Democratic transition demands courageous leadership | Olav Kjørven

09 Nov 2012

 Tunisia Constituent Assembly Elections 2011

Of late, we have witnessed dramatic change in many parts of the world. Autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa have been ousted or forced to resign. Myanmar has embarked on a determined path towards reform.

Economic, social and political reasons triggered these societal changes. Hence people’s call for “bread, freedom, dignity” in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, where we saw that political transition can – if rarely - happen almost overnight.

But autocratic regimes leave legacies, economic structures, incentive systems and institutions that do not disappear as a dictator steps down or aside. Political rights, human rights, progressive social and economic policies, fair jobs and the primacy of the rule of law do not automatically follow moments of significant political change.

One of the first choices the leaders of transition must make, therefore, is to be inclusive as they start to define their future.  For legitimacy and longevity, there must be sustained channels for dialogue and decision-making with all people – civil society and academics, the business elite and the military, the politicians and the public, especially the marginalized. This is the only way to renew trust and rebuild a nation’s social contract.

This is most difficult. At the very moment when leaders should pause to reflect, they will be pressed to act. It will require courageous leadership, therefore, to hold off forces pressing for an immediate ‘restart’ of economic growth, for example, and to engage honestly and often with all stakeholders on how fast necessary economic and social change can materialize.

Democratic transition is not new. Countries like Brazil, Chile and Indonesia have a wealth of experience of what works – and what does not – to share with nations like Egypt, Myanmar, Tunisia and others looking to strengthen young democracies.  As a trusted partner, UNDP can and will support their crucial dialogue.

Share your views: How can popular protest be channelled into inclusive dialogue and decision-making?

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