Authors Irfan Nooruddin and Thomas Flores, in a free flowing conversation with Shashank Rai, take us through their latest book and their analysis of where democracy promotion is going wrong.


Shashank Rai: First off, congratulations on Elections in Hard Times. It’s a fascinating read.  How did this idea come around? Why “Elections in Hard Times” and why now? 

Irfan Nooruddin: So Tom and I had been working for this since about 2008 on issues of post-conflict elections. We were interested as political economists in this trend that we were witnessing that in a lot of countries coming in from Civil War, that were holding elections, and the question then was could we say something else on why or why not they were successful. What we came to realize was that maybe this not just about elections but a set of conditions that were likely to make elections successful from the perspective of pursuing democratization. And that expanded the scope of the inquiry to thinking about fiscal prices, of course, this was right after the global financial crises, so that was on our mind and really tying back to the older literature that looked at the impact of legacies. We couldn’t have predicted, though, that this book would have been so timely given all that has happened over the last couple of years. 

Thomas Flores: Yes, and one of the things that is ironic about a book that has elections in its title is that we don’t focus on the events of the elections itself. Our real focus is on the democratic change that happens after the elections are concluded because you certainly can’t have democracy without elections, but you can have elections without democracy.


Shashank Rai: Yes, those three stocks of legitimacy - contingent legitimacy, performance legitimacy, democratic institutional legitimacy. That’s a little different from the three pillars of democracy – Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary. Do you wanna talk a little about that?

Thomas Flores: So the focus on the three stocks of legitimacy is to focus in on the starting circumstances that election winners find themselves in at the conclusion of an election. Election winners confront very, very different circumstances when they take power and we wanted to understand how those differences are really driving what happens after the election takes place. That’s why we do that emphasis on legitimacies. Listen, every election winner is endowed with some kind of honeymoon from having won an election. The honeymoon may be shorter or longer depending upon the nature of the election and the nature of the incumbent. But that election winner also has to confront the hard business of governing and there he is constrained by the depth of the legitimacy of the democratic institutions and the depth of performance legitimacy that he or she attains. So for us, that was really important part of the process.


Shashank Rai: Sure. There is a section on the electoral boom as well which sort of distinguishes between ethnically homogenous and ethnically heterogeneous countries holding elections. There are special challenges involved in holding elections in ethnically diverse countries. How do we deal with them? 

Irfan Nooruddin: That’s a fabulous question. I think the main takeaway is that the model of democracy that we were exporting in the 1980s reflected the influence of the United States as a powerful hegemon for pushing democracy in the context of the cold war. The model of the United States involves a strong President who has checks and balances but the checks and balances are the result of centuries long institution building. The creation of an independent judiciary, the creation of the Senate and the Congress that are sort of co-equal branches etcetera. The version we exported to the world thus involves strong Presidents. And the imperative was that these were very fractured, very young countries that needed a strong leader who could rule them. So, unlike an earlier wave of democratization of which India was a part, in which Parliaments that had a Prime Minister as sort of a first among equals was a model, the model in the 1980s in Latin America and increasingly in Africa was “go elect a President”. In ethnically heterogeneous countries, this is a recipe potentially for disaster because you make elections a winner takes all. So I think we need to grapple with the possibilities that what we need to be doing in the developing world is focusing on coalition governments, on power sharing arrangements. Not power-sharing arrangements as in Civil War but power sharing arrangements in a more vested European way with a lot of small parties representing different groups that have a stake in the success of the government. That’s a model which I think we’ve been beginning to experiment with in the developing world. 


Shashank Rai: On Military coups, there is a small section in the book where you compare India and Pakistan. Where do you think Pakistan has gone wrong and what could Pakistan learn from India? 

