Burma Can Bring It

It’s true: Burma faces an uphill climb in its transition to democracy. But the odds may be better than you think.

Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

Earlier this month, when the indefatigable Aung San Suu Kyi assumed a seat in Burma’s parliament, her diminutive figure was almost lost in a sea of military uniforms. On April 1, she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in an unprecedented parliamentary by-election. The arrival of the NLD members in parliament marks the first time in many decades that pro-democracy activists have had a chance to participate in government. Yet their victory comes with many qualifiers. The current constitution, engineered by the generals who have ruled Burma for the past half-century, stipulates that one quarter of the seats in parliament must be reserved for the military. Much of the remainder is held by members of the pro-government party.

The constitution, which essentially rigs the political process in favor of the armed forces, appears likely to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, given that three-quarters of the parliament must vote in favor of any constitutional amendment for it to pass. This considerably limits the prospects for genuinely democratic reform. It’s a situation that has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing among observers of Burma’s political situation. Many pundits predict that Burma will never make the transition to full-fledged democracy even if free and fair multiparty elections become the new norm, making it a flawed and illegitimate democracy similar to many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. "The country’s power holders — a long-entrenched, anti-democratic military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — have not yet given up any significant structural levers of power," noted  Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a conference in Washington earlier this week.

True enough. Yet there are good grounds for optimism. Research that we’ve conducted  on the political histories of countries that have moved to democracy after inheriting constitutions from autocracies reveals many positive precedents. Our work suggests that it is possible to build democratic institutions and enact policies that benefit a majority of citizens, even in cases where holdover constitutions enable elites to retain considerable political power following democratization. To do so, new democracies must embark on a path of piecemeal constitutional reform.

There are many examples of countries that began their moves toward democracy with autocratic constitutions and then later reformed them. In some of these countries there is now a solid consensus over fundamental rights, and formerly entrenched elites, while strong, no longer single-handedly dominate the political game. These include Chile and Colombia, two examples from Latin America that represent a potential model for Burma. While many observers were initially skeptical  that these transitions would result in liberal democracy, these countries have nonetheless managed to deepen democratic institutions.

In Colombia, a bargain between the Liberal and Conservative parties led to the overthrow of military rule and the establishment of democracy under the National Front in 1958. The parties colluded to rotate power and exclude outside competitors for sixteen years. The poor could hardly improve their lot by turning to the constitution, a document written by autocratic elites in 1886. Yet the constitution was progressively amended, and in the face of popular pressure following a failed 1988 reform aimed at increasing citizen participation, an entirely new document was adopted in 1991. The judiciary was made more independent, and citizens were granted tutela, a mechanism to swiftly appeal to courts to protect basic individual rights.

Modern Chilean democracy is similarly founded on the basis of an autocratic constitution. General Augusto Pinochet passed a constitution in a heavily managed referendum in 1980 after seizing power from the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973. Despite a transition to democracy in 1990, the constitution provided a host of safeguards for the military and key elites incorporated in the regime, including the appointment of autocratic elites as senators for life and allowing the military to choose the head of armed forces. A series of constitutional amendments has slowly and cautiously chipped away at the remaining undemocratic elements in the Chilean system, most notably a set of key reforms in 2005 that were hailed as a democratic deepening by then-President Ricardo Lagos.

Colombia and Chile provide models of how elite or military-biased democracies can evolve in a more liberal direction over time. But such an outcome is not predestined. Getting started on that path presupposes, above all, that military incumbents can be persuaded to return to the barracks. The representatives of the new order can give autocratic incumbents credible commitments that their worst fears — wholesale seizure of their assets, prosecution, or even death — will not come true after a transition. Furthermore, they can slowly reform holdover institutions to avoid triggering a reactionary coup, by introducing staggered constitutional and legal reforms that only gradually strip away the power of the military and other elites in a targeted fashion.

Offering assurances to entrenched elites lowers the stakes of politics, making it more likely that they can be persuaded to hand over power. There are several ways this can be done. The creation of independent courts may act as an insurance policy for ex-members of the authoritarian regime, making it less likely that former autocratic elites will suffer political vengeance through prosecution. A broad-based party structure can tie elite interests to those of selected groups of poorer citizens. The establishment of greater checks and balances on government makes it more likely that elites will be able to block any critical threat to their well-being. Finally, if opposition parties eschew radical ideologies that espouse extreme changes in the distribution of resources or the country’s cultural and religious values, then elites and their military patrons will feel less threatened and may loosen their grip. For example, the exclusion of Communists, who threatened to expropriate former autocratic elites, from the left-wing alliance of Christian Democratic, Social Democratic, and Socialist party leaders in Portugal in 1975 was key to convincing the military to give democratization a green light, bringing an end to a year and a half of political turmoil following President Antonio Salazar’s ouster. It also reduced the likelihood of elites having a reason to topple democracy to protect their interests later down the line. This transition served  as a model for future transitions in Spain and across Latin America.

After autocrats are persuaded to relinquish power, democratic reforms can be introduced gradually, in a way that prevents them from reversing democratic gains. For instance, in the case of Chile, the reserved seats for the military were rescinded sequentially rather than all at once. A major reform that revoked all military seats at once, by contrast, could have easily served as a rallying point for former autocratic elites to launch a coup to cut democracy short. Also, elected politicians can slowly chip away at the influence of illiberal autocratic legacies, such as restrictions on assembly and free expression, by building popular support for stronger political change. One way to do this is for opposition parties that join post-transition parliaments to avoid patronage, and instead base their political platforms on universal policies such as education reform and the promotion of the rule of law. This makes it harder for conservative parties allied with the military to buy votes themselves or to argue that democracy is no better than dictatorship. Clientelist strategies, by contrast, tend to erode the legitimacy of new democracies in the eyes of voters, reinforcing a culture of corruption and increasing the likelihood of support for a coup or democratic backsliding.

Finally, as former autocratic incumbents age, and as their power base shifts, democracy can deepen. Examples of this "wait it out" strategy, in which reformers wait to introduce significant changes until the proponents of holdover institutions are weakened, retired, or die, include Turkey and South Africa.

There is, of course, always the risk that true political pluralism and citizen rights remain stillborn unless the people are allowed to adopt an entirely new constitution that redefines how politics is played. There is considerable truth to that claim — and it is a risk that faces not only Burma, but also other transitional countries coping with long periods of dominance by the military, such as Egypt. Our research shows that democracies that inherit autocratic constitutions have greater political overrepresentation of economic elites, suffer from more gridlock, and manifest less local autonomy and pluralism. We also find that these "gamed" democracies spend less on education, health, and housing than democracies in which new constitutions are adopted after free and fair elections.

So there is no guarantee that Burma’s fitful and tenuous political transition, ironically engineered by seasoned authoritarians, will culminate in liberal democracy. But neither does the country’s authoritarian constitution condemn it to eternal dictatorship. In fact, by containing the seeds of future reforms that will allow democracy to flower, this flawed document may be its only hope for a better future.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

Victor Menaldo is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.