Karthik extends my point about intra-party democracy to point out that the same problem applies to countries too. He is right. On the same note the Dilbert blog talks of the problems you face if you have ended up as the dictator of a major country. You do not have a career path and you cannot retire. Yes, it is hard to sympathize with dictators, but think of someone like poor Kim Jong Il, who has had dictatorship thrust on him. There is really no easy way out, especially if you are also incompetent.
Coming back to the rest of Karthik’s post, I am afraid he misses the point. Yes it is true that IF you are a party that has just singlehandedly got independence to the country, and IF you want to bring democracy to your country, then the best time to do it is right at the beginning, but the problem is that the combination is difficult to obtain.
Yes, one typical case is for a single party to have fought for and won independence, but I doubt if it is the typical case. I suspect that it is just as likely to have two parties who hate each other’s guts, but had temporarily come together to achieve their goal. See the current situation in Nepal, for example. In India too, it is easy to imagine alternative histories – perhaps if Godse hadn’t assassinated Gandhiji, thereby discrediting (fairly or unfairly) the RSS, there would have been a strong Hindu Nationalist alternative to the INC. Perhaps, if the communists had not tried to start a revolution and had participated in parliamentary democracy right away, there would have been a stronger leftist alternative.
Secondly, it is unlikely that the dominant party has democracy as its overriding goal. Remember that the initial few years of a country are invariably messy. If you are the leader, wouldn’t you like to get ten years of election-free rule during which you can concentrate on your job undisturbed by the temporary sufferings and protests of your people? Of course, ten years later, you find that your country is in a worse mess, you are forced to take increasingly repressive measures and you are caught in the dictatorship trap.
Thirdly, having a single dominant party win too many elections is also not a good thing. As happens in West Bengal or Singapore, your party and the government tend to develop a symbiotic relationship and your party becomes increasingly autocratic. So you need to lose your first election pretty quick, and that brings us back to square one.
The bottom line is that it is hard to establish and maintain a democracy. Difficult, but not impossible. The worse part is that there don’t seem to be any way to adopt best practices from other countries in this regard, because each country is unique. For example, Britain became a democracy at what was arguably just the right time – when military technology had advanced enough to make civil war too deadly to be fought, but not so advanced that a small professional army could rule a country. I will explain this last point in some other post, because I am too sleepy now.