On the Arab revolt | Are they ready for liberal democracy?

As a result of the Jasmine Revolution that ousted Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and the on-going revolt in Egypt and a couple of middle east states, we have seen politicians and commentators discussing what lies ahead.

Will the protest end up replacing the current regimes by another an authoritarian regime or pave the way for Islamists to grab power through election? Or, could the process be hijacked by a military coup d’état?

If you are wondering what’s undemocratic about an Islamist party holding power through election and whether this is simply a ‘Christian’ bias; No it is not. The commentators are not talking about any form of democracy, rather a specific variant – a Liberal Democracy. A type of democracy that emphasizes on individualism, secularism and constitutionalism. As Fareed Zakaria put it, liberal democracy is 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.

So, the question is: whether these countries are ready for liberal democracy.

In deed, only history will provide a definitive answer, since this is beyond holding a free election next month or endorsing an appropriate constitution. It takes a while before liberal democratic norms and institutions take hold. On the other hand, proponents of liberal democracy contend that reversals may take place even after the holding a free election and in various forms – a coup d’état, an illiberal group holding power through election(Venezuela, Turkey), an authoritarian but popular government like Russia.

Perhaps, a look into the back-story of democracies may provide clues.

Thus, this post intendeds to give you a glimpse of the circumstances deemed favorable and/or necessary for the consolidation of liberal democracy in a country – based on three publications ,by Fareed Zakaria, Adam Przeworski et al; Ethan B. Kapstein and Nathan Converse, which together cover virtually all countries and more or less the period between 1950 and 2004.

Before that, however, it would be appropriate to apprise you that there are opponents to the very idea that states need to meet certain conditions to succeed i democratization. Thus, a brief of the two perspectives is also provided below.

[The following part is an excerpt of an essay I wrote in 2009. After several attempts to rewrite it, I gave up and put it here as is – albeit a few restructurings, re-titling and rephrasing that I hope to enhance its readability.]

Determinants of Successful Democratization

Democratization: Broadly speaking, ‘Democratization’ is primarily the shift of power down ward. It is the process of building or developing democracy. It may refer to ‘a struggle for a greater democracy by the various institutions, individuals and social groups within society’. Democratization indicates a process where hierarchies are breaking down, closed systems are opening up, and pressures of the mass are becoming the primary engines of social change.

In the political sense, Democratization refers to the process of introducing political institutions that enable the citizenry to exercise control over the government. Democratization is ‘a long complex process by which a country attains democracy’.Thus, the very term Democratization indicates the existence of undemocratic elements, in the political system, that need to be transformed.

1. Preconditions? Two perspectives.

Transforming a political system towards democracy goes beyond holding elections. Many writers agree that Democratization consist not only legal but also attitudinal and structural changes. Democracy is a function of at least some basic rights, processes, structures and their actual use by the citizenry. Since the basis of any political system is the political culture or the political attitudes, skills and values of citizens, Democratization requires the induction of appropriate elements into the society. Governmental organs, non-governmental associations, and individual citizens should carry out their respective roles in a manner that advance democratic principles and enhance the legitimacy of the political system. Devoid of that, the Democratization process faces stagnation and reversal.

Scholars prescribe different ways of conducting the Democratization process.

One perspective holds that Democratization can succeed when preceded by a set of conditions or experiences. According to this perspective, embarking democracy prematurely would not only undermine its effectiveness and survival, but it is also highly likely that it may result in tyranny and violence. Accordingly, this view is labeled ‘preconditionist’, ‘sequentialist’, or ‘gradualist’. Fareed Zakaria argues successful Democratization is difficult, if not impossible, where constitutional liberalism did not get hold. A state should exhibit and experience some degree of respect for individual freedoms and the rule of law so as to be suitable for democracy. The development of these features, in turn, requires a capitalist economic development. The enlargement of the middle class and business community would naturally accompany such types of economic development and it would also induce the regime to relax its control on some basic freedoms, to enhance the effectiveness and autonomy of public institution and more adherences to rule of law.

