Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Lessons and pitfalls of transitions to democracy

Under what circumstances is a country most likely to make a successful transition to democracy? This column outlines the roles of both human agency and structural factors such as class or economic interests. Key to the process of democratisation is the kind of incentives that encourage elite groups in society to reach compromises even in the face of ideological differences.

In a nutshell

The nature of democratic transitions shapes the subsequent quality of democracy.

Transitions that are ‘pacted’ among elites may result in relatively smooth transitions to electoral democracy, but they tend to permit political and economic elites to maintain their privileges, leading to less inclusive democracy.

The most vociferous opponents of economic liberalisation may not be the marginalised mass publics but rather well connected elites who benefited under authoritarian rule.

The struggles over institution-building that followed the uprisings across the Arab region in 2011 underscore the importance of elite bargaining in shaping the direction of regime change. For example, if the army had opposed the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia, incumbent rulers might have held onto power; while elite unity, particularly in the ranks of security officers, helps to explain the Assad regime’s retention of power in Syria.

Questions about the relative importance of ‘structure’ versus ‘agency’ have long dominated scholarly debates about regime change. Structural explanations emphasise factors that are relatively fixed and are not amenable to manipulation by individuals or groups, such as economic growth, class interests or the presence of indigenous civil society groups. Agency-based approaches point to the often-unwitting impact of human actions and interactions – particularly by economic and political elites – in producing democratic transitions.

Of course, both sets of factors may be consequential at different points in the process of democratisation. The historical record suggests that when elites are willing to compromise, even in the face of profound ideological differences, the probability of successful democratic transitions increases. Human agency is therefore central to successful democratisation.

But under what conditions do elites engage in constructive exchanges? If elite decisions to adhere to or defect from authoritarian coalitions (as well as the dynamics of elite bargaining during periods of institutional flux) shape the outcomes of regime transitions, then it is vital to identify the incentives that elites face to make such consequential choices.

To understand why elite compromise occurs, we need to turn to more structural factors. Elite resources and strategies are themselves shaped by structural conditions, such as the relative weight of social groups prior to the overthrow of incumbent dictators. The economic and political contexts – that is, the factors that constitute ‘structure’ – shape the interests and goals of elites and, hence, their propensity to make concessions to political rivals and to work together productively.

One factor that clearly plays a key role in guiding transition processes is leadership. This may come in the form of a single leader who has broad credibility, enabling the construction of coalitions across the political spectrum. In some cases, an initial period of instability facilitates support for moderate leaders because the population is fed up with extremists whose struggles only prolong disorder and uncertainty.

But the capacity of individual leaders to form bridging coalitions among key stakeholders is contingent on the evolving political terrain. The experiences of many Arab countries indicate that extreme ideological polarisation inhibits elite cooperation. If not ideological compatibility, then at least a common set of political goals is essential for democratisation to take root. It is particularly vital that potential spoilers agree to abide by a core set of principles, embodied in institutional rules.

Politicised ethnic or religious cleavages can also pose serious obstacles to democratic transitions. But external incentives and shared economic interests can help to overcome the serious obstacles they pose.

The nature and durability of incumbent patronage networks have important effects on the potential for democratisation. When existing networks remain strong, elite defection and, hence, the likelihood of authoritarian breakdown is reduced. Conversely, when authoritarian rulers either face dwindling resources or do not co-opt key political and economic elites with patronage, their incumbency is threatened.

Once a successful transition occurs, the type of transition – and its implications for the continuity of patronage networks – shape the quality of democracy. The defection of economic elites from authoritarian bargains does not automatically produce elite consensus behind an alternative ruler or system of government. This depends in part on whether elites remain incorporated in patronage networks during and after the transition.

When there is a transition ‘pact’ between regime incumbents and members of the opposition, patronage networks are more likely to remain intact, facilitating a smooth transition but at the price of poor democratic quality. When ‘pacted’ transitions permit political and economic elites to maintain their privileges, democracy will be less inclusive.

Under these conditions, the poor and marginalised components of society may not experience tangible improvements in their lives and will not have equal access to opportunities. The resultant poor quality of democracy can undercut the legitimacy of the new system, undermining citizen trust in government and opening the way for popular disenchantment with the transition. Transitions to formal democracy therefore do not necessarily bring about substantive improvements in economic and social life.

This lesson is of great relevance for the transitioning Arab countries, where the economic interests of many former regime cronies remain off limits and big capitalists who benefited under authoritarian rule have maintained their holdings and behind-the-scenes influence. Politicians in newly minted democracies are often loath to implement policies that generate widespread popular opposition, increasing the incentives for politicians to enact populist measures at the expense of longer-term growth and development.

Yet the most vociferous opponents of economic liberalisation may not be the marginalised mass publics but rather well connected elites who benefited under authoritarian rule. Forging a more inclusive political and economic system is challenging, in no small part because it is difficult to dislodge authoritarian coalitions even after democratic transitions have ostensibly occurred.

Further reading

Cammett, Melani (2016) ‘Lessons and Pitfalls of Transitions to Democracy’, ERF Policy Perspective No. 17.

Cammett, Melani, Ishac Diwan, Alan Richards and John Waterbury (2015) A Political Economy of the Middle East, Fourth Edition, Westview Press.

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