At a time when Western democracies are struggling to deliver on key ideals and promises, the debate is increasingly shifting towards acknowledging the alternative forms of democratic practice and innovations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. There is growing recognition among Western actors and democracy practitioners to engage and incorporate some of innovative democratic practices emerging from the non-Western democracies. In a timely intervention, Richard Youngs, Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe, has done well to capture some of the key contours of such transformations in his recent book ‘The Puzzle of Non Western Democracy’.
The discussion on this book, organised at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi on February 15, 2016, on the sidelines of the Carnegie workshop on ‘Rising Democracies’ (February 15-16), had some of the eminent experts and practitioners of democracy from Asia and Africa. They included Gilbert Khadiagala, Jan Smuts, Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sook Jong Lee, President, East Asia Institute, Seoul, and Dr Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF, Delhi. The discussion was moderated by well known democracy expert Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Acknowledging that the non-Western attempts to identify their own models of democracy are justified and supported by the West, Dr. Youngs in his presentation argued that there was a need to retain the essence of a liberal democracy in general. He said even the West needed to revisit its democratisation policies while dismissing outright authoritarian rule veiled in local traditions. He suggested that the purview of liberal democracy must be expanded for it to be able to allow the enrichment of non-Western values and institutions. To this end, he argued that greater democratic variation across the world was a good thing — even if it is not easy to distinguish Western from non-Western model of democracy.
The democratic variation, according to Dr. Youngs, should be along the following line: personal rights; economic justice; power-sharing mechanisms; alternative forms of civic action and representation; and legal pluralism. According to him, different countries can both offer and receive ideas about democratic transformation regardless of geography. This involved finding a balance between defending genuinely-universal norms on the one hand and encouraging democratic experimentation on the other.
The discussion that followed the presentation by the author delved on regional perspectives on different models of democracy. Interesting observations on the convergences and divergences of different regions like Africa and Asia with Western democratic model were made. For instance, the debate in Africa centred on questions of accountability owing to its weak institutional base. A prevailing view with respect to Africa was that the very idea behind talking about different varieties of democracy means that we are not differentiating between western and non western form of democracy but looking within a larger framework of democracy. On the other hand, the Asian variation to liberal democracy rested in the sphere of values as they are elusive. There is suspicion of excessive liberalism in Asia. Asian democracy model prefers good governance over absolute liberal democracy.
Agreeing with Dr. Youngs’ analysis, various commentators were of the opinion that there is also a need to critically evaluate the relationship between different forms of economic policy with different models of democracy. When people say they need a non western form of democracy, they are actually looking for a different kind of economic policy. What they object to is the liberal economic policy that exists in liberal democracies. The same applies to liberal social values that people oppose.
The major take away from the book discussion was that it was essential to hold some constants while drawing parallels between the Western and Non western forms of democracy. To conclude, democracies follow modernisation and development and are thus “work in progress”. A more positive approach is to recognize that democratic renewal is urgently needed within and beyond the West, and that all societies can learn from one another in the process. Asia, for instance, could do better in capacity building and the West can improvise in grassroots democracy promotion. Thus, a mutual, two-way learning is required between Western and non-Western governments and civil society actors in pursuit of better-quality democracy.
This report is prepared by Himani Pant, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.