Irfan Nooruddin: So let’s separate those two questions – the coup question, in general, indicates that interruptions of democratic rule have very long term effects. It is tempting to thing that all is good but that experience of the coup shakes the core of the democratic foundation. It's like an injury to one’s shoulder, it nags and recurs long after the initial injury has been recovered from. I think of a coup as a scar tissue wherein what they do is that there is a memory that “Hey, this could be interrupted”. We saw this in Brazil over its earlier phase and regular coups that really undermined the democratic norms. And norms are hard to build but once broken are even harder to rebuild. For Pakistan specifically, I would say that what Pakistan can learn from India is that civilian control of the military is an imperative in a functional democracy. And I think the sense in Pakistan over 70 years is that the military has been one step away at any given time from taking over. The civilian government serves at the pleasure of the military. As long as the military is not messed with beyond a certain level, it’s okay, but if you cross a line, you’re done. And that’s just simply untenable.  Pakistan is about to have an opportunity, you know, in its entire history, it has never had a peaceful transition of power as a result of an election. And we’re coming up soon and the Sharif government will have to contest an election and we’ll see. Those are baby steps, but Pakistan’s own experience suggests that those baby steps can be really hard to take. 

Thomas Flores:  Yes, as Irfan pointed out, a coup is a special kind of an event that interrupts the normal flow of the democracy one way or another, even if the coup isn’t successful. And in that sense, for us, military coups are incredibly important because they represent an interruption in the accumulation of the democratic institutional stock – the continuous democratic experience that builds a common understanding of the rules of the game. The election of Donald Trump in the United States for example, for those who are showing a little bit more optimism in the face of worries that he has any number of authoritarian instincts, they argue – “No, the rules of the game are gonna constraint him from making certain sorts of moves.” And that is that democratic experience and the importance of the democratic stock. What coups do is that they undermine the accumulation of that stock. To view, for example, Pakistan over time is to see a number of coups that interrupt the practice of a normal democratically elected government. And there are, and this not only about Pakistan, there are dozens of countries worldwide that have more coups than years spent under democratic governance. And that means that where you have a history of military interrupting a democratic rule, it makes it more difficult to build democracy in the future. 

Shashank Rai:  Given these results, and I go back to my earlier reference of 3 pillars of democracy – legislature, executive, and the judiciary – and how we’ve used them for democracy promotion after the World War II, do you think if we use the three legitimacies instead, we might have better scope for innovation in democracy promotion because from experience we also know that countries with little or no experience of democracy tend to struggle with what is a classical western model of democracy?

Thomas Flores: The thing I would say is, and this speaks away from the results of the book specifically, so we are speculating a little bit, is that an important aspect of this could be a developing, democratic country being able to engage in democracy promotion itself. A good example of that actually is India which has engaged in democracy promotion of its own kind because for many countries, like Indonesia, who would you rather take advice from for running an election – the United States or India, right? It would be India. India manages to run remarkably complex elections for various levels of government in a federal system over the course of days. It’s an amazing system, it’s the largest democratic elections in the world. So a part of this is to allow non-western, non-northern actors to engage in democracy promotion themselves to show different kinds of models. More specifically, I do agree with the premise of your question that there are other models out there which western democracy promoters cannot dream up on their own. The question then is to balance Western democracy promotion with a grassroots construction of norms and behaviors and institutions that match their cultural circumstances, that will build their own particular version of democracy which might be very, very different from that which you find in the United States, or in India, or in Canada… what have you? So it may very well be that there are institutions that look a lot different than those in the United States but by any account, it would be a highly democratic country. It's hard for us to do that in the west. I think it needs a bottom-up version of building democracies rather than a top-down version. 

