose mandate is to facilitate the transition to democracy in countries undergoing such change. At the same time older democracies may well learn a great deal from the newer; for if democracy is to realize its potential and fulfill its promise, it requires constant critique, development, and revitalization.

The transition to democracy, especially after years of authoritarian or totalitarian rule, invariably requires that a nation deal with its past history of injustice and oppression. While the transition may require political compromises, the sustainability of what has been achieved demands the overcoming of legacies that potentially threaten to undermine those gains. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and similar commissions elsewhere provide examples of what can and has been done in this regard. Following up their recommendations has not always proved easy or politically expedient, but without some process of restorative justice being implemented national healing and reconstruction are unlikely to take place. And without the latter, democracy will be constantly under threat.

But the transition to democracy not only requires dealing with the past; it also requires responding to new issues and concerns. This brings us to the question of democratic transformation. If democracy is understood not only as a system of government but also as a continuing moral quest, then as soon as one stage is reached in the struggle for justice and equity, other issues emerge that need to be addressed and embodied in democratic practice. The extension of the franchise to freed slaves or women in many countries came about long after those countries - the United States and Switzerland are good examples - had embarked upon the path of democracy. So, today, the rights of homosexuals, of unborn children, of refugees and foreigners more generally are matters of considerable concern in the shaping of contemporary democratic legislation. Some would also argue that democracy should encompass animal rights as well.

Throughout this essay I have emphasized the importance of civil society in the consolidation and protection of democracy. In many countries the transition to democracy has come about because of pressure from civil society; in no country is democratic transformation possible without such participation. A strong civil society is indispensable if democratic transition from authoritarian rule is to be sustained, reversals resisted, and democratic transformation pursued. This brings us to the contemporary role of the Christian church, along with other faith communities, in democratization.

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