The recent electoral victory of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which makes him the oldest executive head of the state in the world, has created a vibrant buzz in political debates. Dr Mahathir’s integrity, developmental legacy, and his incredible capacity to bring together opposing forces under a united coalition have been fundamental in facilitating the defeat of his former party – the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has been at the helm of state affairs for six decades since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Thus, what economists like to categorise as ‘leadership effect’ is very relevant in explaining the political transition that we have witnessed through the electoral victory of Mahathir’s coalition.

Yet, attributing to what is attained to the leadership of Dr Mahathir solely will be an incomplete and, perhaps, a superficial analysis of political economy. The recent democratic transition of Malaysia fits closely with existing theories of political modernisation, that needs sincere reflection if we aim to understand democratic development across countries.

Political economists, sociologists, political scientists and historians have often viewed democracy as an outcome of socio-economic modernisation. This idea originated from Professor Seymour Martin Lipset’s famous ‘modernisation theory’ in his seminal academic work in 1959: “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Development”. Lipset identified that for democracies to be sustained, it must be rooted in economically developed space as, “…all the various aspects of economic development — industrialisation, urbanisation, wealth and education — are so closely interrelated as to form one major factor which has the political correlate of democracy”.

In fact, such ideas are also echoed in the words of the late US President Franklin D Roosevelt, who famously argued, “…democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

What makes economic progress and the spread of education critical for sustainable democratic transitions? The theoretical basis of this proposed relationship between economic progress, education and subsequent transition to democracy, as various versions of modernisation theory notes, is quite simple and neat. Economic progress, even under authoritarian regimes, triggers social progress due to the rise of the educated middle-class. Moreover, those who belong to this group of socio-economic status mostly finds their employment from private economic enterprises and are usually not reliant on any political masters for patronage or protection. This makes the middle-class relatively “freer” and more “informed” than those in poverty to demand accountability and political participation from authoritarian regimes. Not unexpectedly, members of political parties, intelligentsia and civil society, who often become key advocates of democratic rights have almost always emerged from the middle class across the world.

Consequently, the pressure for democratisation increases as the size of the middle class expands due to economic growth overtime. The political and social groups who harness an aspiration for democratic transition have often used the middle class as a catalyzing force to take advantage of any “window of opportunity” that might emerge in a country’s political space. In history, such window of opportunity has generally followed economic crisis, such as high unemployment, inflation, etc, or political scandals that disrupts the status quo and weakens the grip of a particular regime over political power. It is precisely during such critical junctures, social groups, charismatic leaders and the middle class mobilize to trigger a democratic transition.  The case of South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, and now Malaysia fits nicely with such explanation of political development.

When South Korea witnessed its democratic transition in 1987 after the assassination of its authoritarian leader Park, it benefited from a per capita income of more than $6,500. When Taiwan experienced its own democratic transition in 1992, it enjoyed a per capita income of more than $10,000. Coincidentally, but not surprisingly, Malaysia at present also benefits from a per capita income of more than $9,500, which helps us understand and validate the crucial role of economic progress in aiding democratic openings.

This line of reasoning, however, does not suggest that democratic transition or consolidation can never happen in poor countries. The case of India, where democratic governance preceded its economic transformation, makes social scientists avoid the argument that economic development is a necessary condition for democracy. But, when poor countries with a weak middle-class experience democratization, the chance of reverting back remains high. Therefore, the diverse set of experiences make it compelling to see how democratic transitions are more sustainable when it is rooted in a thriving middle class, which itself is brought into existence by economic growth over decades.

As Francis Fukuyama noted, “…once societies get on the up escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demands for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy.”  Malaysia too was on that escalator for quite some time, which allowed it to achieve its remarkable democratic transition under the leadership of its old guard – Dr Mahathir.

Ashikur Rahmanis a senior economist at Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh.

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