The Libyan Surprise

Libya doesn’t have a democratic government yet, but after yesterday’s elections, it’s awfully close. As Juan Cole summarizes, turnout for the national vote was good, violence was scarce, and voters were ebullient. If the national assembly these elections were choosing manages to convene and to appoint a government, Libya will have crossed the threshold to electoral democracy for the first time in its history.

According to prevailing theories of democratization, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Libya is an oil-rich country with no democratic experience in a part of the world where democratic development has lagged badly. Because of its oil, Libya is not poor, but decades of punitive rule by the Gaddafi regime left the country without the kind of organized “civil society” often cast as the workhorses of democratization. Theories of authoritarian breakdown predicted correctly that Gaddafi’s personalistic regime would end with a bang, but they also told us that democracy was unlikely to follow. Contrary to theories that see European and American democracy-promotion schemes as crucial catalysts of reform, democratization is occurring in Libya with virtually no outside prodding. Foreign forces helped tip the revolution against Gaddafi, and the U.N. has provided important technical assistance for the elections, but the impetus to the transition has really been domestic. Reflecting many of these conventional views, a statistical model I built to forecast when countries with authoritarian regimes would cross this threshold pegged Libya’s prospects for a transition in 2012 pretty close to zero.

Libya is also unusual in that it isn’t really a state right now, at least not a functional one. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that is supposed to step aside when the new assembly appoints a government is recognized internationally as Libya’s sovereign authority, but its domestic recognition is much weaker. By my reckoning, the Libyan state collapsed in 2011, and the NTC’s bumbling rule hasn’t reversed that process. I can’t think of another modern case where national elections were held successfully in a country that was as politically fragmented as Libya is today. The NTC is the nominal national government, but the country is largely being run by a melange of city and neighborhood councils and the revolutionary militias that midwifed their birth.

What the faithful might call a miracle, statisticians would call an outlier. Whatever tag we apply, this is clearly a happy surprise.

I don’t have much to say (yet) about why this surprise has happened. I will say that grand theories of democratization have failed plenty of times before, and efforts to construct new mid-range theories probably ought to wait a few more years for new patterns to cohere—not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—before attempting to assert any new patterns with confidence.

Of course, even a successful transition would not put Libya on a glide path to a democratic future. As I discussed on this blog last year, most first attempts at democracy fail, usually within a decade of their start. At this early stage, there’s no reason to assume that Libya will also buck the trend on this side of the imaginary wall.

It might, though, and the fact that this possibility even exists is a welcome and delightful surprise—for the world, yes, but for Libyans most of all.

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