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3. Democratization in ancient Athens
I turn now to the democracy of ancient Athens, which has had an enduring impact on ideas of liberty and political equality as well as on ensuing perennial dilemmas involving the latter and order and social stability. Etymologically, the word democracy comes from the Greek words ‘demos’, that is, people, and ‘kratos’, that is, rule. The political ideals of equality among the citizens, liberty, respect for the law, and justice of modern democracy originate from ancient Greece. However, the modern notion that human beings are individuals with inviolable rights is not part of the ancient Greek thought. A citizen’s rights and obligations followed from his capacity of being a member of the citizenry; they were public rights and duties.6 In this context, the notion of protecting the individual against the might of the state did not exist in ancient Greece.
Democracy was born in ancient Athens at the end of the sixth century BCE.7 Until then Athens was ruled by the nine archons, drawn from the aristocratic families that often fought against each other for supremacy, and the Council of Areopagus consisting of former archons, that had veto powers, oversaw laws and magistrates, and conducted trials. In 594 BCE a large scale social and economic crisis was resolved by appointing Solon, an aristocrat, as lawgiver. Solon introduced wide ranging political and economic reforms that included making access to public office conditional on wealth rather than birth, formal accountability of magistrates, and granting legal standing rights to all male Athenian citizens. Solon’s dispensation was broken in 546 BCE when Peisistratus established himself as tyrant (extra-constitutional, one-man authority). The tyranny was overthrown in 510. A struggle for power that followed was won by Cleisthenes, an aristocrat, who allied himself to the common people – demos – by proposing constitutional reforms that would provide for wider political rights. He then introduced a series of fundamental constitutional reforms, determining citizenship rights and the powers of the assembly of citizens, which led to the foundation of democracy. The assembly of citizens, requiring a quorum of six thousand participants, became the sovereign political body deciding on all important issues of public interest. All Athenian men from the age of twenty years could participate, while those aged thirty and above could be appointed to executive or judicial office. After listening to the speakers, voting in the assembly took place by show of hands and decisions were taken by simple majority. From 501 BCE, the assembly elected annually by show of hands the ten generals, the commanders of the army and the navy, who along with a few treasury and religious commissionaires were the only elected officials. From 487 BCE the nine archons were selected by lot, while in 462 BCE the Areopagus lost its checking powers. A fully democratic constitution was then functioning.8 In addition to its direct nature, it had several other prominent characteristics. There were no political parties in the sense of organizations to represent economic and social cleavages and espouse distinct ideological positions. The courts played a significant political role in the sense of controlling the other organs of the state. Perhaps more strikingly, a large number of public offices were filled by lot including five hundred councilors responsible for the day-to-day administration and the preparation of the assembly business, six thousand judges and another six hundred magistrates. Being a direct democracy, it also defied modern classifications on the parliamentary – presidential scale. Recent research has revealed that the Athenian democratization was associated with growing economic prosperity, urbanization was high, and wealth was distributed relatively equitably.9
In sum, the ancient Athenian democracy differs from the modern western variant in that it was direct and not representative, made decisions by simple majority, had no political parties, and delegated responsibilities to officials appointed by sortition. In Tridimas (2011a), I explain how the above institutions worked in tandem, forming an internally consistent framework such that it may not have been possible for any one of them to have functioned without the existence of the rest. Contrasting the parliamentarian and the Athenian democracy, Manin (1997) points out that the former is predicated on citizens having an equal right to consent to government, while the Athenian democracy not only recognized the latter but also promoted equality of the right to occupy office. Coercive government is legitimized when citizens agree to be bound by the rules imposed by those in office. Equal voting rights (irrespective of one’s birth, income, education, or gender) in elections to choose government manifests equality of citizens to give their consent and therefore confer legitimacy to those elected to office.10 The 19th and 20th century conflicts for suffrage extension analyzed by Congleton and the literature he surveys describe fights for achieving such political equality. A similar fight took place in ancient Athens. Franchise extension took place gradually throughout the sixth century when aristocratic rule by birthright was replaced with rule by the wealthy (Solon’s reforms), and eventually with rule by the people irrespective of wealth (Cleisthenes’ democracy).11 However, the Athenians restricted voting rights to men only; but they went one step further than equality of voting rights for men by instituting equality of opportunity to occupy office for all citizens, as manifested in the practice of sortition,12 which lacks a modern equivalent.
