Democracy in the Third World


What is a democracy? Is it merely a system of governance, a system of values and ideas or is it both? Is it a characteristic feature of a society or the state? Questions such as these have been a matter of intense research and analysis in the modern era. Various western political theorists have tried to encapsulate within their research the spread of the notion of a democracy throughout the world. A notable contribution in this direction has been made by Prof. Samuel P. Huntington in the form of his theory of the three waves of democratisation.

According to his thesis, democracy expanded in three distinct periods, which he refers to as the three waves of democracy. The first wave starting from 17th century spanned over a period of two centuries in which the ‘mature‘ democracies of today such as UK,US,France became democracies. This was followed by the first reverse wave i.e. the period between the two world wars in which several democracies of Western Europe notably Germany, Italy, Portugal etc. fell prey to totalitarian regimes.

Subsequently, the end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the second wave of democracy when newly decolonized countries in Asia,Africa and Latin America embraced democracy. Finally, the third wave which heralded in 1980s contributed to democratic transition of erstwhile Soviet satellite states. Thus, with this the process of almost universal adoption of democracy looked complete, with the exception of Arab countries which have remained aloof from the democratic spirit. Regardless, democracy has stood tall as representative of the modern way of life.

However, when we look at the second wave, one distinct thing that emerges is that despite adopting democracy as a political system, almost every erstwhile colony with the sole exception of India fell prey either to authoritarianism or civil/ethnic strife soon after gaining independence. South Asia is a glaring example of this cyclical phenomenon.

Therefore, in order to explain these events, Western scholars have put forward various theories. One among these is the modernisation theory. The proponents of this theory argue that the reason why democracy could not take root in the third world nations is because of the abysmal level of social development in these countries, the claim being that democratic society and a particular level of economic development is necessary for the growth of democracy. The inherent assumption underlying this is that development is a prerequisite for democracy. This also implied that there exists a zero sum game between democracy and development and because the urgent need of the poor nations is social and economic welfare, democracy is not suitable for them.

Lee Kuan Yew is another scholar who put forward similar analysis in his thesis popularly known as the “Lee thesis“. Lee thesis is a critique of Indian model of democracy. Lee blamed democracy in India for what he calls the ‘unrealised potential‘ of India. According to him, democracy leads to extraordinary delays in decision making while simultaneously giving rise to populist policies. The single biggest problem associated with the Indian democracy according to him is the sheer indiscipline that it brings into the system, which impedes development. Hence, the remedy according to Lee lies in embracing a semi authoritarian or perhaps a guided democracy model and not the liberal representative from of government.

Critiques of the Lee thesis and the Modernization theory

The common thread that binds both the modernisation theory of western scholars and ‘Lee thesis‘ is their strict compartmentalization of democracy and development in two different boxes. It is assumed that one cannot have both of them together, and a trade off is inevitable. This view has been severely criticized by social liberals like Amartya Sen who argue that democracy, especially in the third world countries is both an end in itself as well as the means to an end – the end being social, political and economic well being.

Thus, they claim that democracy and development are not exclusive rather they are interdependent on each other. They also emphasize that democracy should not be equated with or judged merely on the basis of the level of economic development of a country as there are several reasons apart from democracy behind the economic success or failure of a country. Thus they say that, if China has developed faster than India, it is not just because of authoritarian system but rather because of a host of other factors. Similarly, the reason behind the ‘slow’ pace of Indian development cannot be solely attributed to its democratic system.

Finally, it would be appropriate to state that third world countries present a unique challenge to democracy whereby it has to contribute towards the ‘democratisation of the society’. In the Western societies, the process of democratisation preceded the formal introduction of democracy as a political system whereas in developing and under-developed countries of the third world the democratic political system has to ensure democratisation. Also, it is equally important to conceptualise democracy in a more holistic manner and not just as a system of governance.

Picture Credits:

Most Popular

To Top