Lessons and Pitfalls of Transitions to Democracy - Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Lessons and Pitfalls of Transitions to Democracy

Melani Cammett

June, 2016


8 pages

P3. Socialist Institutions and Their Transitions

  • When elites agree to compromise during regime transitions, democratization is more likely to succeed. Human agency is therefore central to successful democratization; however, it cannot be divorced from structural factors, such as class or economic interests, which incentivize elites to compromise in the first place.
  • Leadership plays a key role in guiding transition processes and can even help to break deadlocks between ideological opponents.
  • Politicized ethnic or religious cleavages can pose serious obstacles to democratic transitions, but external incentives and shared economic interests can help to overcome the serious obstacles they pose.
  • When existing patronage networks remain strong, elite defection and, hence, the likelihood of authoritarian breakdown is reduced. Conversely, when authoritarian rulers either face dwindling resources or do not co-opt key political and economic elites with patronage, their incumbency is threatened.
  • The nature of democratic transitions shapes the subsequent quality of democracy. Transitions that are “pacted” among elites may result in relatively smooth transitions to electoral democracy but they tend to permit political and economic elites to maintain their privileges, leading to less inclusive democracy.
  • The most vociferous opponents of economic liberalization may not be the marginalized mass publics but rather well-connected elites who benefited under authoritarian rule. Forging a more inclusive political and economic system is challenging, in no small part because it is difficult to dislodge authoritarian coalitions even after democratic transitions have ostensibly occurred.

Melani Cammett

Harvard University



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