Irfan Nooruddin: Also, one very clear implication of both the book but also our prior work in post-conflict elections, is that the critical period after peace has been achieved, what we should be doing is invest in developing the core capacities of the state rather than rushing to hold an election which is to set up a country to fail.  South Sudan is a classic example of this. South Sudan was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. It's large geographically with virtually no infrastructure. The international community has called for elections that keep getting postponed. This strikes me as a real waste of energy. What we should have done is not even assume that South Sudan was even capable of holding an election in any meaningful sense for some period of time and instead we invest in a power-sharing arrangement at the top and then we build a state. The other implication is that we might wanna experiment with local level elections before we do national level elections. One of the things we found is in post conflict settings, the temptation to hold a big national election, so we have a legitimate solvent government and an international aid community to do business with, is very high. No one wants to be accused of being a neo-colonial ruler in today’s world. So it's good to have some local elections. But the reality is that much of the work of post-conflict reconstruction happens at the local level, happens in cities, villages, and provinces, and those are all the places where the stakes are relatively low but the citizens can learn the norms of holding an election, the local authorities can learn how to run an election. So I would love to see a recommitment to sort of building an election from the ground up, rather than the top down model. You mentioned the export of the western models. What’s ironic is that those are the best. They built their democracies really bottom-up and finally reached a stage where it bubbled up. So the national election was the culmination of the centuries-long processes of opening up to democratic ways. But what we are doing is giving them the finished product, which I think is a bit unfortunate. 

Shashank Rai:  And also, these so-called, mature democracies are undergoing their own evolution – from Narendra Modi to Brexit to Donald Trump and maybe even Marine Le Pen. It has a lot of people worried. Are there things that concern you in this social media age, the information age…?

Irfan Nooruddin: And the list goes on… Turkey, Philippines... What’s happening in Poland, what’s happening in Netherlands. Canada is the one bright hope. Haha. I think there is a tremendous wave of global populism and as I suspect, the next five to ten years will continue to be a black period for democracy, in which I think we’ll see more of this, not less of this. But there is a good side and there is a bad side. The good side is that all these guys still feel the need to come to power through elections. In that sense, you know, Fukuyama got it right – elections and democratization are really only the two legitimate means we think of leaders coming to power. We won’t see alternatives to that. But the negative side is that it's rubbing up against real tension with another principle which a lot of us hold dear – globalization. What we’ve attempted to do over the last 20 years or so is to build democracies in a completely global market. That has never been done before. All the successful democracies that we could think of, that actually became democracies at stable, relatively closed societies. I think what globalization has done is that it has unleashed forces of nationalism, that a lot of these individuals have the beneficiaries. And so yeah, I think there is much more in common than we realize, with the Trump phenomenon, because what actually the rest of the world has been seeing for a while. I would say liberal democrats don’t have a language of giving it a conceptual framework yet for how to deal with. 

Thomas Flores: Also, speaking past the results of the book a little bit, and engaging in a little bit of speculation, I would say a couple of things. The first is that there seems to be, lately, a move towards holding an increasing number of referenda around the world. And that really is direct versus representative democracy. And it's happened with not as much debate as there could have been. In Colombia, we had the first version of peace agreement turned down by a referendum. The same happened in Brexit. With Marine Le Pen, for her to win in France? It is possible. They’re talking about Frexit. Haha. So there is this move towards referenda and that is an abandonment by political elites of saying that – “This is a representative democracy and vote me out if I take you out of the EU or vote me out if you’re angry that I didn’t.” That is what representative democracy is. So I think there has been a move towards more direct democracy recently which I don’t know if it is borne out of a social media age or whether it has come in gradually, but that is a very interesting model that has led to surprising results, as we have seen this year. 

The other thing is that it’s important to remember the historical context. My concerns are less about the inner workings of the democratic institutions, though I do have that as well. But it's to say that what Sam Huntington showed us twenty-five years ago, is that democracy for one reason or another tends to happen in waves. And then there are counterwaves and we may well be in a counterwave right now. And there are people like Larry Diamond, for example, who argue exactly that – that we’re in democratic recession and it's hard to pin point exactly when it begins when it's happening, we can only know in retrospect. So we’re in some sort of a counterwave of democracy right now. And there are a number of historical circumstances right now that are important to remember, that there has been a global recession and turn towards economic nationalism around the world. Brexit is essentially a case for such economic nationalism, the election of Donald Trump in part is a rejection of free trade principles, and that sort of moves away from open liberal economies is going hand in hand with more political nationalism as well. And these things happen in waves and so we should not be surprised if a counterwave is happening but we will see a more democratic opening after this. It is a question of how long it takes.