The relationship between economic development and democracy has become less clear over time.  While there is still a strong correlation between wealth and democracy, recent transitions to democracy have challenged the idea that they are the result of class or cultural change.  The type of transition countries experience has also changed – revolutions and gradual transitions have been replaced by non-violent protest and negotiated agreements. 

The Third Wave of democratic transitions took place from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.  The earliest transitions were likely caused by economic factors – in southern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia, democratization followed years of economic growth and a rising middle class.  These transitions were managed through “pacts” – agreements among the existing political elite to liberalize politics.  In some cases – notably South Korea and Taiwan – the incumbent ruling party won the first multiparty elections and it was years (1997 in South Korea and 2000 in Taiwan) before the opposition party took power.  In others, new parties formed and competed in the first election.

The later phase of the Third Wave was defined by the end of communism.  Popular uprisings spread across eastern Europe after the Soviet Union declined to intervene in protests in Poland in 1988-89.  These uprisings were generally non-violent (Romania was the exception) and cast as movements for the national rights of citizens in each country.  The subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union launched a wave of multiparty elections around the world, most notably among former single party states in Africa as the model (and sometime patron) of single party rule disappeared.  The primary “cause” of democratization in these cases was therefore a combination of international and domestic factors.

What these transitions all share, however, is that they were clear-cut.  The transitions were marked by either the first democratic or first multi-party elections in years.  Not all of these transitions resulted in stable democracy – most former Soviet and African states became electoral authoritarian regimes – but the initial transition at least was clear.

Subsequent events have not been quite as clear.  We tend think about contemporary cases of democratization in terms of how they happened, not why.  These processes are not necessarily new – post-WWII reconstruction contributed to the successful democratization of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan and most transitions involve protest of some form – but their dynamics have changed. 

As civil war has replaced international conflict as the primary form of war in the world, international organizations have increasingly advocated for elections and democratic institutions as ways to manage conflict as part of a peace settlement.  This has met with mixed success – democracy does not always address underlying causes of conflict and electoral campaigns can encourage demagoguery and violence. For example, although the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1994, the FMLN was not able to win an election victory until 2009.  Political violence declined with the end of the war, but criminal violence rose.

Similarly, mass protest movements have been a part of most transitions to democracy – this isn’t something new.  The past twenty years have however experienced a rise in the importance of mass political movements in transitions and in transnational protests.  Here, the reasons for the diffusion of protests from one country to another is not the removal of the influence of an outside power (the Soviet Union), but enhanced communication and demonstration effects.  The mass availability of communication technologies has definitely contributed to these movements, but claims that the Internet was making protests in Iran in 2009 or the Arab world in 2010 possible were a little overblown – or at least premature.  The most transformative technology has been the mobile phone, not social networks.  These movements were organized through texting and word of mouth more than Twitter or other online platforms.  That said, online mobilization has grown in sophistication and reach and has been a significant factor in protests this year in countries with high levels of Internet access, including Belarus, Hong Kong, and Thailand. 

What is most unique about contemporary transitions to democracy, however, is the idea of “democratization by election.” This may once have seemed to be an oxymoron – elections being one of the defining characteristics of democracy – but accidental or permitted victories by opposition parties in authoritarian elections is the most common current means of transition.  This happens in several ways:

  1. In some cases, including Mexico and Malaysia, an opposition party won an election after years of competing in multi-party elections under unfair conditions.  These cases are usually preceded by decisions by the ruling party to allow freer elections. Opposition parties focused almost entirely on mobilizing citizens to vote and the ruling party accepted the outcome of the elections. While it is a bit too soon to call Malaysia’s transition as successful, these types of transitions by election typically result in improvements in a country’s political rights and moves toward further democratization.
  2. In most cases, however, transitions happen after dictators do worse than expected at the ballot box and try to cover it up.  The Philippines was an early example of this – Ferdinand Marcos held early elections in 1986.  The official election commission declared him the winner, but independent monitors counted a vote tally of almost 70% in favor of his opponent Corazon Aquino.  Mass political protests forced Marcos to flee the country and the Philippines began a long transition toward democracy.  Similarly, in Serbia in 2000, opposition parties were able to use independently produced election polls to demonstrate they were the real winner of the elections and the subsequent demonstrations forced former President Milosevic from office.

This second type of transition has been much less stable than other forms.  Even countries that experience an expansion of political freedoms, like the Republic of Georgia, have gotten caught in cycles of repeated “revolutions” to change power.  After removing Eduard Shevardnadze in the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, Georgians also removed his successor Mikael Saakashvili through protests in 2013.  Similarly, Kyrgyzstan experienced the Tulip Revolution 2005 and a second “revolution” in 2010.  And last week (October 14), protestors again forced the resignation of the president after questionable elections on October 4 and placed in power an opposition figure who had been in prison for kidnapping a rival politician.

So what causes transitions to democracy today?  The conventional wisdom is institutions.  The fact that most dictatorships are holding elections – the core institution of democracy – blurs the line between regime types, but also provides an institutional means for transition to take place.  In addition, as Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik describe in “Defeating Dictators,” opposition politicians have been able to develop clever strategies to take advantage of the opportunity elections provide. 

Institutional arguments may also explain why many of these transitions to democracy fail –dictators learn new strategies over time just like opposition leaders.  In addition, there is an argument to make that democratization is more likely to fail when regime transitions happen before state development – that the sequencing of state-building and regime change matters.  We’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Economic factors – in particular poor economic performance by incumbents – do still play a role, as do some cultural factors.  Here, there isn’t a particular “type” of culture that is conducive to democracy, but instead culture provides a means to facilitate the diffusion of pro-democracy movements around regions.  Communication about protests happens within trusted groups and transitions in one country can provide the strongest demonstration effect in neighboring countries – it works best when you see people like you facing down similar challenges and succeeding.  And that is likely one reason why Color revolutions were a former Soviet phenomenon and the Arab Spring stayed in the Middle East. 

I will end by noting that it may simply be the case that not enough time has passed to really evaluate the democratic transitions of the past 20 years.  Structural causes like economic development are long-term causes, not immediate explanations for events.  The relationship between development and democracy may have changed with wider changes in the global economy over the past 30 years, or it may just take time for economic factors to influence political institutions.  And as Dahl noted, it has generally remained true that gradual transitions to democracy have resulted in more stable democracies.