A User’s Guide to Democratic Transitions

A how-to guide for reformers around the world.


Let’s face it: Democracy is struggling. Sure, it surged after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reaching a high-water mark in the first years of the 21st century with various inspirational "colored" revolutions. But then democratic gains in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America stalled, or even deteriorated, as fragile democracies struggled under the enormous challenge of governance. The expensive U.S. failures to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t helped. Today, many countries that once seemed budding with democratic promise now appear mired in political infighting, beset by power grabs by ousted elites, or trapped in downward spirals of poverty and unemployment. And the seemingly inexorable rise of autocratic China, in sharp contrast with gridlocked western democracies, has some wondering whether democracy is even worth pursuing.

While many people have enjoyed rising wealth and stability under autocracy (most of them in China), we remain convinced that democracy is the least bad form of government out there, to paraphrase Churchill. And thankfully, there’s some statistical evidence to back up our belief that democracy is still the best way to realize both freedom and prosperity. Although economists for more than 50 years have debated whether democracy or autocracy is better for growth, more recent studies tip toward democracy.

The hard truth, however, is that the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is notoriously difficult. History suggests that transitioning countries’ move toward genuine substantive democracy characterized by resilient majority rule, free and fair elections, and strong minority and civil rights protections will be slow. The bad news is that for countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Myanmar it’s likely to be a long and bumpy ride.

In our new book Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons from Democratic Transitions, we compared eight countries’ experiences with democratization: Poland, Ukraine, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa. Though the contexts are obviously quite different, certain lessons can be drawn. Below, we highlight our seven most important take-aways. Our hope is that leaders facing the challenges of transitions today can draw upon the lessons of others to identify those policies most likely to promote robust, inclusive economic growth and to foster the gift of genuine and enduring democracy.

1. Don’t miss the opportunity presented by a good economic crisis.

Many experts once believed that economic growth led inevitably to democracy. Although most rich countries in the world today are relatively democratic, some — such as China and Saudi Arabia — have enjoyed growing economic prosperity without a commensurate increase in political freedoms. Indeed, studies show that it’s not economic growth but rather economic crisis that triggers regime change. Over the past three decades, many democratic transitions have been precipitated by serious economic shocks that ruptured the authoritarian bargain.

Indonesia is the poster child for getting the most out of an economic crisis. Its remarkable transition to democracy was precipitated by the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that ushered in deep political and economic reforms. In Brazil, a structural economic crisis in the 1980s paved the way for its transition from military government to democracy. Mexico experienced a similar trajectory as the 1982 debt crisis set off political and economic change. In the Middle East uprisings of recent years, the economic shocks of rising food prices and youth unemployment played a strong role — although whether the transitioning Arab countries will be able to consolidate democracy and usher in much needed economic reforms remains to be seen.

Tempting as it may be to engineer an economic shock in your least favorite autocracy, economic crises can also unfortunately make the most odious governments hunker down even more. (Think of the sanctions on Iran or North Korea.) And hold on to your hats if the price of oil sharply declines. Resulting economic crises in places like Saudi Arabia and Russia are likely to spur transitions — and all the turbulence that goes along with that.  

The bottom line here is the need to recognize how economic crisis can upend the status quo and open the door for fundamental change. In anticipation of that moment, policymakers should pursue strategies to nurture a middle class. Once upheaval hits and democracy begins to take root, a resilient middle class can be the necessary safeguard against backsliding to autocracy.

2. On elections, "Fake it till you make it."

A clear lesson from our case studies is that elections — even sham elections — lead to greater success in the transition to substantive democracy. International observers often denounce flawed elections as meaningless attempts to dress authoritarian rule in the trappings of democracy, but elections can also sow the seeds of public expectations that over time blossom into democratic demands that cannot be ignored.

