European Journal of Political Research 43: 309–335, 2004
The structural context of recent transitions to democracy
Leiden University, The Netherlands
Abstract. In general, the literature on democratic transitions has focused on political processes and choices of actors in explaining regime change, thereby failing to investigate whether structural factors affect the recent rise in transitions to democracy. An analysis of the inﬂuence of these structural factors is however important, and it has not yet been done in a systematic way in order to explain recent transitions to democracy since 1989. It will be shown that some structural factors indeed play a role in generating transitions to democracy. These results contradict the idea that structural factors can be ignored when explaining recent transitions to democracy. An additional ﬁnding in this article is that some structural factors, such as economic development, growth and a country’s role in the worldsystem had an unexpected impact on democratic transitions since the end of the Cold War. These ﬁndings set bounds to the strength of the modernization and world-system theories to explain transitions to democracy, but on the other hand, democratic diffusion played a signiﬁcant role after 1989. In the (structural) context in which a state had a peripheral role, a low level of economic growth and a high proportion of democratic neighbors, the probability of a state’s transition to democracy was high. This structural context seemed to be fertile soil for recent transitions to democracy.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many nondemocratic regimes have undergone a transition to democracy. This rapid political transformation began in Eastern Europe, spread to Latin America and parts of Asia, and then moved to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, the democratic wave did not engulf China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, North Korea, Libya, Zimbabwe and many other states. Hence, although democracy is now spreading to more and more corners of the globe, contrasts still remain: some nondemocratic regimes have made a transition towards a democratic political system while others have not. One of the most interesting questions this global transformation raises is why some nondemocratic regimes have made a transition towards a democratic political system while others have not. How can these recent transitions to democracy be explained? Why did some countries complete a democratic transition, while others could not sustain more than limited political reform and remained authoritarian? What are the long-term prospects for democracy in the world? © European Consortium for Political Research 2004 Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
In general, the literature on democratic transitions has focused on political processes and choices of actors in explaining regime change, thereby failing to investigate whether structural factors affect the recent rise of transitions to democracy (cf. O’Donnell & Schmitter 1986; Di Palma 1990; Przeworski 1991; Karl 1991; Mainwaring et al. 1992; see also Rustow 1970). This actor-oriented approach1 argues that regime transitions are not determined by structural factors, but shaped by what principal political actors do as well as by when and how they do it. Democracy is produced by human beings, especially by strategies and choices of individual leaders. For example, Spain’s transition to democracy illustrated the role political actors may come to play in transitions ‘where outcomes are indeterminate and available paradigms do not help’ (Di Palma 1990: 8). Previous approaches suffered from blind spots because they were ‘inadequately prepared for the intervening role of political actors; inadequately prepared to perceive the extent to which innovative political action can contribute...
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