The above description shows that despite the ideological and practical differences, there is a remarkable similarity between the emergence of the Athenian democracy and the parliamentary democracies described by Congleton. A form of king-and-council architecture was present in ancient Athens and Congleton’s thesis on the gradual extension of the franchise is applicable too. The democratic transformation of Athens, the political emancipation of the demos and its eventual control over policymaking was accomplished in a number of steps over a long period of time (594 – 462 BCE), with each reform building on previous ones and with support by substantial parts of the earlier aristocracy, and despite the occasional violence was peaceful. Nor was calling the assembly a revolutionary institutional innovation: assemblies of warriors were held from the Archaic times (700 – 500 BCE) as described in the Homeric poems. The new element was the transfer of decision making power to the assembly (and the courts); that too took a while to be completed and was the product of negotiations between the ruling aristocrats and the emerging demos, who provided the hoplites for land defence, and the rowers for powering the navy, classes excluded from decision making in earlier political dispensations. Equally, even though absence of quantitative information does not permit an empirical investigation, historians affirm a link between political liberalization and economic growth which is also manifested through the famed architectural and cultural achievements of the Athenians. On this account, democracy led to a revolution in living standards and attitudes. However, the analogies stop here. The direct-democracy nature of ancient Athens implies that there is no strict analogue between the gradual transfer of power from the king to the parliament analyzed by Congleton and ancient Athens. Direct democracy meant that enfranchisement simultaneously shifted policymaking authority from the aristocracy to the demos. We may then infer that Congleton’s theory of constitutional bargaining and enfranchisement produces multiple institutional equilibria, the Athenian democracy being one and the Western democracy being a different one.
How the Athenian democracy fell is a question still awaiting a satisfactory political-economy explanation. The rise of Alexander’s Macedon in the fourth quarter of the 3rd century and the military defeat of Athens in 322 BCE ended the democratic constitution, while it also gave rise to theoretical writings favouring monarchy. (The reverse of) Congleton’s intuition may be of use here: the Athenian democracy was not concurrent with major technological breakthroughs or large scale industrialization. After Athens and before the imperial period, the ancient Roman republic operated a number of democratic arrangements but never adopted the notion of one-man one-vote, while it also had in place a variety of restrictions on political participation based on wealth. Ideas in favour of democracy and against absolute rule reappear with the Enlightenment and it is with scholars from that era that Congleton’s inquiry starts.
4. Democratization after World War II
The constitutional evolution analyzed in ‘Perfecting Parliament’ ends in the 1930s. Further democratization took place after the end of WWII when Germany, Italy and modern Greece resumed democratic politics (but Central and East Europe turned communist) and in the aftermath of decolonization from European powers. However, democratization stalled and was even in reverse by the early 1960s. Indeed, consistent with Congleton’s injunction, and despite the rhetoric, nationalist revolutionary leaders were more likely to fashion and preside over despotic regimes rather than democracies. Democratic order took root only in India (1947) and Israel (1948). A “third” wave of democratization swept Europe in the mid-seventies with, Portugal (1974), Greece (1974) and Spain (1976) shaking off military dictatorships and adopting the parliamentary democracies analyzed by Congleton. Interestingly, Portugal and Greece opted for a republican form of state13, while Spain established a constitutional monarchy. Political liberalization in Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985), South Korea (1987) and Chile (1988) preceded the surge of democratization that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of Communism. As a broad generalization, Central and Eastern European countries made the transition to parliamentary democracy rather rapidly and smoothly (Yugoslavia being an obvious exception). In the nineties democracy seemed to be on an unstoppable advance in Latin America, Africa and several parts of Asia. In the first decade of the 21st century, with the exceptions of autocracies in the Middle East, communists in East Asia, and some African states, countries hold elections and many countries ruled by illiberal governments only twenty years before are now classified as democracies. Several countries previously torn by strife and civil war have power-sharing arrangements based on proportional representation and respect for minorities.14 The ‘Arab spring’ of 2011 that sees countries of the Maghreb getting rid of long dictatorships raises expectations that democracy will prevail there too.
However, the ongoing wave of democratization differs from the democratization of the West analyzed by Congleton. I discuss three key issues, namely, winning the argument against an autocratic alternative, achieving democracy out of dictatorship rather than 18th century hereditary monarchy, and finally establishing a functioning democracy.
