Troubled Democratic Transitions

The world today is comprised of more democratic states than ever before—a fact that is easily forgotten amidst the news of failed democratic transitions and the reemergence of authoritarian tendencies in free states. As panelist Carl Gershman stated, the international community is now facing a “democratic recession” characterized by a failure of democratic transitions and rampant corruption, an “authoritarian resurgence,” and “Western paralysis and retreat” that has led to a “crisis of confidence in advanced democracy.” In the face of such challenges, history gains a new significance. What can be learned from past experiences of democratic transitions?

This question was the central point of discussion for the “Searching for Answers to Troubled Democratic Transitions” panel, an event co-sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). The panel, moderated by Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, featured six acclaimed speakers: Sergio Bitar, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, Priscilla Clapp, Senior Advisor at the US Institute of Peace and the Asia Society, Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, Yves Leterme, Secretary-General of International IDEA, Abraham Lowenthal, President Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Southern California, and Moisés Naím, Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The panel opened with an introduction of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, a book coauthored by Bitar and Lowenthal that served as a foundation for the discussion. The book features a series of interviews with various figures heavily involved with democratic transitions during the late 20th century. As Lowenthal described, some of the leaders interviewed were authoritarians that embraced the democratic process, some were opposition leaders who successful ousted authoritarian dictatorships, and some were “bridge figures, straddling the divide” between authoritarian regimes and the opposition. Although Lowenthal noted that each individual case study of a democratic transition must be viewed contextually, the intention of the book was to uncover the “recurrent issues” that arise during all democratic transitions. The book fulfills an instructive purpose that comes from “a narrative of prior experience.” As Felipe González, former prime minister of Spain, attested in one of the book’s interviews, leadership is not something that a person learns through coursework; “you learn it through experience.”

Bitar presented ten recurrent issues that the authors propose are present in all democratic transitions:

  1. Accepting the importance of gradualism
  2. Maintaining a hope or vision on behalf of the people and fighting fear
  3. Building coalitions
  4. Protecting dialogue and spaces to develop trust
  5. Creating or restructuring a constitution
  6. Enhancing, reinforcing, or creating political parties
  7. Transitioning to civilian control of the armed forces
  8. Setting a precedent in judicial proceedings
  9. Understanding political economy
  10. Engaging with external support and forces for change

Reflecting upon the discoveries made through the content of the interviews, the panelists focused on two takeaways. The emphasis on gradualism, in particular, surprised Lowenthal. One of the keys to successful transition is “not grasping too far, too fast,” a lesson that Lowenthal found to be “very convincing.” Clapp echoed Lowenthal’s statements, citing Myanmar as an example. Clapp remarked that “all of the factors [for democratic transition] are present in Myanmar, but at a much earlier stage.” Clapp believes that the international community should be optimistic regarding the transition in Myanmar, but cautiously so since “we have too high of expectations for how smoothly and quickly democracies can develop.”

Another revelation from the interviews was the importance of individual leaders.  As Carothers noted during his brief introduction of the panel, case studies of democratic transitions are substantially affected by the individual traits and unique qualities of their leaders; this is what Carothers calls “the challenge of personalism.” To what extent is it possible to translate successful leadership strategies from one context to another? Or, in Gershman’s words, “how important are leaders?” From Lowenthal’s perspective, the “qualities and decisions of leaders makes a difference.” However, what struck him most during the interviews was the aura of authenticity that the leaders conveyed.

Building upon the ten recurrent issues, Gershman expanded upon five factors that he believes are crucial to democratic transitions today. The first is the necessity to provide “sustained support to front-line activists,” which corresponds to Bitar and Lowenthal’s issue of maintaining hope and fighting fear.” This is especially important in light of the recent improvements in autocratic regimes’ technological literacy, which elevates the risk for front-line activists. The second and third of Gershman’s prescriptions, “build[ing] international coalitions of democratic solidarity” and “regaining the will to fight for democratic values and ideas,” embody the issue of engaging with international support and focuses on transatlantic and inter-American bonds. In addressing the current political atmosphere in Latin America, he believes this requires free states to unite against the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The responsibility also falls upon democratic states to outwardly promote democracy to reinstate confidence in the democratic process. This is also connected to Gershman’s fourth point, that the U.S. must take a strong stance and become more involved in the push for democracy. Gershman’s fifth factor addresses the sum of Bitar and Lowenthal’s ten issues; “we can’t accept hybrid regimes as a replacement for democracy in transitioning situations.” Even though hybrid regimes might be preferable to autocratic regimes, accepting hybrid forms of government is not an adequate solution and ultimately can slow the process of full transition.

While Naím praised Democratic Transitions as an accurate account of democratic transitions in the late 20th century, he stated that “what it doesn’t include is too much” for it to fully capture the democratic challenges of the 21st century. The general framework is applicable to Venezuela, but there are other important factors that remain unconsidered. Naím believes one such factor is the “growing importance of looking democratic even if you’re not.” To describe this kind of regime, he coins the phrase “stealthy dictatorship.” These authoritarian regimes have all of the institutions present in democracies, but the institutions are controlled by the state and exist primarily to give the illusion of freedom. He also notes that “oil continues to be a major determinant of dictatorships,” and that states which export oil rarely go through democratic transitions. Additionally, Naím cites the development of social media as a meaningful difference between the case studies presented in the book and the reality of transitioning democracies today. Lowenthal—while noting that the book had indeed taken all of these into to account in a variety of ways—agreed that such details were important factors to be included in the discussion.

Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders provides a unique look into the democratic transitions that occurred during the last part of the 20th century, tracing themes that reveal significant aspects of all democratic transition processes. Based on the experiences and memories of world leaders, the book offers readers a glimpse into the minds of some of the individuals who shaped the global political climate. While many of the lessons from Democratic Transitions are extremely relevant to transitions today, panelists look forward to the possibility of a second book further exploring the meaning of Bitar and Lowenthal’s ten recurrent issues in the 21st century world.


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