Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Tunisia’s Shot at Democracy: What Demographics and Recent History Tell Us"

Behind the Numbers pointed to a post by Richard Cincotta taking a look at the Tunisian revolution from a demographic perspective: do the demographics look to be helpful? Short answer: hopefully yes.

How long could it take Tunisia to move from Freedom House’s “not free” category (7.0 to 5.5) to “free” (2.5 to 1.0)? South Korea ascended in five years (1983-88). For Indonesia, the same journey took eight years (1997-2005), and for Taiwan, it took over 15 years to inch through the partly free category to free (1980 to 1995). Recent European ascents were somewhat quicker: Poland took four years (1987-91); Romania, six (1990-96); Portugal, three (1973-76); and Spain, four (1973-77). Greece jumped from not free to free in only one year (1973-74), following the collapse of a repressive anti-communist military regime.

To understand how age structure can directly influence a state’s chances of attaining and maintaining liberal democracy requires a discussion of two models of sociopolitical behavior: (1) the Hobbesian bargain and (2) the youth bulge thesis. Assuming, as the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes did in the middle of the 17th century, that citizens are willing to relinquish political liberties when faced with threats to their security and property (the Hobbesian bargain), it is not surprising that support for authoritarian regimes – especially among commercial and military elites – appears high when societies are very youthful and prone to political violence (the youth bulge thesis). When fertility declines, the population’s bulge of young adults ultimately dissipates over time. With much of society’s political volatility depleted, authoritarian executives tend to lose the support of the commercial elite, who find the regime’s grip on communication and commerce economically stifling and the privileges granted to family members and cronies of the political elite financially debilitating.

[. . .]

What does this mean for Tunisia? First, the good news: Despite journalists’ focus on youth in the streets, Tunisia is not a youth-bulge country. Its population’s median age is 29 years – exceedingly more mature than the populations of most states in the Arab Middle East, such as Yemen (median age of 18 years), the Palestinian Territories (18 years), Iraq (19), Syria (23), and Jordan (23). Tunisia’s consistent declines in fertility pushed it into the class of intermediate age structures in 2005.

Intermediate age structures (also known as “early worker-bulge” populations) are distinguished by having a median age between 25 and 35 years. In its most recent report, Freedom House assesses about half of these states – which include Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, and Turkey – as free or partly free. According to the UN Population Division’s database, several countries in the Arab Gulf region – Kuwait (partly free), Qatar, and Bahrain (not free) – also have age structures that fit into this “intermediate” classification. But this is misleading; the Gulf states’ median ages are inflated by the presence of large numbers of temporary labor migrants in the prime working ages. Tunisia and Lebanon share the distinction of having the eldest native populations in the Arab world. Better yet, Tunisia does not suffer Lebanon’s difficulties with internal (Hezbollah) and external (Syria, Israel, and Iran) actors.

[. . .]

Now for the bad news: Tunisia’s ascent to liberal democracy is still uncertain. In the annals of history, nearly all of the youth-led revolts aimed at achieving liberal democracy have fallen far short of their mark. Instead, they tend to descend into infighting and typically produce a partial-democratic or autocratic regime capable of quelling violence and limiting the destruction of property. This tendency lays bare the most serious limitation of an age-structural theory of democratization: ultimately, personalities and political action – non-demographic factors – are needed to consolidate elite and popular support for a liberal democratic regime. To eventually attain liberal democracy, Tunisia’s political elite, or what remains of them after years of expulsion and political exclusion under the Ben Ali regime, must seize the democratic initiative from demonstrators and make it their own.

Commenter Jack Goldstone does take issue with Cincotta's analysis on the grounds it's not fine-grained enough.

Richard's insights into Tunisia's prospects for democracy are terrific and I agree with him. However, in regard to the causes of the rebellion,I have to disagree with him in one respect - Tunisia in 2010 is VERY MUCH a YOUTH BULGE country, at least as far as political theory would see it. As Henrik Urdal has shown, youth bulge should NOT be measured as the size of the youth cohort (15-24) against the entire population, but as the fraction of youth in the adult population, those aged 15 and older. The 0-14 group is politically not relevant, and should not be counted in assessing the impact of youth cohorts on the total population's political mobilization potential.

For Tunisia, median age may in fact be misleading (as I didn't realize until I looked at the age pyramids that Richard has posted above). Because birth rates fell very very rapidly after 1995, median age in 2010 is intermediate; but if you look only at the population aged 15 and up, you still see very large cohorts of youth compared to total adults.

Because Tunisia's birth rate only started falling sharply after 1995, the large cohorts born in 1986-1995, now age 15-24, still make up a VERY large portion (33%) of all adults. While the next cohorts are much smaller, so this 'youth bulge' will soon fade, it is still very much present, as Richard's graphs show.

Go, read the article and comments.

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