The first obstacle to democratic convergence relates to the appeal of current nondemocratic alternatives. Western liberal democracy as a system of governance is not unchallenged. The Chinese model of economic growth, including amongst others components one-party rule, emphasis of the paramount interests of the nation over the individual, selective use of markets, a significant role for state enterprises and the importance of government in guiding the economy, may be considered as an alluring option. From the mid-nineties, that system delivered fast growing prosperity to the rising middle class of city-dwellers, and increased China’s status as a global power. Further, the banking crisis, output contraction and sovereign debt crisis that have befallen on the West since 2008 have sparked talk about the failure of capitalism and boosted support for an expansive role of the state. The argument about the superiority of non-democratic regimes in delivering high economic growth, drawn from the conflictual and often fractious nature of democratic politics, is related to the debate on the modernization vs institutions controversy mentioned above. However, the emphasis here is on the comparative advantages of democracy and dictatorship for economic growth, that is, how political institutions affect the rate of change of income rather than its level.15 It is first important to recognize that there are several contemporary counterexamples of autocracies from Africa, Asia and Latin America with meagre and indeed declining economic performance. Arguably then, it may be more accurate to talk about “Chinese exceptionalism”. Democrats would of course remain undeterred by such arguments not least because of the value placed on democracy, that is, democracy and the associated freedoms are desirable per se over and above their economic implications.16 However, if the authoritarian exceptionalism secures long-lasting economic gains, it is legitimate to ask whether there is a trade-off between democracy and economic growth. Congleton’s reply is reassuring for democracy. He points out that during the 19th century there was no trade-off between liberal politics and economic growth. Rather, the two complemented one another. 17
Establishing democracy from 20th century dictatorship differs from achieving democracy out of 18th century hereditary monarchy. Traditional European monarchical rule was based on government by birth right and deference to the ruling aristocratic class. Military dictatorship relies on the backing of the armed forces while civilian dictatorship relies on the support of a mass party, and both types operate repressive security apparatus. Succession in monarchies is based on familial ties, a simple rule whose operation avoids costly contests for power. On the contrary, dictatorships lack clear rules of succession. Rival claims may then be settled after violent and otherwise damaging conflicts. To avoid such problems the dictator may appoint a successor. However, in doing so he faces the “successor’s dilemma”18: The sitting dictator may be threatened by a designated successor who builds enough independent support to ensure his succession against his rivals. However, if the designated successor fails to build a power base, his rule will be at risk and so will the legacy of the sitting dictator. A further complicating issue relates to the types of compromises struck to unseat a dictator. Inducements like immunity from prosecution and safe passage away from the country may hasten his exit but may violate notions of justice particularly for the victims of repression. Congleton’s book attests that establishing democracy out of medieval aristocratic parliaments was a long and slow process unfolding over several generations. On the other hand, transition to democracy at the end of the 20th century was faster. In the first instance, unlike the 19th century norm, the overthrow of a post 1974 dictatorship was followed by immediately granting of universal suffrage rather than extending it gradually. Second, in comparison to the gradual ascent of the power of the parliament at the expense of the king, the shift of policy making authority from the dictator to the elected representatives took place in rapid steps (although not necessarily on a single date). As with any catching-up, new comers to the democratization process have the advantage that they can learn from the constitutional experience of “early starters”, observe what political arrangements have worked in the past, and adapt them to their own circumstances. Another significant difference is that the current wave of democratization includes attempts to establish democracy by an external power, as in the cases of the USA-led efforts to impose democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, their ambiguous outcomes are in accordance with Congleton’s implicit corollary that democracy is the negotiated outcome of the actions of domestic players.19
The third challenge relates to adopting the rituals and trappings of democracy rather than asserting its essence.20 That is, holding elections does not provide a guarantee of a functioning democracy. Elections that are neither free nor fair, vote buying, refusal of defeated incumbents to leave office, ethnic tensions, civil wars, and revolving plundering governments make a mockery of the electoral process. Liberal democracy is concerned not only with the representatives of the majority winning office, but with limiting abuses of power by those in office. The latter requires the operation of checks and balances so that no single state organ monopolizes power, and freedoms and rights are protected. Prominent among those arrangements are separation of powers, bicameral legislatures, federal structures, and independent judiciaries with the power to review the acts of other government bodies. A number of empirical studies have shown that income and education correlate significantly with democratization, while democratization is less likely to emerge in Muslim countries as well as in oil producing countries.21 Such findings go a long way to explaining why Central and Eastern European countries as well as Latin American countries were more successful in their transition to democracy. In addition, having set full membership of the European Union as the final destination of their transition, Central and Eastern European countries had a clear objective of the political and economic transformation required and the standards to be achieved. On the other hand, countries lacking such objectives may be less fervent supporters of democratic reform. It is then advisable to be cautious about the speed and depth of the current transitions of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The democratic transformation may take some time to complete as the various actors learn to negotiate and compromise.