Legitimacy lurks in much political science writing but””like an invisible life force””is rarely scrutinized. What is this elusive thing? Can it be reduced to something else that political scientists are more familiar with dissecting and measuring? And what might this imply for real political choices?
Bruce Gilley’s The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy is a fusion of classic American quantitative political science and a qualitative case study. Gilley addresses the question of legitimacy head on, theoretically and empirically. It’s an exercise that yields some very interesting results for both scholar and policymaker. If economics is the “dismal science” then political science can sometimes appear no more than pessimism with a PhD””a scholarly condemnation of countries to the prison of their history and economic circumstance. Gilley’s book suggests one way in which political leaders can break out of this jail: work on legitimacy. So it should be of interest to Sudan.
Let me summarize Gilley’s findings as I understand them. First, legitimacy is a factor in its own right, with an irreducible element. It is influenced but not wholly determined by structural factors such as type of government, prosperity and history, and turn it influences but does not wholly determine these factors. Legitimacy can be strong or weak on its own account, and can be strengthened or weakened independently of other factors. Some very poor countries can enjoy highly-legitimate governments, some rich countries can suffer crises of legitimacy.
For some scholars from other traditions of political science, the thesis will not come as a surprise. Marxists have long argued that both the objective and subjective conditions need to be present for a revolution to occur. Theories of the French and Russian revolutions have looked at the gap between rising expectations and frustrated realities. This doesn’t devalue Gilley’s thesis: on the contrary, when diverse schools of thought converge on similar accounts, it is more likely that they are describing a real phenomenon. But Gilley goes further and explores how states in crisis have empirically gained legitimacy.
In Gilley’s tables, South Africa and Tanzania rank more highly on the legitimacy scale than France or Greece. China outranks India. Sometimes, countries that are rather similar on other measures such as conflict or GDP can vary in their legitimacy””Gilley contrasts (high legitimacy) Azerbaijan with (low legitimacy) Georgia. While the most developed countries of northern Europe score the highest of all, the lowest scores are reserved for Pakistan, Colombia and Russia. Even Zimbabwe doesn’t compete with these in terms of its illegitimacy score. Unfortunately for our discussion, he didn’t measure Sudan. I am sure that country specialists may want to dispute some of the rankings and the measurements on which they are based. But this should not detract from the fact that the scores are highly variable and the discrepancies are not closely associated with other widely-used indices.
Gilley’s empirical analysis of the legitimacy of government considers three factors: legality, “rightfulness” and the consent of the ruled. The second””the subjective factor of the perception that a government is ethically grounded””is particularly important. When legality, consent and the rightfulness of government converge, a government is particularly legitimate.
Legitimacy can be the “crucial switch” which can either send an apparently well-run and cohesive state into a terminal decline, or can launch a virtuous spiral which brings a crisis-wracked government back from the brink. Gilley explores Uganda in the decade after Yoweri Museveni took power as an example of the latter, arguing that the “ethical” approach yielded results that could not have been predicted by conventional structural theories. He adds a cautionary note that legitimacy does not last indefinitely and in Uganda it appears to be more fragile today than a few years ago. Gilley’s analysis identifies a deliberate policy by Museveni of developing legitimacy as a central explanation for Uganda’s revival in the period from 1986. This was helped by greater stability and economic growth, and in turn enabled the NRM government to deviate from international norms insofar as it practiced “no-party” government with the support of the majority of the populace, at least during the critical period.
What does this mean for Sudan? To start with, it underlines the importance of the factor that preoccupies the Sudanese political intelligentsia: the ethical standing of the government. Critiques of human rights critiques or the inequalities of access to power and resources only partly capture this. It is deeper.
Sudan faces an extraordinary array of obstacles to attaining a high-legitimacy government:
“¢ An historical legacy of slavery and differential degrees of citizenship and unequal development;
“¢ Decades of experiments in different forms of government including parliamentary democracy (three times); conservative, leftist and Islamist military government; centralized and federal arrangements, etc., none of which have resolved the country’s crises;
“¢ Still-unresolved disputes over the legal basis of government with the ruling party continuing to demand Islamic law and most of the opposition insisting on a secular legal code;
“¢ The Darfur crisis which remains unresolved and which has led to the ICC issuing an arrest warrant against Pres. Omar al Bashir””and the defiant stand of the ruling party against this;
“¢ Elections scheduled for February 2010, which are more likely to be a well-managed plebiscite on the president than a true exercise in democratic decision-making over the future of the country;
“¢ A referendum on self-determination scheduled for January 2011 in southern Sudan, a region in which the majority appear to support separation;
“¢ Governments in both north and south which have failed to deliver on essential services for the larger part of the population;
“¢ An influential international advocacy campaign that demands that Sudan meet western, liberal values and norms of legitimacy.
Few countries in the world face such challenges. Sudan would seem to be a poster boy for the pessimistic structuralist, history-as-prison school of political science. But Gilley’s book also suggests that Sudan need not wait for success in overcoming these deep-seated structural problems in order to make rapid progress in restoring a sense of nationhood and improving the quality of governance. In that sense The Right to Rule is an optimistic book and, implicitly, a plea for Sudan’s leaders to get to work on a “legitimacy project.”