Reconsidering Democratic Transitions



Yesterday, heavyweights in the world of democracy studies got together at the National Endowment for Democracy — which, like CIPE, turns 30 this year — to discuss what we know about supporting democratic transitions and what we still have to learn.

The idea of “democratic transitions” is a relatively recent one. As formerly authoritarian countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and many in Latin America shifted to democratic forms of government in the 1980s — followed by many formerly Communist nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union — a new vocabulary was needed to explain what was happening and why.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington divided these transitions into “waves”: the first occurring in the 19th century, the second after World War II, and the third beginning with Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 and arguably continuing through today — with most countries in the world now under some form of democracy.

This chart shows the number of nations considered "democratic" under the Polity IV ranking system.
This chart shows the number of nations considered “democratic” under the Polity IV ranking system.

However, not all the panelists agreed that recent upheavals, like the “Color Revolutions” in former Soviet states or the Arab Spring, are part of the same process that began in Portugal nearly 40 years ago.

Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, argued that these more recent events more resemble the First Wave transitions of the 19th century, when democracy was “taken” rather than “given” by elites who bought into the democratization process (as happened in Southern Europe, parts of Asia, and, later, post-Communist Eastern Europe).

Duke Political Science Professor Donald Horowitz pointed out that the particular realities in a country as it moves away from authoritarian rule will deeply affect how it transitions to democracy, or whether it is able to achieve true democratic governance at all. “A cynical definition of transition,” he joked, “is the time between transitions.”

Horowitz also noted that the choices made early in the transition, such as the voting system used in elections or how the constitutional convention is arranged, can have huge impacts on how subsequent events play out.

For Stanford Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law Director Larry Diamond, though, the idea of “democratic transitions” framework is still relevant, whether those transitions are driven by popular uprisings, changes in elite opinions, or some combination of both.

While not all transitions are exactly the same, experiences from one can have bearing on another, particularly when trying to avoid the institutional design mistakes Horowitz talked about.

One thing all the panelists agreed on was that a “successful” transition is not a perfect guarantee against future backsliding. As my colleague Andrew Wilson wrote yesterday, while the transitions in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe were hugely successful, there are still dangers that could derail or even reverse democratic progress.

Here at CIPE, we also believe strongly in sharing experiences among democratic reformers in different parts of the world. While the broad outlines of each transition can look very different, many of the specific challenges — especially those faced by the private sector — can be remarkably similar.

Watch the entire event on YouTube here.

Jon Custer is Social Media / Communications Coordinator at CIPE.