With renewed elections in Mali slated for July and French troops containing Tuareg and Islamist insurgents, the Sahelian state appears to be on track to restart the liberal democracy that was upended in March 2012 by a coup d’état.
However, several African political commentators contend that putting Mali’s laudably democratic but habitually fragile and chronically ineffective regime back together again is simply a bad idea.
Whether right or wrong, this criticism highlights an unsettled question for Western interventionist powers: Wherever a liberal regime has collapsed and a Western power has interceded to deter further violence, should the intervening power insist on restoring similarly high levels of democracy?
Most Western diplomats would likely answer “yes, of course,” with little hesitation. However, a recent analysis of the record of stability among liberal democracies with extraordinarily youthful populations-like Mali’s, where nearly half of the population is under the age of 16, and fertility remains greater than six children per woman-suggests that under these circumstances, the state and its citizens might fare better with somewhat less democracy.
In 1972 Freedom House published its first annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties States assessed as Free (the highest ranking) that also had a very youthful population (a median age of 25 years or less) have been exceptionally unstable. For that 40-year period, their year-to-year risk of dropping out of the Free category has consistently remained about six times higher than states with a more mature age structure (see Figure 1).
The consequences to the populace of these “youthful democratic dropouts” have often been severe. Within five years of losing Freedom House’s Free assessment, about half of these dropout states were being ruled by autocratic regimes (assessed as Not Free) or had hit the lower rungs of partial democracy (low scores in Freedom House’s Partly Free category).
Why should a liberal regime be such a “poor fit” for states with youthful populations? Political demographers argue that when young adults dominate the adult population, and when the growth rate of school leavers and young job seekers is high and the possibility of employment is low, militant state and non-state actors find it easy to recruit.
Roughly 80 percent of all new civil and ethnic conflict since 1970 has initially emerged within states with a youthful population. The political violence and social tensions that commonly prevail under such conditions tend to build elite support for authoritarians promising increased security. Those same tensions undermine the legitimacy of highly democratic regimes-states permitting openly competitive politics, guaranteeing free speech and assembly, and limiting police power.
These general findings make a great deal of sense and there is now a substantial amount of statistical evidence to support them. Realistically, however, neither the criticisms of African journalists nor the theories of political demographers are likely to have much bearing on decisions to remake or modify Mali’s regime.
Nonetheless, it might be wise for those involved to understand the historic odds of obtaining and maintaining a liberal regime among states that have experienced Mali’s youthful demographic conditions. For the period that data are available, those odds have been consistently low.
Photo Credit: By Makadaka via Flickr