Making small incremental steps is more effective in building a democracy than waiting for major change to happen, according to 13 political leaders from nine countries who have led their countries to democratic change.

Global experience shows that real democratic change does not take place just from the top of society or the political elites, but needs the engagement of citizens and civil society organisations and social movements.

Taking small steps towards democratic change was one of the lessons learned from democratic transitions that have taken place, shared in a recent publication entitled “Democratic Governance: Conversations with World Leaders”, published by the John Hopkins University Press in 2015.

The leaders who were interviewed noted the benefits of taking advantage of partial opportunities whenever possible to gain ground in strengthening democracy.

This echoes His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan’s famous perspective when He abdicated the Throne and introduced democracy in Bhutan in 2008: Change works best when things are going well. Don’t wait for a disaster or revolution

Bhutan took the opportunity of good circumstances – a stable economy, an educated populace, and generally sound development to introduce the “gift” of democracy.

The challenge, however, is the building of a strong culture of democracy in which the state responds equitably to people and people take responsibility for the progress and development of Bhutan.

The ‘Conversations with world leaders’ publication is based on interviews with 12 former presidents and a former prime minister from nine countries in five continents. The leaders (from Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Ghana, Poland, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Chile) have all initiated transformations from authoritarian rule to democracy in their countries over the past three decades.

While the countries featured have experienced more tumultuous journeys towards democracy, some of the broader lessons learned are applicable even to a young democracy like Bhutan’s.

IDEAs international, an inter-governmental agency that supports sustainable democracy, shared some of these lessons learned at a workshop on democratic transition in Asia held in Mongolia (March 21-22). More than 50 participants from Asia, including Bhutan, met in Ulan Baator and discussed their experiences with democracy. In learning from each other’s experiences, IDEAS international shared the lessons learned:

Lesson 1: Take small incremental steps towards democracy.

The leaders prioritised “gaining ground wherever possible, even when some vital priorities could only be partly achieved, and when some important constituents and supporters were making demands that the leaders considered not viable”.

Lesson 2: It is crucial to project a hopeful and inclusive vision. 

The publication reports that it is important to present a “hopeful vision of the transition” to reduce public fear and avoid disillusion among the people. Leaders can show the way forward and move away from current grievances by providing a long term vision and making modest promises of immediate gains.

We have learnt in Bhutan that journalism has a large role to play in moving away from adversarial politics. The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is piloting approaches to investigative reporting that focuses on deeper stories that do not report on people as helpless victims of the state or political development, and to focus on what people are doing to solve issues. This also contributes to a more hopeful and inclusive vision of democracy. It gives us hope for the future and encourages people’s participation, stemming from their personal aspirations for Bhutan’s development.

Lesson 3: Building convergence and coalitions to show to all actors that they have a stake in the new democracy.

The leaders interviewed pointed out the importance of creating a common vision that accommodates “opposing forces to provide a credible alternative”. Equally important is the building of coalitions between political opposition forces and social movements. We are reminded that leaders should focus on what unites people across sectors and of the need to “reconcile differing positions or establish a basis for mutual tolerance”.

Bhutan has learnt that democracy means learning to listen to and respect diverse views. We remember a 69-year-old woman who stood up at a televised forum to ask political candidates to stop maligning one another. Political parties also made a public statement when the Bhutan Democracy Dialogue was formed that Bhutanese political parties should think as “Bhutanese first” and build a more harmonious political environment.

While such ‘coalitions’ are yet to show results, we are heartened by the acknowledgement that we all have a stake in the success of democracy.

Lesson 4: Leaders should create and protect spaces for discourse.

Dialogue can increase trust between the opposition, the regime, civil society organisations and citizens. This, in turn, will ensure the success of transition. It is important, says the publication, for dialogue not to focus on past differences but on common goals.

Dialogues are taking place in Bhutan and the voices that are emerging have become clearer and more confident. It’s a timely reminder to focus on the future vision for Bhutan and to avoid stumbling over petty disputes. We have reason to hope that the abrasiveness and mudslinging in our past campaigns are history. The question is how are we building a more inclusive future where every Bhutanese has a stake in the development of Bhutan?

The reflections of the political leaders in this publication show that work towards democracy is demanding and needs a collective will to make things happen. Civil society space is also important. These are useful lessons for Bhutan.

Describing democracy in Asia, the Secretary-General of IDEAS international said the diversity and differences in culture, history, development goals, and political evolution pose challenges. Many countries have gone through difficult periods of internal struggle. There have been some good examples.

“It is remarkable to see how democracy has gained ground in Asia, where leaders have often displayed a knack for gradually relinquishing their power,” said Mr. Yves Leterme at the opening of the workshop in Mongolia.

The editors of “Democratic Transitions” are the former foreign minister of Chile, Mr Sergio Bitar, and a professor of Political Science in the United States, Abe Lowenthal. The publication with its expansive thinking on lessons for democracy gives us much to ponder over.

Contributed by

Siok Sian Dorji