Has the democratic wave broken? Is the tide of political freedom now ebbing after the spectacular flow that began in 1989? Recent events on nearly every continent certainly give real cause for concern to those who dream of a world governed by the ballot box rather than the bullet. But they may also provide an overdue opportunity to think more realistically about the way the process of democratisation works.
The picture is, as usual, especially bleak in Africa, where two erstwhile democratic role-models find themselves in serious difficulty. Only five years ago, Mwai Kibaki's election as president was supposed to mark a new dawn for Kenya after 24 long years of misrule by Daniel arap Moi. But now allegations that Kibaki in effective stole last month's presidential election from the opposition leader Raila Odinga have unleashed bloody ethnic conflict between Kikuyus and other tribes.
The problem in South Africa is not violent (as yet) but it is equally troubling. There, the African National Congress has chosen as its new leader, and therefore the country's most likely next president, a man who currently faces serious corruption charges involving payments of more than R4m. Already, some of Jacob Zuma's more radical supporters are warning that there will be ''blood spilt in the courtroom'' if he is convicted. It is not without significance that Zuma is a Zulu, while his arch-rival Thabo Mbeki is a Xhosa.
In Asia, too, democracy is in retreat. Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Pakistan on December 27, two weeks before elections were due to be held there, has significantly reduced the chances of a peaceful transition from military rule back to democracy. In Thailand, the generals are still in power 16 months after staging a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra (another democratically elected leader facing accusations of corruption). Meanwhile, a much nastier military junta continues to rule Burma with the mailed fist, having crushed last summer's protests by political dissidents and Buddhist monks. It is scarcely worth adding that the prospects for democracy in the world's most populous country look little brighter. The Chinese Communist party shows no sign of wanting to relinquish its monopoly on power.
To be sure, communist rule is a thing of the past in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But Time magazine's Man of the Year, Vladimir Putin, is making a mockery of the Russian constitution by, in effect, handing the presidency to one of his own sidekicks, who intends to appoint Putin as prime minister. Nor is Russia the only former Soviet Republic slipping back into old autocratic habits. In Kyrgyzstan, last month's elections were condemned by international observers. Kazakhstan is little more than an Oriental despotism; the same goes for Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even Georgia's ''Rose Revolution'' seems to be withering fast.
Latin America offers some consolations, though it still remains to be seen if Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will really accept the unexpected defeat he was handed in last month's referendum on constitutional ''reform''. As for the greater Middle East, the Bush administration's bid to spread democracy at gunpoint has proved far more costly in lives, money and time than almost anyone in Washington envisaged five years ago. Despite the success of the recent military ''surge'', Iraq continues to teeter on the verge of civil war. Afghanistan is little better.
It was not supposed to be like this. Nearly 20 years ago, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published a seminal essay, ''The End of History'', in which he prophesied ''the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government''.
In fairness to Fukuyama, he was writing after more than a decade of sustained improvement in global governance. In the mid-1970s, roughly half the world's states could be classified as ''autocracies''. By 1989 the number had very nearly halved. And the trend continued much as Fukuyama foresaw - by 2002 it was down to fewer than 30. In its 1998 report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance was able to announce that, for the first time, a majority of the world's population were living in democracies. There really did seem to be a democratic wave, beginning in the Iberian peninsula in the mid-1970s, spreading to Latin America and parts of Asia in the 1980s and sweeping eastwards from central Europe in 1989-91. All Fukuyama did was surf it.
The trouble with waves is that sooner or later they break. Every year, the think-tank Freedom House awards scores to the countries of the world according to their degrees of political freedom. According to the latest figures, no fewer than 57 countries have suffered a democratic ebb in the past five years. Among the worst performers were Armenia, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Fiji, Gabon, Russia, Somalia, Thailand, Vanuatu and Venezuela. The list of ''success stories'' is almost as discouraging: Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon and Liberia have all improved their scores by more than 10 points (out of a possible 40) since 2003. It would be a hopeless optimist who put money on the durability of those democratic transitions. A pessimist might wonder if we are about to witness another of those declines of democracy such as happened in the 1920s and 1930s, when the democratic wave that ended the first world war was followed by a rip-tide of reaction and repression.
Why does democracy flourish in some countries, but shrivel and die in others? The simplest answers on offer are economic. According to the political scientist Adam Przeworski, there is a straightforward relationship between per capita income and the likelihood that a democracy will endure. In a country where the average income is below $1,000 a year, democracy is unlikely to last a decade. Once average income exceeds $6,000 a year, it is practically indestructible. This certainly seems plausible at first sight. The countries with the maximum Freedom House scores are, with the exception of Barbados, the rich countries of north-western Europe. The countries with the lowest scores include some of Africa's poorest.
Another appealing economic rule is the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman's: that sustained growth (rather than the level of income) is conducive to democratisation. At first sight, that proposition appears to fit the long-run historical trend, with the greatest challenge to democracy coming in the era of the Depression.