Mexico offers a great example of the unintended consequences of controlled elections. In the 1970s, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party took its quest for electoral legitimacy so far that when the loyal opposition failed to field a presidential candidate in 1976, the government revised the election laws to make it easier for the opposition to gain a few seats. To the party’s surprise, when the economic crisis of the early 1980s hit, the opposition was able was able to use this opening to marshal civil society organizations in a campaign for more transparent elections.

In Brazil, the military regime likewise tolerated an opposition it believed it could control. But as economic crisis led to widespread discontent in the early 1980s, the military began to lose its grip on the political situation. Having won their place in the political arena, the opposition was now poised to win a surprisingly large victory in the 1982 elections for Congress and state governors. The earlier "rigged" election had set the stage for the military’s downfall in the presidential election of 1986.

Other quantitative evidence confirms that authoritarian regimes with partial political openness are the likeliest to become more democratic, especially if they provide for multiparty electoral competition. So go ahead, support the vote, even if it’s not perfect.

3. Be wary of armed rebellions, but back nonviolent, mass mobilizations.

Armed rebellions often fail to lead to democratization, even when regimes are overthrown. History is littered with failed uprisings, coups d’états and violent revolutions that succeeded in nothing more than replacing one form of dictatorship with another. Nonviolent, mass mobilizations, on the other hand, have a stronger track record of laying the groundwork for democratic change. Proponents of nonviolence, from Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, have long noted that sustained peaceful protests lead to a more engaged citizenry and a better-organized civil society — critical for staying the course during the inevitable challenges of democratic transitions.

Consider these examples:

  • Poland’s experience with its trade union federation Solidarity — a social-political movement that at its peak included a quarter of the population as members — illustrates how a peaceful grassroots movement can be instrumental in a democratic transition.
  • South Africa’s broad-based grassroots liberation movements, though not always peaceful, opposed apartheid over decades and bequeathed a legacy of strong civil society engagement.
  • Indonesia’s transition also benefited from a broadly engaged citizenry. Widespread street protests in 1997 and 1998 and high voter turnout in 1999 made ordinary Indonesians owners of their democratization process and more willing to withstand the prolonged uncertainty of the times.
  • In contrast, although Ukraine appeared to experience a peaceful mobilization during the Orange Revolution in 2004 when hundreds of thousands of protestors filled the streets of Kiev, the crowd was a passive force lacking the depth and vibrancy of a genuine grassroots movement.
  • Similarly, Nigeria’s largely unsuccessful transition has never been grounded in a broad-based popular movement.

Some countries, like Namibia and El Salvador, have overcome violent beginnings to evolve along a path of democracy. And some dictatorships are so totalitarian that their end can come only through violence: Muammar al-Qaddafi, for example, was determined to fight his people to the bitter end. Libya’s transition is not doomed by its violent birth, although the militias that helped overthrow Qaddafi — and the climate of lawlessness that resulted — now pose significant obstacles to stability.

The takeaway for policymakers is not to write off countries born of violence, but to proceed with caution in abetting armed revolutions, and to resist the great temptation of favoring deals between elite groups over the messier, slower, but more reliable support of home-grown mass mobilizations. What form might this support take? The international community should nurture civil society-building through civic exchanges and support for local civil society organizations. Support for independent media is also a crucial aid to nascent democracy. These are generally low-cost, high-return investments.

4. Encourage Inclusive Growth.

The promise of political freedom raises peoples’ expectations for economic and social opportunities. The success of emerging democracies depends fundamentally on whether democratization can also materially improve people’s lives. When citizens do see improvements in social inclusion and living standards, they reward the politicians who provide them, creating a powerful feedback loop that helps consolidate democracy. On the other hand, if unemployment skyrockets, or if the rich just seem to get richer while nothing changes for the masses, a return to autocracy can begin to look pretty good

Brazil’s transition to democracy was consolidated in large part by socially inclusive growth, which generated widely shared benefits. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Presidents Cardoso and then Lula da Silva managed the impressive jujitsu of unleashing new talent and investment through anti-inflationary, anti-monopoly economic reforms, while simultaneously increasing social spending on the poor and middle class. Brazil used two main strategies to improve the well-being of the poor: First, they used conditional cash transfers that efficiently targeted that the neediest while encouraging positive behavior such as keeping kids in school; second, they used universal provision of social and economic rights (health care, education, and labor protections) to include blacks and other disadvantaged groups.

