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Mauritius, the little democracy that could

Although quite properly equivocal, Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine and London-based Legatum Institute, a free-markets think tank, nevertheless asserted earlier this month – in launching a new website called Democracy Lab – that 2012 could turn out to be the year "in which the forces of democracy triumph around the world." There are plenty of reasons why it won't, Democracy Lab concedes; yet, there are plenty of reasons why it might. Either way, it says, the global transition to democracy will almost certainly quicken.

The Democracy Lab proclaims 2012 "the year of elections." By year's end, says foreign correspondent Christian Caryl (now a senior fellow at Legatum), "the citizens of 59 countries – one-third of the world's countries – will have gone to the polls to choose national, state and local leaders." This year, he says, will confirm the fact that an overwhelming majority of Earth's inhabitants implicitly accept the principles of democracy as the global standard to which all people aspire.

In 1945, the world boasted 12 democracies. It now boasts 115 of one sort or another. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index classes 25 of them as "full democracies," 53 as "flawed democracies" and 37 as "hybrid regimes." The Economist index measures democracies strictly on electoral credibility: on "full and fair" elections, on the security of voters, on the competence of the electoral bureaucracies; on improper foreign influence. Among the world's "full democracies," it ranks Norway first, Canada eighth, the United Kingdom 18th, the U.S. 19th – and Mauritius, the island republic off the southeast coast of Africa, 24th. In some ways, of the 25 "full democracies," Mauritius is now the most notable.

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Elections are obviously only a prerequisite to democracy. The Arab Spring has produced the one but not yet the other – although Mr. Caryl notes that an Islamic party governs in a coalition with two secular parties in Tunisia, a model perhaps for other Middle Eastern countries.

"Yet even under the most daunting of conditions," Mr. Caryl writes, "we can see that the hunger for dignity remains a powerful magnet." The democratic insurgency keeps spreading: Russia, Venezuela and Myanmar, where the government has released from house arrest the heroic democrat Aung San Suu Kyi, who will contest a parliamentary by-election on April 1. Even the harshest of dictatorships, Mr. Caryl says, must prepare for democratic surprises – China, for example, and Iran (which goes to the polls, and perhaps to the streets, in March).

Democracies are messy, imperfect things, and Western countries themselves don't always get it right. The Economist's Democracy Index lists such advanced countries as France (29th) and Italy (31st) under "flawed democracies" (they both finish low because of unsustainable public-sector spending).

Yet, every new democracy remains a cause for celebration. This is why Mauritius is important. This little country (population: 1.2 million) is the wealthiest, best-governed country in Africa. The World Bank put it first in its ranking of African economies (and 20th worldwide). The Mo Ibrahim Foundation ranked it first in its Ibrahim Index, which measures African countries based on rule of law, human rights, human development and economic opportunity.

More instructive still is the ranking of Mauritius in the Index of Economic Freedom published by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, this index put Mauritius in 12th place (out of 179 countries); in 2012, it elevated the country to eighth place (with a score, out of 100 points, of 77, only two slots behind Canada's 79.9). It was the first time an African country had placed in the index's top 10 – and it did so by surpassing the United States (in 10th place with a score of 76.3).

Mauritius is a small multiracial country that has practised free-market economics for years – and now has top 10 rankings in both democratic governance and economic performance. The economy expanded by 4 per cent last year, and average incomes increased to $14,000 (U.S.). (China, incidentally, ranked 138th and Russia 144th.) Economic freedom is as much a prerequisite for democracy as voting. Let's hear it for the prosperous little democracy with a dodo on its coat of arms.

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