Marc Plattner’s Panel Introduction at the 2010 Democracy Award

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Panel Introduction: Lessons from Other Transitions to Democracy

Marc Plattner

I am MP, V.P. for Research and Studies at NED and coeditor of JoD, my pleasure to be chairing this opening panel, which offers a scholarly perspective on the challenges facing the Green Movement in Iran.   

The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed an extraordinary number of transitions to democracy—what Samuel Huntington famously labeled the third wave of democratization. In the new century, however, we have seen very few such transitions, and those that have occurred—the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon—are not looking terribly democratic at the moment.

Why has the frequency of democratic transitions slowed? Partly because the successes of the late twentieth century left fewer authoritarian regimes in place, and many of the countries best-positioned for democracy had already made their transitions. Probably also because those authoritarian governments that remain have learned from the fate of their predecessors, and have devoted great time, effort, and resources to averting democratic change in their countries. Certainly that seems to be the case with the Iranian regime, which is obsessed by the threat of “velvet revolutions.”

In June of last year, it looked as if Iran might experience a democratic transition. The scenario of a fraudulent election followed by mass protest seemed to be following a familiar pattern–one that had been inaugurated in the Philippines in 1986 with the “People Power” movement that ousted Ferdinand Marcos. But instead the outcome followed a different pattern, with the regime’s security forces successfully repressing the opposition—an outcome for which there also have been plenty of parallels, such as the failed “electoral revolutions” in Azerbaijan and Armenia. But of course the story in Iran is by no means over. And there are also cases elsewhere in which mass protests have been put down, only to reemerge and achieve a democratic breakthrough a few years later, as happened in Serbia in 1996 and then 2000.

The topic of this panel is “lessons from other transitions to democracy.” We realize, of course, that what we learn from past transitions—both those that succeeded and those that failed–cannot be mechanically applied elsewhere, especially to a country as unique as the Islamic Republic. But it can give us a sense of the different patterns, possibilities, and strategies that can lead to a democratic transition, even in a hard case like Iran.

To explore this topic we have four very distinguished speakers–all of whom, by the way, have written for the JoD. Larry Diamond and Dan Brumberg will offer somewhat more general perspectives on democratic transitions, and then Abbas Milani and Azar Nafisi will focus more directly on how these might apply to Iran. Since time is short and biographies of the speakers have been distributed, I will introduce each of them very briefly:

Larry Diamond, my coeditor at the JoD, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, where he also directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Daniel Brumberg is codirector of the Democracy and Governance Studies program at Georgetown University, where he has taught since 1993.  He also serves as acting director of the Muslim World Initiative in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a visiting professor in the department of political science. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which has been translated into 32 languages. Her most recent book is Things I’ve Been Silent About. She is currently a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of SAIS.

We have asked our speakers to limit their remarks to about 10 minutes each, which should leave us with about half an hour for questions and discussion