Francis Fukuyama: ‘It’s Not That Hard to Hold a Free and Fair Election’

By Aung Zaw 13 August 2015

Francis Fukuyama is one of the most influential political theorists of the past 30 years. First gaining prominence as a foreign policy adviser to former US President Ronald Reagan, Fukuyama is most widely known for his ‘End of History’ thesis, which contentiously argued that the end of the Cold War would lead to the global predominance of liberal democracy with the collapse of competing political ideologies.

Professor Fukuyama traveled to Rangoon this week in his capacity as a Senior Fellow of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Speaking with Irrawaddy founding editor Aung Zaw at the Phandeeyar technology hub on Wednesday, he talked about the challenges facing Burma’s democratic opposition ahead of the landmark general election slated for November 8.

What changes have you noticed here since your first visit?

Just in Yangon, there’s clearly been some new investment and construction, there’s more cars on the streets. Politically, it’s been very interesting, the evolution—now that there’s actually going to be an election there’s some real politics going on, especially within the NLD. When I was here the last time, Aung San Suu Kyi was just an icon and things seemed a lot simpler. Now there are all these complicated calculations.

There’s a high expectation of how opposition and democratic parties should behave. Lately people in Burma have mixed feelings. Some are disappointed in the NLD, especially civil society groups, for controversial issues like the party’s candidate list.

I don’t know enough about the politics here to say anything specific. I do think that over time, the NLD has got to develop like other democratic parties where it’s not just revolving around a single person, so there is an institutional structure that will accept a lot of input from a lot of different people. For this first election, it’s inevitable that things would work out this way.

Institutional structure is lacking here. As this country has opened up, it seems that the opposition has failed to grab an opportunity, and Aung San Suu Kyi has lacked transparency in her political maneuverings.

If you remember what happened in Poland, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement was the completely dominant organization. They represented the whole of Polish civil society. But within a year or two of the first election, they had largely disappeared as a political force as new political parties emerged. Lech Walesa was elected president early on but it turned out he wasn’t very effective. He was replaced by other people who were better politicians than he was.

It’s possible that something like that could happen here following the election. Once you get into the real contest for power and exercising power, a different cast of characters may prove to be more effective.

What is your prediction for the coming election?

I’m not a pollster. From what I’ve picked up, the NLD seems to have a pretty good chance. But I think that you have to campaign as if you know what you’re going to do and you have to exercise power if you win.

The fear on the ground is that the military leaders who embezzled state property and who committed crimes against the people of this country will not give up power. That is a fundamental issue that we haven’t addressed in this country. How can the country move forward and reconcile?

I think that justice is important, but sometimes you need to prioritize what you’re going to do with your political capital. I would say that economic reform is a more urgent priority. Think about South Africa. There was no justice after Nelson Mandela became president. Truth and reconciliation is a process by which they actually avoided formal court proceedings, because there was a feeling that South Africa needed to move on from the apartheid era. I think that’s a model that needs to be seriously considered here. If you spend all of your time seeking justice, you’re not going to accomplish anything else.

Military conglomerates still dominate the economy. Foreign investment has been coming in slowly. What economic reforms do you think are important during Burma’s transition?

I don’t think you can have a successful economy in the modern world if you don’t build it around a basic set of institutions. So you need to strengthen legal institutions, property rights, contract enforcement in the court system, you need to make the economy much more transparent. You can’t get rid of all the existing crony capitalists right away, so what you need to do is begin by opening up a competitive private sector, including a lot of foreign competitors, because in the long run, crony capitalism isn’t going to be able to compete against General Motors or a really powerful international company. That’s something I think needs to be done in stages. The important thing is, you need to have a brains trust. In Indonesia they had this ‘Berkeley Mafia’, whereas Chile had the ‘Chicago Mafia’, but you need a group of very competent technocrats to give advice on a continuing basis on how to manage economic transition.

That will be a long process.

The thing about economic reform is it’s not nearly as long a process as building up, say, legal institutions. There are a lot of changes you can make pretty quickly which will produce very rapid economic results. If you nail down a good Investment Law, foreign investors will have a fair amount of confidence that they can deal with the system. That in itself will produce important changes in capital flows and that sort of thing.

What is your advice to civil society groups and the opposition movement?

I think that you need to make the mental switchover from thinking about how to oppose the government to thinking about how to run the government. That means actually being serious about formulating public policies, which always involve painful trade-offs. You can’t satisfy everybody so you have to set priorities, you have to have a long-term policy strategy, what sort of things you do first and what you delay for later. And you can’t implement a policy unless you come to terms with the existing government machinery, which means you have to learn how to control the bureaucracy and how to make it work for you and not against you.

Do you think this election will be free and fair?

I don’t know, but I know that it’s not that hard to hold a free and fair election if you have enough outside observers.

A quarter of the seats are still controlled by the military.

I think that it wouldn’t be my first choice but that’s something that will change over time. If you look at Chile under Pinochet, he left a constitution that had a certain number of reserved seats in the senate for military officers, and it took them another 15 years to get rid of that but they eventually did.

How do you evaluate the US policy on Burma? There has been criticism that the US and President Obama have moved too fast.

I think what’s important from the US perspective is to stay engaged. We have a habit of focusing on the first democratic election and paying a lot of attention up to that point, and then once “good guys” get into power we relax and say “good, that problem’s solved”. That’s a big mistake because the really difficult part comes the day after the election. That’s where I think the United States can still give a lot of assistance and support, helping to formulate policies and learning to deal with the actual implementation of policies.

Do you think Burma is a foreign policy success for Obama?

Well, I don’t think that the United States can really take credit for what’s happened in Burma, even if politicians tried to. Certainly it’s one bright spot in terms of American interests around the world, because things have not been going well in the Middle East, Russia, China and so on.

Speaking of China, is it possible that Burma can transition into a democracy and maintain a good relationship with China?

You’ve got to keep talking to them, keep up lines of diplomatic communication, and with the leadership. I think the Chinese care about their commercial interests, [with geopolitical interests] we’ll have to see. China has other areas that they’re more concerned about right now, like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. So whether they will try to force Burma to stay in their own sphere—I’m not sure that’s a big priority for them.