Meeting the Democratic Governance Challenge

Read a Country or a Territory Report

by Sarah Repucci and Christopher Walker

Democratic governance has taken a central place in the international policy debate as the business community, foreign assistance providers, and world leaders have come to recognize its indispensability in facilitating political development and economic growth. With this heightened interest has come greater demand for relevant and effective tools to monitor and measure sound governance. By providing a clear and wide-ranging analytical instrument, Countries at the Crossroads strives to help meet this demand.

Through its systematic and comprehensive review of core issues relating to democratic governance--covering the thematic areas of Accountability and Public Voice, Civil Liberties, Rule of Law, and Anticorruption and Transparency--Crossroads provides policymakers and analysts alike a single source of information and analysis that can meet a multiplicity of needs. Crossroads' numerical ratings and the extensive country essays that accompany them are intended to promote increased understanding of the progress states must make if they are to attain honest, transparent, and democratically accountable governance rooted in justice and the rule of law.

In 2005, the Crossroads analysis highlights two critical components of democratic governance in particular: free media and an independent judiciary. The Crossroads analysts identified these themes as among the most pressing priorities for regimes struggling with inadequate governmental accountability, weak rule of law, and pervasive corruption. As pillars on which strong and stable governance can be built, free media and independent judges should be primary goals for the countries covered in this volume.

Crossroads examines a unique group of countries: by and large those in the messy middle, perched between full democratic freedom and total repression. The survey offers an independent, external evaluation of the state of the rule of law, transparency, anticorruption efforts, governmental accountability, and respect for fundamental civil liberties in countries where democracy is absent or has not been securely consolidated. Moreover, the volume provides a clear and detailed assessment of the reform steps these countries must take if they are to join the community of stable, free, and democratic nations.

The 2005 edition is the second in the Countries at the Crossroads series. It examines 30 countries distinct from those in the first, 2004, edition. Crossroads is designed to evaluate this same set of 60 countries biennially, with the 2004 countries covered in each even-numbered year and the 2005 countries covered in odd-numbered years. In this way, Crossroads will cover the most extensive set of countries possible while creating a body of work that offers its readership useful time series data, as well as comprehensive narrative analysis that monitors progress or backsliding in the countries covered.

Freedom House publishes a range of analytical surveys, among them Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties; Freedom of the Press: The Annual Survey of Global Media Independence; Nations in Transit: Democratization in East Central Europe and Eurasia; and Citizenship and Justice: A Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Countries at the Crossroads is unique among Freedom House's publications in that it is the only such project to focus exclusively on government performance.

Crossroads Findings and the Importance of Government Performance

By focusing on government performance, Countries at the Crossroads places primary responsibility for the protection of basic rights and good governance on governments. Government performance has taken on a higher profile in the international assistance community due to the establishment by the U.S. government of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). The MCA's conceptual foundation is based on the idea that economic development flourishes when it is linked to democratic and free market policies. The MCA emphasizes rewarding countries that rule justly, invest in their own citizens, and foster economic freedom.

At root, the MCA seeks to reward sound policies, something on which both international assistance providers and the business community place high value. In order to help identify specific areas where improved policies are most urgently needed, the Crossroads survey contains targeted recommendations for priority action by the governments examined. These recommendations are designed to focus attention on different dimensions of public policy challenges. In some instances the recommendations provide guidance for the passage of specific legislation or regulatory steps to be taken by governments. In others, recommendations set forth basic principles that must be observed. In the 2005 Crossroads recommendations, the need for improvement is emphasized in two particularly critical areas: fostering independent media and enabling the independence of the judiciary.

Media and Judicial Independence as Linchpins of Democratic Governance

In more than half of the reports in the 2005 Crossroads edition, experts cited in their recommendations defense of news media and judicial independence as top priorities. The Crossroads findings suggest that by dominating the flow of information and the legal apparatus, regimes are able to exert thorough control over a country's political and economic life; the media and legal spheres function as keystones for maintaining an effective monopoly on power.

