This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Larry Diamond is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.
Well, it all depends on the definition and the terminology. I think that the only full democracy is a liberal democracy, and by that, I mean not anything about the economic system or neoliberal economic policies and structures, but having the full complement of guarantees for liberty, for rights, for accountability, and for the rule of law. I think the best way to conceptualize this is that a full quality democracy rests on three pillars. One is the pillar of popular sovereignty, which involves regular free and fair elections and the ability of people to lobby government in between elections. The second is the pillar of liberty, which has to do with individual and group rights and freedoms, including minority rights. And the third is the rule of law, which means judicial guarantees for individual rights, an independent judiciary, independent prosecutors, and strong accountability. I should say that many democracies in the world have vigorous electoral competition, but they don’t have strong guarantees for civil liberties and they don’t have strong mechanisms of accountability and rule of law. Those are lower quality democracies, or what we sometimes call just “electoral democracies”. If they enable people to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections, they’re all true democracies in one sense, but they’re not necessarily full or high-quality democracies. The one thing that democracies have to have in common is that the national leadership of the country and, I would say, the executive branch and the legislature are chosen in regular free and fair elections that are not kind of just a sham election and that are not superficial, i.e. that they choose those who really rule. That is not the case now, for instance, in Pakistan, nor in Burma. That is not the case in Iran, where you have an unelected supreme leader who is the ultimate decider. There have been long periods of time in Latin America, as you know, where that has not been the case. That is not the case in any country where you have elections that may produce a government, but the people who get elected to govern have only a small portion of the real power of the country. But if there are regular free and fair elections to determine who will rule and who will represent people and those who get elected really have the power to rule, then that’s one thing that all democracies, whether they’re lower quality or higher quality, liberal or illiberal, would share in common.
Yes, many autocracies do pose as democracies. They want the legitimacy, domestically and internationally, that comes with being able to claim that they are democracies. Long after Hugo Chávez basically destroyed all of the pillars of real democracy, terrorized the opposition, created an unlevel playing field that arrested his opponents and confiscated property without due process, and all the other things he did, long after that, he claimed that Venezuela was a democracy. Daniel Ortega still claims that Nicaragua is a democracy. The Pakistani military wants Pakistan to be considered a democracy. General el-Sisi, in Egypt, claims that he was democratically elected. All these people believe that if they use the word democracy and allow for competitive elections, and so on and so forth, then that will legitimize their authoritarian rule. So, that’s what they think they can gain from that; it is tolerance from the international community and greater acceptance from their own people. But that, of course, is an illusion.
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