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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 91-106

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Is Pakistan the (Reverse) wave of the future?

Larry Diamond


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, democracy is at high tide in the world. By the count of Freedom House, the number of democracies in the world (120) and the proportion of states that are democratic (63 percent) are higher than ever before. 1 It is tempting to see this ongoing expansion as indicative of a historic universalizing trend--the global triumph of democracy as a moral imperative and form of government. The U.S. State Department's 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices termed democracy and human rights a third "universal language" (along with money and the Internet). 2

The current "third wave" of democratization (which began in 1974 but gathered particular momentum after 1989) stands in sharp contrast in both duration and scope to the second wave, which began around the end of the Second World War and expired in less than 20 years. That movement gave way to a "second reverse wave," in which democracy broke down in more than 20 developing countries. 3 Remarkably, a quarter-century after the inception of the third wave, there is no sign that the world has entered a "third reverse wave." During the first 25 years of the third wave, there were only three blatant reversals of democracy in countries with more than 20 million people: the 1983 military coup in Nigeria, the 1989 military coup in Sudan, and the 1991 military coup in Thailand. The first two occurred before the third wave of democratization reached Africa in 1991. The Thai coup was a major setback for democracy in Southeast Asia, but it did not last. Within 17 months, popular mobilization against the military's project to perpetuate its rule in a civilian electoral guise brought new elections and the return of a genuine democracy. [End Page 91]

Before October 1999, there had been three other types of democratic reversals during the third wave. First, there were democratic breakdowns during the 1990s in such small, relatively marginal states as Congo (Brazzaville), the Gambia, Lesotho, Niger, and Sierra Leone. Second, democratic openings were aborted in such countries as Cambodia, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria, and several post-Soviet states. Finally, democracy was mangled by elected presidents themselves in Peru and Zambia, but in ways that preserved the framework of competitive multiparty politics.

With the exception of the Nigerian military's outrageous voiding of Moshood Abiola's landslide election to the presidency in June 1993, none of these other democratic reversals threatened to spark a wave of democratic breakdowns. Either they took place in countries that were too small to capture wide attention or the events were too ambiguous to provide a clear-cut model that could be emulated or denounced. Even in Nigeria, the impact of the military's 1993 cancellation of the final step in its own democratic transition plan was somewhat blunted by the cynicism that had accumulated through several previous manipulations of the transition process. The resilience of the third wave was dealt a much more serious challenge, however, on 12 October 1999, when the military seized power in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Descent

The Pakistani coup is the single most serious reversal of democracy during the third wave. With a population of 130 million, Pakistan is not only the largest but by far the most strategically influential country to have suffered a democratic breakdown. It now possesses nuclear weapons, and it has become a major source of terrorist training and financing. It could soon fight a major (even nuclear) war with a powerful neighbor, and its ruling military leaders are less inclined than the elected civilians they displaced to seek a negotiated solution to the problem of Kashmir.

While democratic Pakistani governments were manifestly corrupt and abusive, the country did witness repeated alternation in power between two political parties that had each mobilized substantial (albeit declining) popular support. Finally, Pakistan will not follow Thailand's path of rapid democratic restoration. The damage done to democratic institutions and norms...


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pp. 91-106
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