Between Illiberal Democrats and Undemocratic Liberals

A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013

A demonstration against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, December 2, 2013 (Alexandra Gnatoush)

The political upheavals in Egypt, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine share a striking commonality which suggests that democracy is not enough to Westernize these countries.

In all four, a liberal minority has agitated against a majoritarian government that, unlike majority governments in Europe, is primarily concerned with advancing the interests of its own supporters.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, freely elected after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was seen as looking only after its own kind, disregarding the mounting concerns of the nation’s Christians, secular Muslims and women. The dissatisfied, and sometimes terrified, minority became a majority last year, giving the military a mandate to topple the Islamists. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians has since approved a constitutional rewrite that could pave the way for the army to return to power.

Opponents of Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected in 2009 after her brother Thaksin was exiled, would rather like the same to happen in their country. They intend to boycott an election this year, knowing that the majority of Thai voters, especially in the poorer north of the country, will reelect the Shinawatras.

An army coup is less likely in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is similarly popular in the least developed parts of his country. Minority Alevis and Kurds as well as young and urban voters have grown wary of his increasingly authoritarian style of government yet Erdoğan could very well defy his own party’s rules on term limits and stand for reelection again in 2015 — and win.

Ukraine’s opposition accuses President Viktor Yanukovich of authoritarian behavior in the way he suppresses demonstrations against his government’s deepening of ties with Russia instead of Europe. In the west of the country, many urban, middle class Ukrainians had hoped their country would sign an association agreement with the European Union last year. Yanukovich reneged on the deal and turned to his former Soviet master for financial support. Yet he still seems to enjoy the backing of the majority of Ukrainians, especially in the east of the country which is home to some eight million ethnic Russians.

The Egyptians who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Thais who oppose the Shinawatras, the Turks who oppose Erdoğan and the Ukrainians who oppose Yanukovich tend to be urban, better paid and altogether more worldly than the majority of their compatriots. Their values are relatively more liberal, more Western, and can be more important to them than democracy — exposing a distinction between the two that many Westerners don’t have to make. Indeed, the political divide in these countries risks being one between illiberal democrats and undemocratic liberals. Between the two, who should the West support?

The European Union and the United States promote democracy abroad, assuming that democratic regimes are inherently more stable and likely to cooperate with each other on multilateral issues. In the four countries discussed here at least, that has proven to be not the case.

Democracy in Egypt brought to power a movement that not only had fundamentally different values from the West but was less of a stalwart ally than Mubarak had been.

When Turkey’s generals ruled the country, they were similarly more likely to line up behind the United States than Erdoğan has done. He also soured relations with Israel, the only democracy in the proper Western sense in the Middle East, calling into question the notion that democracies are always natural allies.

In Thailand and Ukraine, democracy has privileged one group over another — conservative and mostly rural voters from the north and east of the two countries respectively against middle and upper class voters from the cities in the south and west. It has not fostered a culture of consensus, as exists in Western Europe. It has caused confrontation instead.

Whichever group happens to be in power in Bangkok matters little to the West. Thailand is likely to ally with the United States in East Asia in either case. But the outcome of the power struggles in Egypt and Ukraine are relevant to Europe and the United States.

Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in control of Egypt, the country could have gone on to pursue a less vigorous antiterrorist policy and broken the axis of American allies in the region. The army, by contrast, seeks to undermine Hamas’ legitimacy in Gaza and is backed Saudi Arabia an the other Arab Gulf states. The United States should have no desire whatsoever to encourage an Islamist resurgence in Egypt.

Even if Ukraine’s association with the European Union could have cost the bloc whereas now Russia has had to throw the country a lifeline with $15 billion in credits, its longer term goal of expanding the European sphere of influence and decreasing its dependence on Russian natural gas has been damaged by Yanukovich’s snub. Why should European countries still support democracy in Ukraine when it produces a government that is hostile to them? Certainly Russia wouldn’t if it were the other way around.

The focus on democracy can thus harm the Western interest. European countries and the United States should care a little less about helping organize elections wherever they can and pay more attention to people who share their values — who are more likely to share their interests as well.

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