Mexico likewise consolidated democracy by delivering on economic opportunity for a broader cross-section of citizens. Monthly stipends to the poorest, conditioned on such behaviors as keeping kids healthy and in school, expanded greatly and now cover about a quarter of the population. This marks a shift from earlier decades when the government did little to provide material opportunities for the most vulnerable groups, even as political participation began to expand. 

When democracies fail to deliver on material expectations, by contrast, they can become breeding grounds for strongmen. To dissatisfied and excluded constituencies, a promise to fight against the rich can have sudden allure. In Thailand after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the economic and social policies of the nascent democratic government were widely perceived as exclusionary, benefiting foreign investors and domestic elites at the expense of regular Thais. This widespread resentment swept into power the populist Thaksin Shinawatra, who promised to deliver for ordinary Thais. But he put in place an electoral autocracy that prompted a coup and a streak of violent unrest.

South Africa — two decades after the end of apartheid — also needs to deliver better for the disadvantaged if it hopes to avoid rising discontent and unrest. Though many South Africans expected fundamental socioeconomic change to follow from their revolution, poverty and inequality remain entrenched. Today, the black share of total earned income, at 13 percent, is slightly less than it was two decades ago.

Achieving both macroeconomic stability and inclusive growth is usually a tough feat for a new democratic leader. Expectations are high; people are impatient. So identifying reforms that can immediately improve people’s lives without deepening unsustainable economic policies in the longer term is critical. The specific policy options available in any country are always context-specific. What worked in Poland probably won’t work in Nigeria. But a few banner headlines seem to apply:

  • Restructuring and in some cases expanding the social safety net not only improves the lives of the poor, it makes them more supportive of the new government.
  • Redirecting social spending that has been captured by special interest groups can be a tangible accomplishment. In this vein, one important but politically difficult step is the elimination of expensive and inefficient subsidies, such as those for fuel, that impose significant costs on government budgets and distort investment incentives and economic growth. Such subsidies should be replaced by targeted cash transfers to those hurt the most by rising prices.
  • Cash transfers can also play a vital role in creating shared opportunity by enabling struggling families to invest in health and education-simultaneously cushioning the hardships of the present and laying the foundation for future economic prosperity by developing human capital.

International actors have an important role. They should support the economic policies of domestic reformers through development grants and loans, sovereign loan guarantees, and debt forgiveness. Strategic outside economic help can create important fiscal space for governments to deliver on the demands of the new, democratic social contract.

< p> 5. Double Down on Rule of Law.

Should I believe in this new government, or not? That is the question confronting someone in a new and often shaky democracy. To answer that question, a new democracy needs to show its citizens that it can protect their core rights and establish fair economic and political rules. It’s not rocket science: If people believe that legal systems and public institutions work for them, rather than against them, it gives them a stake in the system and a greater willingness to tolerate the inevitable turbulence of a transition. An effective, transparent, and predictable legal system also prevents well-connected insiders from amassing wealth and public assets through shady backroom deals.

Contrast the experience of Poland with Ukraine. Poland today is a paragon of inclusive democracy and a market economy built from the ashes of an oppressive state. Its success can in part be attributed to the fact that structural economic reforms, particularly the privatization of state-owned assets, occurred only after policymakers had put in place a legal system that leveled the playing field and established strong safeguards against corruption. In contrast, Ukraine has failed spectacularly to establish a fair and impartial legal system, building an arbitrary one instead. Without equality before the law, predictability in legal enforcement, or any meaningful mechanisms of transparency, the vast majority of Ukraine’s newly privatized wealth ended up in the hands of oligarchs by the late 1990s.

