Emerging powers and the promotion of democracy

Employment & Income,Inclusive Economy24 Jun 2014Saskia Hollander

The emerging powers, the BRICS, as well as countries like Turkey and Indonesia, are currently taking the lead in claiming more participation and influence for the South in international decision-making, not only at the WTO and climate negotiations, but also in the process of formulating the post-2015 development agenda.  At the same time, the North has called on them to take their share of the responsibility in delivering ‘global public goods’.  For this reason, recent research has focused on analysing the role emerging powers play in promoting democracy, both within and beyond their own borders.

During the EADI 14th General Conference panel session ‘Promoting Democracy in a Polycentric World: What Role for the Emerging Powers’, Andrew Cooper and Gerd Schönwälder argued that the emerging economies – mainly Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey and Indonesia – are playing an increasingly important role in promoting democracy beyond their own borders. And they are doing so with considerable success, as they enjoy a higher level of credibility in the South than their Western counterparts, who bear the burden of their colonial past. Furthermore, their approaches vary significantly from those of the West. Andrew Cooper, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, pointed to a sharp contrast between promoting democracy multilaterally and bilaterally.

In the multilateral arena, emerging powers like India and Brazil aim to establish their reputation for promoting democracy mainly to increase their credibility as players. Turkey’s pro-active role in calling for the rule of law to be included in the UN’s post-2015 agenda could also be seen as a clear example of this strategy.

Bilaterally, by contrast, the aim of building their identity does not apply, as these countries mainly promote procedural democracy, in the sense that they provide technical support to democratic institution-building. India’s support for free and fair elections in Nepal, or the building of the legislature in Afghanistan are clear examples of this. Cooper sees this as mainly a defensive approach: they do not ‘openly’ promote democracy in the region as they ‘do not want to draw too much attention to themselves’ and run the risk of harming their own security and economic interests by proclaiming an alleged Western agenda.

Gerd Schönwälder, of the University of Ottawa, Canada, argues that while emerging powers have a great advantage compared to Western countries, they have not realized their potential to promote democracy bilaterally. Their more restrained approach is due to alleged short-term risks, as they are afraid of fostering political instability in the region and harming vital economic interests. Despite being increasingly active in promoting democracy, at home many of the emerging powers face democratic challenges, related to top-down policy-making and restrictions on political expression. Many of these countries – like Brazil and Turkey, but also China – have recently witnessed public unrest as a result of the complexity of their growing economies and rising levels of inequality. Declining satisfaction with democracy and often oppressive responses from the government are posing a threat to democratic consolidation in these countries.

One reason for declining public satisfaction with democracy in the emerging powers is perhaps the vulnerability of the middle class to economic shocks. During this session, Luis A. Camacho of the German Development Institute argued that support for democracy in newly established democracies is more dependent on the government’s economic performance than in more mature democracies.

This finding ties in closely with this morning’s plenary session, where the role of the middle class as a catalyst for democracy was discussed. While the middle class has been largely seen as the driver of democratization in the advanced industrialized countries, the panellists in the plenary session agreed that this does not apply in the case of emerging powers. Because of their vulnerability to economic shocks, the lower middle classes – which now form the largest group in many emerging countries – tend to be pragmatic and instrumental supporters of democracy rather than a long-term democratic force.

The Broker reports from the EADI conference ‘Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes’, 23 – 26 June 2014 in Bonn, Germany. The Broker is main media partner during this conference.