Introducing the Power, Conflict, and Democracy Programme

Olle Törnquist(1*)

(1) University of Oslo
(*) Corresponding Author


The state of democracy in the Global South is marked by a striking paradox: while liberal democracy has attained an ideologically hegemonic position through two so-called waves of democracy, the qualities of such democracies is increasingly called into question. The "old" democracies in the global South like Sri Lanka are weakened. Democracy deficits have emerged within constitutional and institutional arrangements as well as in political practices. Further, the "third wave of democracy" is over. "New" democracies like Indonesia have fostered freedoms, privatisation and decentralisation but continue to suffer from poor governance, representation, and participation. Hence there are general signs of decline. Vulnerable people are frustrated with lack of actual influence and sustained elitism. Politicians winning elections often need to foster ethnic and religious loyalties, clientelism and the abuse of public resources. Powerful groups and middle classes with poor ability to win elections tend to opt for privatisation and return partially to authoritarian governance.

Critical questions are therefore asked about the feasibility of democracy in developing country contexts. Some observers say it is only a problem of better crafting of institutions. Others contend that "full" democratisation was premature in the first place and that necessary preconditions need to be created beforehand. This article argues that both positions are based on a narrow and static understanding of democracy. While the core elements of democracy are universal, real world democracies develop (or decline) over time and through contextual dynamics; in processes and contexts of actors, institutions and relations of power. Therefore, the crucial task is to analyse the problems and options of expanding the historically "early" freedoms and deficient elements of democracy that fortunately exist in spite of poor socio-economic and political conditions in countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia rather than giving up on these freedoms until the other conditions have somehow improved. This is to advance towards the universally accepted aim of democracy in terms of popular control of public affairs on the basis of political equality; and to be able to use democracy to handle conflicts and alter unequal and unsustainable development.

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