Under the most repressive regimes, the constriction of the flow of information has quashed a valuable channel for the expression of societal discontent. It has constrained the enabling environment for debate of alternative policy options to meet complex societal challenges. It has also allowed incumbents to employ state broadcasting and print resources to deny opposition forces the opportunity to reach a competitive threshold. Independent news media can also serve as a crucial mechanism for building popular political will for reform. By educating the public, informing them of unlawful or unethical behavior, and sharing information on possible best practices, the news media help facilitate policy improvement. Autocratic leaders are well aware of independent media's power and therefore seek to deny unfettered airing of issues. In so doing, they deny their own citizens the opportunity to improve their circumstances.

Meanwhile, an independent judiciary serves as a country's legal backbone, providing safeguards and guarantees that cut across other sectors of society. Executive dominance of judges and courts leads to unchecked power. Under such conditions, incumbents are at liberty to use the judicial system as an instrument to reward cronies and eliminate political competition. The lack of an independent judiciary is directly related to the problem of corruption. It should therefore come as no surprise that vested interests within the regime, or forces aligned closely with it, have a large stake in preventing the emergence of an independent institution that is capable of rendering decisions that promote public welfare rather than distribute spoils to narrow, corrupt interests. The misuse of public power for private or political profit flourishes when corrupt officials have little accountability for their actions. In these settings, an indispensable check on abuse of power--an independent judiciary--is suppressed in favor of judicial compliance and even affirmation.

The impact of such shortcomings can be seen in the example of Syria, covered in this volume by analyst David Lesch. Syria's Bashar al- 'Asad was the only presidential candidate in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafiz al-'Asad, who had ruled unchallenged since 1970. A few powerful families in or connected to the government control the country's wealth, and the ruling Ba'ath party keeps a tight grip on political institutions. Criticism is stifled in the local media, which are state run, thus depriving Syrians of the opportunity to voice opposition through the mainstream press. Meanwhile, both the president and the minister of justice participate in the council that appoints and promotes judges, ensuring executive influence in judicial proceedings. Authorities rarely face court proceedings, whether for corruption--which is rampant--or other abuse of power, leaving systemic problems unchecked. With avenues for debate in the media suppressed and regime opponents targeted by the courts, the Syrian system offer little space for political change.

Thus, this Crossroads volume suggests that independent media and an independent judiciary are fundamental components of any efforts at reform. Without these two mechanisms in place, other sectors and institutions are likely to face insurmountable obstacles to advancement.

Combating the Scourge of Corruption

Of course, both independent media and the judiciary are vitally important institutions for combating corruption, a subject that begs attention in virtually all of the countries examined in this volume. Denial of free expression and fair and independent judicial practice serves to immunize regimes and other powerful interests aligned with the authorities from meaningful scrutiny and accountability. By allowing corrupt practices to continue unchecked, such repression helps institutionalize them. Without meaningful exposure in the media and punishment through the courts, corruption is free to pervade society. As many of the states covered in this volume have ambitions of joining or more deeply integrating into the global economy, corruption is an issue that rightfully captures the attention of policymakers and businesspeople alike.

Crossroads does not attempt to measure corruption in a given country per se but instead evaluates the existence of laws and standards to prevent and combat corruption, the enforcement of such measures, and governmental transparency. Of the four main thematic areas addressed in the survey, the measure for anticorruption and transparency is the one in which the 30 governments on the whole received the lowest scores. The average score for this thematic area is 2.57, which reflects the implementation of few to very few standards and guarantees to prevent and root out corruption and ensure governmental transparency. The lowest score in this area--Libya at 0.19 out of 7--is the lowest in any area in the survey. The highest that any government scores in this area is just 3.88 (Colombia); this is considerably short of a score of 5, which is the threshold for a basic standard of effective performance.

These findings suggest that corruption is most likely a considerable problem for all of these governments. This is particularly true given that, of the four subsections covered in this thematic area, the one that addresses the environment for preventing corruption receives the lowest score for half of the 30 governments.

Within the sphere of corruption, the Crossroads experts highlighted several priority steps for reform:

  • an end to impunity for crimes of corruption;
  • the creation of an independent office to investigate and prosecute corruption-related crimes; and
  • enhanced access to government information.