The contrary perspective regarding Democratization is often referred to as ‘universalist’. This view claims that democracy can emerge in all sorts of ways and settings. It rejects the structural preconditions and “the gradual liberal path” of Democratization, recommended by the contending perspective, as devoid of his historical basis and logical validity. Sher Berman argues the development of democracy in the west, or anywhere else, did not take peaceful, or straightforward, stage-like progression. “The political back-story of most democracies is one of struggle, conflict, and even violence’’. Thus, Democratization is bound to have ups and downs and states should engage in the process sooner than later.

Thomas Carothers refutes the claim that economic development under autocratic rulers will facilitate rule of law and institution building, which in turn leads to successful Democratization. He asserts economic progress do not necessitate major progress towards the rule of law. Where it does, non-democratic governments are not necessarily full committed so as to subdue their interest for the sake the economy. Moreover, the role of autocratic rulers with regard to institution building is mistaken. Autocrats may build a well-functioning state but are inherently unsuited for the task of building a state apparatus that enjoys political autonomy, legitimacy, and authority, which is needed for successful Democratization. On the contrary, weak democracies are able to show advance, in these regards, though they happen to be turbulent.

2. What factors favor or threaten Democracies?

Political theorists have long attempted to provide the circumstances favorable for a democracy and those that threaten it. However, it is the emergence of new states in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and the wave of Democratization since the mid 1970s, that provided both the input and the inspiration for analyses of Democratization.

Among many such analyses, it would suffice to discuss three, which together cover virtually all countries and more or less the period between 1950 and 2004.

The most thorough study is the one made by Adam Przeworski et al. It was based on a survey of 224 regimes that occured in 135 countries between the years 1950-1990 (the period covered may vary for some countries depending on the time of independence or the first or last economic data available.) Among the 224 regimes analyzed, 101 are deemed ‘democratic’, 123 ‘dictatorship’, 50 on ‘transition to democracy’ and 40 ‘sliding to dictatorship’ at the time of the study. Among the democratic regimes, about half were parliamentary form of government, 46 presidential governments, and 8 adopted mixed systems. The study was intended to provide the common features of the Democratization process that succeeded and those failed.

Another study by of Ethan B. Kapstein and Nathan Converse had a similar theme – ‘what factors attribute to the death of democracies’. It covered the Democratization process of 123 countries in the years 1960-2004, of which 56 failed while 67 endured.

The third scholarly analysis is that of Fareed Zakaria. Using the empirical data provided by Przeworski et al research and based on the history of western and other democracies, it reaches at a different conclusions.

A) Economic factors

Many aspects of a country’s economy appear highly determinate on its Democratization. Przeworski’s study reveals Democratization embarked on a country with higher per capital income has greater chance of survival.

The average ‘life expectancy of a democracy’ is found to be 100 years in countries with per capital income 4000-6000 USD , while it is 16 and 33 years in countries with per capital income 1000-2000 USD and 2000-4000 USD, respectively. The chances for the survival of democracy diminishes to 8.5 years in country with less than 1000 USD per capital income.

Moreover, economic growth at a rate of at least 5% appears necessary for the survival of democracy in a country with less than 1000 USD income. While democracy in an economy of 4000USD and above income is virtually immune to fluctuations in growth, the countries in-between are likely to face reversal in times of economic recession.

Kapstein and Converse concur on the negative impact of decrease in per capita income on the success of a democracy. Their analysis underline that with higher level of poverty democracy is likely to fail. Moreover, they argue, democracies face reversal where there is higher economic inequality regardless the direction of growth.

Fareed Zakaria extends the analysis on per capital income to the history of West European countries to underline the validity of the assertion. Adjusting Przeworski’s income per capita data to current value (in 2000 value), Zakaria claims ‘the zone of transition to democracy’ is per capital income between 3000-6000 USD. However, Zakaria warns, this does not hold true for economies solely based on concentrated natural source extraction. The economic development shall be that of capitalist economic development which entails the emergence of an entrepreneurial bourgeois and independent business class. Thus, Zakaria argues, a democracy of a country that did not reach this level of development is not only susceptible to reversal but is also bound to be flawed and illiberal even if sustained.

