Saturday, August 16, 2008

Democracy on the March

Hardly a day passes without some nugget of news about increasing democracy in a far-flung country. Here are five examples from the past couple months alone.
  1. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has had a century of royal rule, but they just held elections for the first time. Their King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, voluntarily abdicated and declared the country a constitutional monarchy, with a popularly elected parliament. Most Bhutanese liked their king, but he simply explained that no nation should be in the hands of one person, and that the changeover should happen while the country is peaceful.
  2. The tiny island nation of Tonga is having a similar experience, with their king due to forfeit most of his powers to parliament by 2010.
  3. Turkmenistan’s infamous dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2007 and the new ruler has been slowly but surely dismantling the cult of personality around the former ruler. A giant, rotating, gold-plated statue of Niyazov has been removed from the capital, the names of the months have been restored after Niyazov named them after himself and his mother, Internet access is increasingly allowed, and the ban on car radios might even be lifted (Niyazov banned them because they annoyed him.)
  4. Even Cuba, long held tightly in the hands of Fidel Castro, has been slowly allowing freedoms under their new ruler, Fidel’s brother Raúl. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” he announced, dramatically reversing his brother’s philosophy. Ordinary Cubans can now own mobile phones, televisions, and computers for the first time, and farmers can decide for themselves what to plant.
  5. Lastly, the Summer Olympics have shown a spotlight on China’s worst anti-democratic impulses, such as its stifling of dissent, but a recent New York Times headline reports that “Despite flaws, rights in China have expanded.” China is a significantly more open place than it was a generation ago, with its citizens able to choose where to live, own some property, travel abroad, and gain access to technology.