Transition to Democracy from Authoritarianism

B. C. Smith defined democracy as a governmental / political system which provides: (1) competition between individuals and groups, (2) political participation to select leaders and policy, (3) civil and political liberties to enforce high levels of the former two points, (4) representative governments or parliaments, (5) bureaucratic responsibility to government, (6) free and fair elections, (7) freedom of expression and association regarding all previous points, and (8) suffrage (Smith, 225-6).  However, Third World countries are rarely capable of maximizing all former variables continuously at a high level.  Smith concluded that these nations suffered a “democratic deficit” (226).  In the examination of the democratic deficit, one may notice the transitions happening to realize democracy.

Transitions usually occur when an authoritarian regime moves towards the above mentioned definition of democracy.  This often happens when the elites are not united, there is a domestic crisis allowing democracy to surface (such as an economic crisis), or international pressure may “enforce” democratic assimilation (Smith, 227).  Regarding elite breakdown, the transition is illuminated via an alleviation of repression, a wave of political association and expression, and negotiations between the elites.  Many elites transition because it is in their own best interest; they negotiate the transitional elements and form pacts to protect interest groups (228).

The “theory of transition” depends upon the regime that is transitioning to a democracy.  The elements within the transition will affect society in various manners.  For example, unitary regimes often create societies that are “atomized” (Smith, 229).  Elite negotiations generally revolve around “the construction of a constitutional element; the dismantling of authoritarian government agencies; and, the abolition of laws unsuitable for democratic politics” (229).  In order for these negotiations to be successful, political scientists will focus on the type of the authoritarian regime, how it is deconstructed, opposition group influence, new v. old political documents and institutions, the change in orientation between civil society and elites, and conflict resolution (229).

An analysis of the above characteristics regarding transition may initiate controversy.  First, transitions may initiate outside of the described framework.  For example, populism may create a transition; instead of an elite breakdown, such as in Benin (Smith, 231).  Second, the transition may create excitement about democracy; however, there might remain critical democratic deficits.  In Latin American and Africa, Smith states, poverty and marginalization negate participatory democracy (232).  In Asia, on the other hand, authoritarianism has only been “softened,” rather than replaced (232).  The establishment of elections does not establish democracy (232).  Here, real democracy must be consolidated.

Democracy may be consolidated by: (1) strengthening democratic institutions, (2) extending democratic practices, and (3) preventing authoritarian reversals (Smith, 233).  Here, an authoritarian regime may not be dismantled and a democracy formed overnight. According to Smith, “consolidation means that democracy has become routinized and internalized in political behavior” (233). One should see “trust, tolerance and compromise” within the political culture and political activities (233).  In order to further describe democratic consolidation, Smith advised that political scientists research the levels of industrialization, urbanization, and education.

Smith thus provides a starting point to evaluate Third World governments regarding democracy, transitions and consolidation. Godspeed.

Smith, B. C. 2009. Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development, 3rd Edition. Indiana University Press.


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