Do You Live in a Democracy?


Democratization and its Limits       


Zakaria defines and understands the limits of democratization via liberalism or illiberalism.[1]  To Zakaria, “democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property” (22, italics in original).  Hence, just because a state is democratizing, i.e. initiating elections, it is not necessarily a liberal democracy.  Indeed, Zakaria found that “half of the ‘democratizing’ countries in the world today are illiberal democracies” (24).

O’Donnell defines and understands the limits of democratization though the paradigm of “delegative democracies” (56).[2]  Overall, true democracies meet Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy (including congress, judiciary, political parties…), while delegative democracies do not (56-57).  Delegative democracies are: (1) less liberal than representative democracies, (2) the elected leader finds the courts and legislature as “nuisances”, (3) a myth of legitimate delegation, (4) more Hobbesian than Lockean, (5) voters/delegators are expected to become a “cheering audience” for the elected leader, (6) the elected leader is free to rule as he or she wishes, (7) the leader is seen as a “savior”, (8) the initial public policy is meant to save the country, but rarely does, and (9) the institutional structure does not improve to increase democratization.  Delegative democracies are quite like Levitsky and Way’s definition of competitive authoritarian regimes (electoral manipulation, unfair media access, abuse of state resources, etc.).  Both are not democracies, though they have elections.

Zakaria found that constitutional liberalism is the strength within a democracy—it is constitutional (rule of law via the Romans) and liberal (individual liberty via the Greeks).  To be sure, Zakaria found that “constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy has not led to constitutional liberalism” (28).  For example, Worden described that the second presidential election in Afghanistan revealed  corrupt polling staff, biased government officials, voter-registration fraud, violence, the election of notorious warlords, over 300 violent incidences (killing 31 civilians), impossible tallies, and 1.3 million fraudulent votes (to name a few).  The elections completed in Afghanistan, 2009, showed a transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime that has little in common with the legitimacy of modern democracies.

Levitsky and Way[3] admit a conceptual strategy that allows for the categorization of democracies observed with authoritarian traits. These states may be labeled as hybrids, semi-democracy, partly free, etc. For if democracies are multi-dimensional, then it stands to reason that any particular state shall be deficient in one of the dimensions. Precise types of democracy which include deficiencies are competitive authoritarian regimes (i.e., competition is real but unfair), constitutional oligarchies [also exclusive republics] (i.e., deny suffrage), tutelary regime (i.e., real power is with military or religion, etc.), monarchic authorities, semi-competitive (i.e., major party banned), (14) and on and on. By definition, democracies are hard to define.


These authors challenge our ideas of what democracy is and our understanding of prospects for democracy in the third world, because (1) the fall of an authoritarian state does not mean that democracy is the successor as the political structure, and (2) many of the countries that hold elections are not democracies.  Zakaria found that democracies “are more warlike, going to war more often and with greater intensity than most states” (36).  Snyder described, “Rocky transitions to democracy often give rise to warlike nationalism and violent ethnic conflicts” (15-16). In a normative approach, however, the researcher must determine whether or not advancing war (e.g. preemptive strike, serious provacation) is a democratic value. If not, then perhaps political scientists should label these hybrids as a form of imperialistic democracy?

The third wave of democratization has stalled.  Democracies need to heed Snyder and “….adopt a strategy of civic institution-building before embarking on democratization” (41, italics in original).  Zakaria explained that “every wave of democracy has been followed by setbacks…today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism… democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war” (43-44). In the end, the violence of transition will best be avoided if institutions are strong; and, constitutional liberalism is the goal.

Political Pipeline Picture 1:  Link back to original post here. I explain the theory in brief detail there.


[1] Zakaria, Fareed “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” Foreign Affairs 76:6, Nov/Dec 1997 pp. 22-43.

[2] O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1994. ” Delegative Democracy” Journal of Democracy 5(1) : 55-69.

[3] Levitsky and Way. 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism.CambridgeUniversity Press.


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