Slow but sure

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. n 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 Ch

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