However, recent economic developments have weakened such arguments. The world economy as a whole has never enjoyed a boom like that of 2001-07. Yet democracy has gained little from all this prosperity. Moreover, the most rapidly growing economies in the world since 2000 have not been the democracies. Take the case of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). While communist-ruled China's share of world gross domestic product has increased by 2.5 percentage points in the past seven years, democratic India's has risen by just 0.6 per cent. Russia has outperformed Brazil by a comparable margin. And this disparity between democracies and autocracies seems set to widen. From now until 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, China's share of global GDP will increase from 4 per cent to 15 per cent, while that of the G7 countries - the world's wealthiest democracies - will decline from 57 per cent to 20 per cent. Other emerging markets expected to achieve rapid growth in the next 40 years include Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam, none of which seems an obvious candidate for successful democratisation.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as if capitalism and democracy were in some kind of mutually beneficial relationship. Not only was economic progress apparently conducive to political progress; the causation could go the other way, from democratisation to enhanced economic performance. These days it looks different. Rapid state-led growth is enriching China and other Asian manufacturers, regardless of their political systems, while their demand for energy and commodities is enriching democratic and undemocratic primary producers alike.
A quite different explanation for the success or failure of democracy has to do with culture rather than economics. It was Samuel Huntington who argued in 1993 that, following the cold war, western civilisation would find itself in conflict primarily with Islamic and Confucian civilisation. By implication, these two civilisations were much less likely to produce peace-loving democracies than the Judeo-Christian civilisation of the west. Of all the ripostes to ''The End of History'', ''The Clash of Civilizations'' has been the most compelling.
Prima facie evidence in support of Huntington's proposition is not hard to find. In the Freedom House rankings, for example, it is clear that western societies are much more likely to be democratic than Muslim societies. Yet such cultural explanations also have their defects. Taiwan and Indonesia show that democracy can work for ''Confucians'' and Muslims alike. If due allowance is made for economic and other variables, the gap between the west and the rest is much less significant. In any case, it was not so long ago that serious scholars were arguing that Roman Catholics were incapable of the capitalist work ethic, or that German-speakers could never make a success of democracy - hypotheses falsified by postwar European history.
History is indeed the key to understanding what makes democracy work. Over New Year in Cape Town, I diverted myself from the alarms and excursions of African politics by re-reading the second of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, Phineas Finn. The setting is Westminster in 1866, the year before the second great electoral Reform Act. The youthful hero enters parliament as the member for a tiny Irish constituency, whose 307 voters generally do the bidding of the Earl of Tulla. He finds the House of Commons a den of iniquity, where his fellow MPs vote as the whips (rather than their own consciences) command, largely in the hope of securing the salaries that come with ministerial office, so that their grasping creditors can be satisfied and their club bills paid. There is general satisfaction, even among Liberals, when a popular demonstration in favour of the secret ballot is broken up by the police.
The England of the 1860s was, in short, hardly a model democracy, quite apart from its still-restricted franchise. Was there corruption? By today's standards, certainly. Were the rich over-represented? Without a doubt. Yet three things are striking about the system Trollope so vividly describes. First, the political elite were agreed in condemning any kind of political violence - even the threat of it - out of hand. Secondly, those in government did not hesitate to leave office, and all its perquisites, if they felt their parliamentary position to be untenable. Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of MPs on both sides accepted the sanctity of the constitution and supremacy of the law.
These assumptions did not spring into life overnight. They were the product of around 200 years of political evolution, dating back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only gradually did the two-party system arise. Only gradually did it become conventional for the prime minister to command a majority in the House of Commons. Only gradually did ideas about representation develop until finally - long after Trollope's time - the right to vote became associated with adulthood alone, rather than with property-ownership, education or sex.
The reality about democracy is that it cannot be conjured up out of thin air in the absence of such assumptions. As a young Tanzanian once explained to me: ''In Africa, if you give a man all the privileges of power - the money, the power, the big house and car - and then say, five years later, *Now you must give all this up to your harshest critic,' he is quite likely to find a reason not to do what you ask.'' Yet this is not a peculiarity of Africa. It was once the case everywhere. Only slowly, by sometimes painful trial and error, do elites learn that it is in their own interests to exclude violence from politics; to take turns at governing; and above all to submit to the rule of law.
Winston Churchill famously described democracy as ''the worst form of Government - except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time''. This remains the case, not least because representative government with multiple parties will generally produce superior governance to dictatorships and one-party states, where rent-seeking behaviour is generally unchecked by free political opposition. There is corruption in most countries, but it is nearly always worse - and more economically distorting - in non-democracies. That is why, if they remain one-party states, China and Russia will sooner or later stumble and fall behind the democratic tortoises, Brazil and India.
The key to spreading democracy is clearly not just to overthrow undemocratic regimes and hold elections. Nor is it simply a matter of waiting for a country to achieving the right level of income or rate of growth. The key, as Stanford political scientist Barry Weingast has long argued, is to come up with rules that are ''self-enforcing'', so that the more they are applied, the more respected they become, until at last they become inviolable.
There is no reason why that should not be possible in any of the world's civilisations. As the British example makes clear, however, it can (and probably must) be a very protracted process. And that is precisely why it would be rash, after a few bad years, to prophesy the death of democracy - as rash as it was to predict its triumph after a few good ones.