“Learn from these remarkable leaders”

Guest post by Abraham F. Lowenthal and Sergio Bitar

bitarDemocratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, to be published next month by Johns Hopkins University Press, began as an initiative by Vidar Helgesen, then Secretary-General of International IDEA—an intergovernmental organization of 28 member countries, based in Stockholm, that promotes sustainable democracy worldwide. Mr. Helgesen observed that International IDEA’s work had focused sharply on strengthening the procedures and techniques of democratic governance: the preparation, conduct, counting and monitoring of elections; the selection of candidates; the oversight of campaign finance and media access; and expanding the rights and participation of women in politics. But International IDEA had not provided insights into how authoritarian rule is brought to an end and transitions toward democracy achieved, though these are prerequisites to the democracy promotion work that IDEA carries out.

At a time when the Arab Spring was underway and other transitions to democracy were contemplated or foreseeable elsewhere, Helgesen suggested that it would be useful to learn how prior transitions from authoritarian rule were achieved. He suggested that this could be done by interviewing actors who had been at the apex of successful democratic transitions in several countries that moved from authoritarian rule of diverse types toward democracy. He invited us to undertake this project jointly, with international IDEA’s support. We are long-term friends with complementary experiences in the worlds of politics and policy, as well as academic analysis. We also share a commitment to the construction of sustainable democracy.

Political actors who are now seeking to help their countries move from autocracy toward democracy—whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Myanmar, Cuba, Venezuela or elsewhere—could learn a great deal from prior experiences, especially from “success stories.” But to suggest that they simply consult the established political science texts on democratic transitions, including some Johns Hopkins University Press classics, would not be useful. Those volumes were written by academic political scientists for other scholars, not for busy practitioners in search of practical insights. Current political actors would likely not take the time to read volumes that are often presented in academic jargon and that emphasize disciplinary techniques rather than tough political choices.

If it were somehow possible to bring experienced political leaders who have managed democratic transitions to visit those nations that are now near such transitions, current politicians would no doubt want to learn from such peers. They would enjoy talking with practitioners about what strategies and tactics they developed, what unexpected obstacles arose, how they confronted these, what dilemmas they found most difficult, and how these were resolved.

Bringing wise but aging transition leaders of the last generation to visit Cairo, Tunis, Havana, Caracas or Naypyidaw (in Myanmar) would not be practical, however. We aimed to provide a second-best approach, by undertaking well-prepared and probing interviews with important transition leaders: Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Patricio Aylwin and Ricardo Lagos of Chile, John Kufuor and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, B. J. Habibie of Indonesia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fidel Ramos of the Philippines, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Tadeusz Mazowiecki of Poland, F. W. deKlerk and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and Felipe González of Spain.

We sought the advice of leading academic authorities on each case to help us understand the history and context of each transition and identify the principal issues that arose. We did not administer a questionnaire but rather engaged the leaders in dynamic conversations about their experiences, how they worked, what their toughest choices were, how and why they made them, and how they learned. The resulting interviews do not present rigorous comparative political science, but they illuminate agency and decision-making in ways that are often obscured by other methods of analysis. Most comparative politics texts downplay the role of political leadership; this book emphasizes and illustrates it.

We know of no comparable source of practical insights and considered judgments on the challenges democratic transitions pose and how these have been successfully confronted. The seniority of most of the leaders we interviewed makes it unlikely that others will have this opportunity to learn from so many successful transition-makers.

We hope our book will be valuable for politicians and political parties; officials of governments, non-governmental organizations, social movements and international institutions; journalists; scholars and students; and all who want to understand, conduct or support successful transitions to democracy. We are grateful to International IDEA’s current Secretary-General Yves Leterme for helping to ensure that the book will be widely available, published in Arabic, French, Spanish, Dutch and possibly in Burmese and other languages. We invite readers to follow in our footsteps and learn from these remarkable leaders.

Sergio Bitar is a Chilean political leader and public intellectual. He served as minister in the governments of Salvador Allende, Ricardo Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet. He was also a senator and served as the president of the Party for Democracy. He is the president of Chile’s Foundation for Democracy and the director of the Project on Global Trends and Latin America’s Future at the Inter-American Dialogue.  Abraham F. Lowenthal, a widely-published scholar, is professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and an adjunct professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was the founding director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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