Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions

by Isobel Coleman
June 19, 2013

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Ciudad Juarez on July 1, 2012 (Jorge Luis Gonzalez/Courtesy Reuters). A man casts his vote at a polling station in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on July 1, 2012 (Jorge Luis Gonzalez/Courtesy Reuters).


Today marks the publication of a new Council on Foreign Relations book, Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions, which I co-edited with my colleague Terra Lawson-Remer; other CFR colleagues, John Campbell, Joshua Kurlantzick, and Shannon O’Neil contributed chapters, as did scholars from other institutions. The book looks at eight different countries–Mexico, Brazil, Poland, South Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Ukraine, and Nigeria–that have been through democratic transitions, some successful, others less so.

In a piece on, Terra Lawson-Remer and I distill the lessons gleaned from these case studies, with an eye to providing useful insights for those countries working their way through transitions todayHere, we provide some excerpts from the article for each lesson learned:

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…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.

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.

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.

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.

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…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.

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.

On the Pathways to Freedom book page, you can view previews of each chapter, which contain relevant graphs, timelines, and suggestions for further reading for each country.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Adamu Abdullahi

    I must say that it is an excellent work on political and economic transition.Quite frankly,the world bank and united nations have been instrumental to promoting public finance management legislation including public procurement,fiscal responsibility and freedom of information in many countries.
    Equally,the CFR has contributed immensely to the campaign on extractive industries transparency initiative and the consolidation of democratic transition in Nigeria with support from Ambassador Princeton Lyman and John Campbell.
    Nonetheless,we are committed in the civil society to employ the provision of freedom of information act 2011 to foster social inclusion in Nigeria with support from faith based organizations,National Orientation Agency and the Ford Foundation.

  • Posted by Vasant Moharir

    An interesting project and relevant lessons drawn. It was good to see that the study brings out the real problems and issues of introduction of democratization in some of the developing countries and questioning some of the assumptions made by western leaders and scholars of relationship between democracy and economic growth. In fact, there is not only a bonus of democracy but also some costs as one can see from India’s experience of democracy in last six decades. Even in developed countries like the UK, USA, France, etc it has taken centuries for real democracy to prevail. How developing countries with their colonial past, ethnicity problems, lack of resources realize in decades what took centuries for others. But I agree with the conclusion that it is better to start democratization even if all preconditions for success do not exist and hope that in the process of using it improvements will come through. Vasant Moharir.

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