Democracy is a great force sweeping the world in slow motion. Today Burma (Myanmar) took an important step toward democracy with minor parliamentary elections that elected the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat after 20 years of harsh military rule. She may run for president in three years. The last elections, in 1990, were swept by her party and then ignored by a military government that kept her under house arrest for years at a time. The country has been isolated and under stiff international sanctions for decades. In 2007 the regime used massive lethal force to put down demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, just as it had shot protesting students in the streets in 1988. There is still a long way to go for Burma to reach real democracy — and end several long-running ethnic wars — but under its new reform-minded president it is moving vigorously forward.
In Senegal, meanwhile, a long drama of democracy ended six days ago when the incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade picked up the phone to call his challenger on election night and conceded defeat. This simple act, taken for granted in mature democracies, was anything but certain until the end. Wade had been in power for two terms, twelve years, and was running for a controversial third term. (The constitution limited him to two, but since that provision was passed after he first took office he said it did not apply, and the Constitutional Council led by his appointee agreed.)
Wade is officially 85 years old — many believe he is actually older — and seemed to be grooming his son to succeed him. All of this rubbed Senegalese the wrong way, and young people took to the streets in violent clashes with security forces before the election. In the end, Senegal’s traditions of democracy and non-dynastic succession carried the day. Wade has received great praise for accepting defeat graciously, and everyone hopes this will be a model for other long-term leaders who might prefer to cling to power.
Another long-standing African democracy, Mali, suffered a setback recently when young soldiers staged a coup — oddly, just before a presidential election was scheduled anyway. They claimed the government was not doing enough to combat a secessionist insurgency in the remote north of the country, where Tuareg ethnic rebels who had worked for Libya’s Gaddafi returned to Mali with their weapons after Gaddafi’s overthrow.
The results of the coup show democracy’s resilience these days. First, it was widely condemned by everyone from Mali’s neighbors to the great powers. Sanctions were to begin shortly if the coup leaders persisted. The presidents of nearby African countries tried to fly into the country to talk to the young coupsters, but couldn’t land after coup supporters blocked the runway. Meanwhile the coup had the opposite of the desired effect on the war in the north, since the Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos to go on the offensive and capture more territory and towns than ever. Currently they are attacking the ancient city of Timbuktu.
And today, under these pressures, the coup leaders backed down and declared that they would restore the constitution and return power to civilians. This process could still go astray, but what choice to they have really? The coup d’etat is so 20th century, and seems out of place in today’s world. Democracy will likely return soon to Mali. Dealing with the rebellion in the north will be much harder though — a reminder that wars that end in one country can pop up in another one, like Rwanda’s genocide triggering fighting in Democratic Congo, or Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” of Joseph Kony bringing murder and mayhem to Central African Republic and South Sudan.
So, although wars have not died out yet, democracy continues to strengthen worldwide. Three steps forward should be celebrated, even as we keep working to oppose murderous dictatorships in Syria and elsewere. Let’s give our moral and practical support to today’s democracy proponents, who have their work cut out for them — Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Senegal’s new president Macky Sall, and the civilians who will take back power in Mali.