Arguably, one of the most important things that transitioning countries like Libya and Burma can do today is implement strong rule of law reforms, especially those that can be implemented in the near term and are hard to unwind. The establishment of transparent auctions to privatize public assets is critical. So too is the reform of laws constraining civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (This is why Egypt’s new, even more repressive NGO law, is so worrying.) Building the capacity of the judiciary, parliaments, and civil society to implement rule of law reforms takes time, but these are investment well made. The good news is that the spread of information technology today allows average citizens to play a bigger role in combating corruption and bolstering the law through the public dissemination of revenues, expenditures, important social and economic statistics, and the disclosure of the income and assets of public officials.

6. Spread Out the Power.

Spreading power out to local regions has strong benefits. It helps dilute the dangerous concentration of central authority often inherited from authoritarian regimes; it also increases accountability by bringing administration closer to the people. 

Indonesia’s democracy has benefited from devolution of power. Though a decentralized system seems an obvious fit for the vast and diverse archipelago of Indonesia, Jakarta-based elites long resisted giving up any control. The chaotic political and economic environment of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, led them to grudgingly accept greater devolution as a way of maintaining national unity in the face of growing separatist demands. The move brought clear benefits: separatist agitation diminished as local and regional governments gained authority, budget transparency increased, and policies improved as competition at regional and local levels for investment grew.

Spreading out power also had a positive impact in Poland. After the failed economic and political centralization of the communist government, Poland’s early reformers made a priority of establishing local self-governance. By the late 1990s a series of reforms gave local communities control over almost half of Poland’s budget. 

Decentralization of power of course is not a panacea. It requires effective local governance structures, and it can be risky in situations where centrifugal forces threaten the stability of the state. But it can also blunt violent separatist movements. Transitioning countries should therefore decentralize thoughtfully, in ways that help deepen and sustain democratization. For countries like Libya, Mali, and Burma, each facing disaffected populations, addressing regional needs must top the list of their priorities. Foreign governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs, and others seeking to strengthen democracy can support decentralization by providing technical assistance, nurturing partnerships and building capacity at local levels through community-driven development initiatives.

7. Lean on Good Neighbors and Compensate for Bad Ones.

Good neighbors can help fragile democracies succeed through tough times by providing critical economic and technical assistance and exerting constructive political pressure. Conversely, bad neighbors can undermine transitions by fostering power-grabbing and corruption — or simply by failing to provide support for democratic consolidation. Neighborhoods are not merely geographic, although shared borders are an important element of interdependence between countries. Neighborhoods are also economic communities, such as the European Union; political-military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and cultural groups based on a common heritage. Neighbors exert a powerful force on the trajectory of countries with which they share interests and destinies. 

In Poland, Indonesia, and Mexico, positive neighborhood influences provided important leverage for internal reformers intent on challenging entrenched interests and proved a powerful bulwark against backsliding. In Ukraine, on the other hand, Russia has been a destructive influence, fostering corruption and shady dealing in the vast energy sector. 

Given the importance of good neighbors, foreign governments and international and regional organizations must strive to compensate for bad ones. The multilateral development banks have a strong role to play. Their existing relationships, deep pockets, and strong expertise should be mobilized to give domestic democratic reformers support in economic restructuring and investing for inclusive growth. Regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could also play a more robust role in bolstering democratic transitions, as the European Union did for Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union crumbled. 

Economic and political "neighbors" can wield two influential instruments to support domestic reformers in their difficult work of building democracies: conditionality and technical assistance. Good neighbors can also provide technical assistance and facilitate knowledge sharing to help build the capacity and expertise of government bureaucracies, the judiciary, civil society, and other important actors.

* * *

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the difficult challenge of transforming oppressive states into free and open societies. History has made fools of those who believed that they could determine the fate of nations by following a playbook. But these insights can serve as valuable guideposts on the long and difficult road to democratic consolidation.

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