B) Power dynamics

The Democratization process is often accompanied by irregularities in the use of political power and the struggles of competing power centers. The effectiveness of structures of a political system depends on the degree of consensus regarding their role. Devoid of that, system break down is inevitable. Przeworski observed the power relation that a presidential form of government creates increase the chance of reversal of a democracy. The fact that only one candidate wins a presidential election and he will be awarded the status of head of state for a fixed term alienates those in the other side of the political camp. The degree of legislative paralysis is higher where the political party in control of the legislature is not that of the president. These psychological and practical problems coupled with the low levels of political culture and economic development diminishes the chance of survival of the democracy.

Kapstein and Converse similarly conclude the choice of institutions matter. They assert parliamentary forms of government usually increases the durability of a democracy and they do well even in times of economic crises. Moreover, their study reveals, the rate of reversal of democracies is higher where constraints on executive power are weaker. This appears in tandem with Zakaria’s observation, though he did not comment on choice of institutions. He asserts the horizontal and vertical usurpation of power is one of the commonest setbacks evidenced in transitional democracies.

C) Historic factors

Though the political back-story of a nation is likely to impact its Democratization, the particular way in which it affects is a subject of debate. Przeworski’s analysis does not show that previous exposures to democracy helps a democracy survive, though attempts to snatch power from a democratically elected governments appeared to be better organized in countries with recent non-democratic experiences.

Nonetheless, other scholars argue that previous experience and Democratization are also positively correlated. The bigger the previous exposure of a country to political pluralism, the lesser the challenges of Democratization would be.

Fareed Zakaria emphasizes the preeminence of this factor strongly. As the correct path to Democratization is through liberalism, he argues, prior history of liberal traditions and institutions highly contributes to the success of the Democratization. Among the eastern European states, that embarked on democracy following the collapse of the communist camp, those that had been historically part of the west’s liberal tradition fared better in consolidating democracy. That is, Hungary, Czech and Poland. Even among the Balkan states, Slovenia and Croatia are doing better than Albania and Serbia, which border them in the east. However, Zakaria rejects the presupposition that culture determines whether a society can be and would be democratic. Though, he argues, culture may speed up or delay the process, there is no evidence that suggests Democratization cannot succeed in a given culture.

D) The existence of other democracies

It is often contended that Democratization has a ‘domino effect’ on neighboring autocratic regimes. Countries found in a region or a sub region where most countries are democratic fare better inDemocratization, and the vice versa. However, Przeworski’s study does not evidence such correlation between the Democratization of a country and the type of regime its immediate neighbors have. Instead, the global context appears to matter. The study shows that new democracies did well when the number of democracies around the globe was higher rather than when the opposite was the case.

E) Ethnic composition

There are data that evidence ethnically diverse countries face difficulty in democratizing. The degree of identity-based divisions is inversely related to the success of the Democratization process. The study by Kapstein and Converse arrived at similar conclusions. In about four decades, covered by their study, the rate of reversal of democracies was found to be higher with higher degree of ethnic fragmentation and the vice versa.


  • Carothers, Thomas. (2007). The ‘Sequencing’ Fallacy. Journal of Democracy , 18 (1), 12-27.
  • Kapstein, E. B., & Converse, N. (2008). Why democracies Fail? Journal of Democracy , 19 (4), 57-66.
  • Khan, R. A., & McNiven, J. D. (1990). An Introduction to Political Science (3rd ed.). Ontario: Nelson Canada.
  • Przeworski, A., et al (1996). What Makes Democracy Endure? Journal of Democracy , 7 (1), p. 39-55.
  • Lumumba-Kasongo, T. (ed). (2005). Liberal Democracy and its Critics in Africa: Political Dysfunction and the Struggle for Social Progress. Dakar: CODESRIA.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. (2004). The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Newyork: Norton & Company.

Daniel Berhane

more recommended stories