Country Review

Countries at the Crossroads examines a wide spectrum of polities: multiparty systems with competitive elections that meet the minimum criteria of electoral democracy; dominant-party states in which multiparty systems have been usurped by a leadership that suppresses genuine electoral competition; one-party, authoritarian states; and monarchies. To a greater or lesser degree, all have some shortcomings in the fields of democracy, human rights, and accountable government. Many also confront considerable poverty: Of the 30 countries, 21 have gross national incomes per capita of less than $1,500; only one country (Libya) has a gross national income per capita of more than $3,000.

Of the 30 countries covered in the 2005 edition of Crossroads, six are struggling democracies (Bangladesh, Honduras, Mozambique, Paraguay, Thailand, Turkey). Five more are democratic governments facing popular unrest (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador) or violent insurgencies (Philippines, Colombia). One country has in recent years experienced significant erosion in democratic practice (Russia), and three other states possess electoral systems with strong influence from the ruling party (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Zambia). Two are monarchies (Bhutan, Swaziland), and eight are authoritarian regimes (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Iran, Mauritania, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Tunisia). Finally, this edition includes five countries that are among the world's worst performers with respect to freedom (China, Eritrea, Laos, Libya, Syria).

Colombia is the only country in the survey to achieve a score of 5 or above in any category; its score is 5.02 in Accountability and Public Voice. Colombia clearly faces serious governance challenges in regions affected by insurgent activity. However, the central government has nevertheless managed to afford considerable guarantees for free and fair elections, accountable government, and civic engagement in other parts of the country.

Four Pivotal Countries: China, Egypt, Iran, and Russia

Among the 30 countries covered in this edition of Crossroads, four are of particular strategic concern. China, Egypt, Iran, and Russia play pivotal roles in their respective regions while also influencing political, economic, and security affairs on the wider world stage. Given these countries' relative importance, their ability to implement comprehensive reforms successfully will affect an exceptionally wide range of interests and actors, including multinational companies, neighboring states, and international institutions.

China

China is at once economically dynamic and politically unaccountable. The Chinese leadership is attempting an ambitious and wide-ranging economic reform effort that holds considerable promise as well as risks. Among the most vexing challenges confronting China is the scope and depth of that country's corruption. China's tradition of secrecy is as strong as its tradition of transparency is weak. China's controlled media and restricted judiciary prompt serious questions about whether the leadership will be able to calibrate its airing of the corruption issue in a sufficiently deft manner to meet its larger economic reform ambitions. More fundamentally, China's authorities have asserted the need for vastly improved governance if the country is to join the ranks of advanced, modern states. Whether it can achieve this goal in the absence of meaningful political reform is the seminal and, as yet, unanswered question.

Joseph Fewsmith, author of the Countries at the Crossroads China report, observes that

neither the demands for political reform that emerged in the 1980s nor economic growth have led to democratic transition [in China]. The government's defenders point to gradual improvements in governance and the avoidance of the sort of chaos that might be expected to emerge in such a populous country undergoing rapid change and experiencing growing differences in income. Its critics, however, point to continuing abuses of power, including the stifling of dissent, to argue that China should embark on a program of political reform to bring democratic rights--not just improved standards of living--to its citizens.

Among the principal recommendations for the Chinese authorities is that they recognize the public's right to information by allowing the media to report on all topics, including corruption by officials. In addition, the courts should be separated from the supervision of party committees.

Egypt

Egypt is the Middle East's pivotal state. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is 77 years old and has not faced electoral competition during a quarter century in power, is confronted with an increasingly restive civil society and frustrated wider population. The Egyptian authorities have yet to embark on a path of democratic reform that could help ameliorate the increasingly difficult challenges confronting them to improve the country's economic performance and ease political tensions. The nascent public expression of these difficulties has come in the form of public protests from the kifaya (enough) movement. Kifaya represents a part of a larger community of civic activists in Egypt that the authorities should allow to help advance Egypt's democratic reform process. However, the regime has actively worked to curb efforts by civil society actors to move reform forward.

