Democracy & Governance

Myanmar After the Coup

The February 1st coup launched by Myanmar's military effectively put an end to the country's tentative transition to democracy as civilian political leaders were imprisoned and the results of the 2020 elections annulled. During an event sponsored by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and moderated by HKS Professor of Public Policy Tarek Masoud, Pwint Htun, Non-Residential Myanmar Program Fellow at the Ash Center, and Derek Mitchell, president of the National...

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Tarek Masoud Reflects on the Arab Spring Ten Years Later

Ash: Ten years after mass protests ignited the Arab Spring, only Tunisia has the trappings of a stable democracy. Elsewhere we've seen a succession of coups and failed states, coupled with an ascendant authoritarianism in some parts of the region. Yet you remain positive on the long-term prospects of democracy in the Middle East. Why?
Masoud: I remain upbeat about the prospects for participatory government in the Arab world. That said, the Arab world is fairly diverse, so I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement that...
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Myanmar Descends Back into Military Rule

Myanmar Descends Back into Military Rule

February 1, 2021
As Myanmar’s military launched a coup, imprisoning many of the country’s political leaders including Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the country’s largest political party, the National League for Democracy, we spoke with David Dapice, a senior economist with the Ash Center’s Myanmar Program.

How Authoritarian Police Thrive in Democracy

In early October, young Nigerians took to the streets, clogging roadways in Lagos, calling for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an elite arm of the police, notorious for violence, harassment, corruption, and unlawful arrests, to be disbanded.

The outpouring of anger in Nigeria was set against the backdrop of months of similar protests against police violence all around the world. From demonstrations in May seeking answers over for the death of 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos Pinto in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; to protests over the summer calling for the...

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A Win for Democracy

Demarquin Johnson HLS/HKS 2020 stepped up to a podium for the first time as a freshman in high school in Missouri City, Texas, as a member of his school’s debate team. After several weeks spent doing research, he was prepared to defend the right to vote for citizens convicted of a felony. Fueled by a deep belief that felony disenfranchisementis unjust and a legacy of Jim Crow-era attempts to strip voting rights from Black people, he hammered home how prohibiting people from voting because they were formerly...

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A New Story for Nigeria

In June 2006, a few days after Uche Pedro MC/MPA 2020 graduated from Western University, Ontario with a degree in business she started an anonymous blog about Nigerian pop culture.

Going to a university in Canada had opened Pedro’s eyes to how little people knew of her native country’s burgeoning entertainment scene. Posting clips from magazines and stories about music and fashion in her free time, she hoped BellaNaija, her site, could help introduce the world to a new narrative about Nigeria.

What happened next surprised her. The site’s...

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Valerie Jarrett on the value of a vote and reaching Gen-Z

Following the 2016 presidential election, senior advisor to then President Barack Obama Valerie Jarret and First Lady Michelle Obama poured over election return data. “Michelle Obama and I did a lot of soul searching trying to figure out what happened,” said Jarrett during a virtual discussion moderated by Harvard Law School Lester Kissel Professor of Law David Wilkins, hosted by Harvard Votes Challenge, the Ash Center for...

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Disrupting the Party: A Case Study of Ahora Madrid and Its Participatory Innovations

Quinton Mayne and Cecilia Nicolini, September 2020 

In this paper, Quinton Mayne and Cecilia Nicolini examine the rise of Ahora Madrid, a progressive electoral alliance that—to the surprise of onlookers—managed to gain political control, just a few months after being formed, of the Spanish capital following the 2015 municipal elections. Headed by the unassuming figure of Manuela Carmena, a former judge, Ahora Madrid won voters over with a bold agenda that reimagined the relationship between citizens and city hall. Mayne and Nicolini’s analysis is a case study of this innovation agenda. The paper begins by exploring how Ahora Madrid’s agenda emerged as a response to, and built off of, historic levels of political disaffection and mass mobilization spurred by the 2008–2014 Spanish financial crisis. The authors examine how the alliance’s agenda of democratic disruption was realized, first through an unusual bottom-up electoral campaign and then, after taking office, by challenging and rethinking established relations between public officials, civil society, and city residents.  

Mayne and Nicolini show that while Ahora Madrid’s time in power was not without its challenges, it still successfully implemented a set of far-reaching democratic reforms centered on institutional innovation. This included the creation of an internationally recognized online civic engagement platform, the establishment of neighborhood forums, and the implementation of a €100 million participatory budgeting process. Although Ahora Madrid lost the 2019 elections and the city swung back to the right, a number of its reforms, explored by Mayne and Nicolini in the case study’s conclusion, live on in an altered form, serving as a reminder of the alliance’s original bold vision for the city. 

Disciplining of a Society: Social Disciplining and Civilizing Processes in Contemporary China

Thomas Heberer, August 2020

In this paper, we specifically focus on the social disciplining process in China since 2012, i.e., in the Xi Jinping era, although we also briefly touch upon historical aspects of disciplining (Confucianism, Legalism, New Life Movement” in the 1930s political campaigns in the Mao era, etc.). The approach adopted in this paper is to conduct an analysis of the disciplining/civilizing top-down project of the state.
We argue that the function of the current Chinese state as a disciplining and civilizing entity is the connecting link tying policies such as the state’s morality policies, its anti-corruption drive or the so-called “social credit system” together under a specific governance logic: to discipline and civilize society in order to prepare the people to become modernized. In fact, modernization and modernity encompass not only a process of economic and political-administrative modernizing but concurrently one related to the organization of society in general and the disciplining of this society and its individuals to create people with “modernized” minds in particular.
Our principal research questions in this paper are twofold: (1) How should disciplining and civilizing processes in general and in contemporary China in particular be understood? (2) What kind of policies and tools does the Chinese state use to pursue and implement its disciplining objectives?

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A Turbulent Decade: The Changes in Chinese Popular Attitudes toward Democracy

Yinxian Zhang, August 2020 

In light of the increasingly aggressive policies and rhetoric of the Chinese government, many came to believe that China may pose a severe threat to democracy and the international order. However, less attention has been paid to Chinese popular attitudes toward democracy and authoritarianism. How does the Chinese public think of democracy in the changing domestic and international environment?


This paper uses a novel data set of Chinese social media posts generated between 2009 and 2017 and investigates the changes in popular attitudes toward democracy in the past decade. Results show that online discussion around democracy has decreased and voices questioning democracy have become pronounced since 2013. While tightened state control is a critical factor shaping popular attitudes, this paper demonstrates that people’s increasing exposure to two types of foreign information has also played into this trend. These information lead to a perception of dissatisfying performance of other countries and an awareness of racial attitudes of the West. Lastly, increasing doubts about democracy are not necessarily translated into a strong authoritarian legitimacy. Instead, online discussion presents a sense of ambivalence toward the two models, and the Chinese regime has continued to face a predicament of legitimacy.


What Justice Looks Like

Recent uprisings in cities throughout the US against racialized police violence, along with mass protest movements from Chile to Colombia to Haiti against long-running structural inequality and exclusion, have demonstrated that policymakers and political leaders routinely remain disconnected from, or actively ignore and silence, the experiences of communities directly harmed by their policies. 

“What Justice Looks Like” takes a perspective of “public policy from below” by centering the voices of those on the ground level of struggles for justice, but traditionally...

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