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So what’s democracy all about? And is there a magic formula for ensuring a successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy?

If you’ve ever asked that question and fretted about the state of your nation, pick up a fascinating just-released book From Authoritarian Rule Toward Democratic Governance: Learning from Political Leaders by International IDEA — the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance — which tells you just how to ensure successful democratic transitions.

Authors of the in-depth study, based on a conversation with 13 former presidents from nine countries on four continents, have come up with 10 lessons on what works and what doesn’t work when nations embark on the often-perilous path to democracy.

A quick glance at the headlines, including the chaos in Egypt, violence in Syria and Libya and still fragile transitions in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Myanmar make clear that Democratic Transitions should be obligatory bedside reading for all would-be democrats, wherever they are.

And while some countries like Pakistan may pride themselves on having moved from democratic transition to democracy, I would ask: really? Given the state of governance in the country, the book should be compulsory reading not just for the prime minister and his advisers but all opposition politicians — and army men — with aspirations to lead the country.

After having talked to men — there are no women leaders who were interviewed but there is a chapter on the role of women in political transformations — Abraham Lowenthal from the Brookings Institution and Sergio Bitar, a former minister in successive Chilean governments, have come up with what they term “10 imperatives for crafting democratic transitions”.

So what are the lessons learned?

First, opposition leaders should combat repression and dictatorship by moving forward incrementally. In order to combat repression and push for openings, opposition leaders have to exert continuous pressure but be prepared to make compromises to move ahead. Transition-making is not a task for the dogmatic. Dismissing maximalist positions call for more political courage than hewing to impractical principles.

Second, throughout the campaign for democracy, project a positive and inclusive vision for democratic change rather than focusing on past grievances. Keep hammering home such as hope and vision to combat the pervasive fear among people who may prefer authoritarian calm — even army rule — over democratic turmoil.

Third, build convergence and coalitions among democratic forces. Connect to social movements — workers, students, women, human rights groups and religious institutions — in fashioning the democratising movement’s aims and programmes.

Four, create spaces for dialogue between democratic movements and authoritarian regimes — secretly at first if necessary as was the case in South Africa. Informal dialogues can help members of the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition to understand each other and build a working relationship.

Five, act firmly but carefully to achieve democratic civilian control of security services. Transition leaders should take early and decisive action to bring the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies under civilian authority and control while recognising their legitimate roles. The army’s focus should be on external defence and international peacekeeping, not on internal security.

Six, craft workable constitutions through an inclusive process and engage a wide range of participants in drafting a constitutional document while also working hard to respond to the core concerns of key groups. Also, provide some assurance to elements and supporters of the former regime that their fundamental economic and institutional concerns and individual rights will be respected under the rule of law.

Seven, manage economic tensions to combine growth with equity. Alleviating poverty and dealing with unemployment and inflation often come into conflict with economic reforms needed for future growth. To deal with this tension, adopt social measures to help the poorest and the most vulnerable elements of society.

Eight, invest early on in building and institutionalising vibrant political parties given their key role in creating and sustaining democracies — provided they do not become vehicles for individual political figures and their democracies.

Nine, to meet the needs for justice and memory, avoid wholescale prosecution of former officials. Instead, establish transparent legal processes to tackle violations of rights, provide recognition and reparation to victims and bring violators to justice.

Finally, draw on external support from government and non-governmental actors but remember that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. International actors cannot take the place of domestic initiatives, the study warns. But they can encourage and provide discreet advice. What foreign powers must not do is undertake impatient and counterproductive interventions.

As for the qualities of leadership, the book notes that there is not one model for a transition leader. He or she needs to be cool-headed, pragmatic but also full of resolve and courage. Some had the self-confidence to take difficult decisions, others relied on competent associates.

All of those interviewed, underlined that top political executives did not work on their own but rather creatively and constructively with many others.

And finally a word of warning for those preparing mass protests and demonstrations: democracy does not emerge directly or easily from crowds in the street. Crafting democracies takes vision, time, hard work, persistence, skill — some luck — and above all leadership.

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