Denis Sullivan, author of the Egypt report, writes that

[Egypt's] law-making process, along with political and security institutions, is used more to thwart political opposition and civil liberties than to protect (let alone expand) them. [President] Mubarak keeps Egypt an authoritarian system, far from the democracy that he claims it to be. . . . Egypt has a vibrant civil society and an array of political institutions that could promote democracy. However, the president has not abided by his own promise, made repeatedly since he came to power, to allow democracy to function. Egyptian politics thus remain both restricted and promising.

Among the chief recommendations for Egypt in Countries at the Crossroads is that the government should amend the Press Law to end crippling fines and imprisonment for journalists who commit slander. In the judicial sphere, the government should allow judges to be promoted within their own ranks, not from executive branch agencies such as the ministry of justice. The emergency court system should be disbanded to allow for fairer and more accountable trials.

Iran

The Iranian leadership faces a restive citizenry that has clearly expressed its desire for more accountable and effective governance. However, the clerical dictatorship that wields power in Tehran has shown little inclination toward democratic reform.

Stephen Fairbanks in his Countries at the Crossroads report portrays a country in which a select group of high-ranking clergy has

proved intolerant of those who seek to broaden political participation, attempting to cap dissent with tough restrictions on freedom of expression. They have not hesitated to use their monopoly on juridical authority to keep critics and rivals under control. Political dissidents and journalists have no protection from arbitrary arrest or interrogations under torture. Corruption and bribery are pervasive, bred by the exclusive access to power open to supporters of the ruling clerics.

Among the main recommendations in the Iran report is that the authorities should permit unfettered freedom of expression by releasing journalists, Web site operators, and other individuals imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions. Moreover, the regime should allow the media to investigate all forms of corruption without fear of retaliation.

Russia

Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia's governance has taken a sharp turn toward more highly concentrated rule. The Kremlin's tightening grip has increasingly marginalized key societal institutions, including the press, the judiciary, and civil society. This in turn has raised genuine questions about the durability of the rule of law in Russia and whether Moscow's economic modernization ambitions can be realized in such a stultifying environment.

The author of the Countries at the Crossroads Russia report, Michael McFaul, writes that

although the formal institutions of Russian democracy remain in place, the actual democratic content of these institutions has eroded considerably in the last few years. President Putin has systematically weakened or destroyed every check on his power, while at the same time strengthening the state's ability to violate the constitutional rights of individual citizens. He has weakened the power of Russia's regional leaders, the independent media, the business community or oligarchs, both houses of parliament, the Russian prime minister and his government (as opposed to the presidential administration), independent political parties, and genuine civil society.

Among the key recommendations to the Russian authorities is that the state broadcasters should be privatized or supervised by an independent board to help safeguard against political interference. State control over the judiciary must end as well.

Conclusion

Recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon demonstrate the ability of popular resistance to effect change in corrupt and unresponsive political leadership. These advances have been spurred in part by the information revolution, which allows news of transformations in any corner of the globe to be transmitted across borders with a speed unimaginable even a generation ago. However, in many of the countries covered in this survey, citizens paradoxically face considerable hurdles to obtaining information about their own government's performance. While transparency has taken a high place on the international agenda, it remains an aspiration in many of the countries under review here.

In countries where corruption and cronyism have become entrenched, average citizens are becoming more frustrated with their leadership's inability to deliver political goods and to promote public welfare. The directing of public resources under these mismanaged regimes into a relatively small circle of private hands creates an untenable governance atmosphere for average citizens. Over the long haul, such arrangements will lead neither to stable political environments nor to sound and reliable business environments. Key international stakeholders--national governments, relevant multilateral organizations, and the business community--all have a genuine interest in encouraging improved governance in these countries.

Sound governance cannot be achieved by decree. Consensual decision making is required, in which leaders are chosen through free and fair elections and institutions such as the media and the judiciary are permitted to share information and hold the authorities accountable. Open channels between the government and civil society--operating under the rule of law--can contribute to strengthening regime legitimacy. Regimes that claim to rely on self-reform or self-policing, without the benefit of independent institutions and their own citizens' voices, will be at a severe--perhaps fatal--disadvantage in managing the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.