Democracies, Autocracies, and Political Stability.

AuthorTusalem, Rollin F.

Democracies, Autocracies, and Political Stability

Since the third wave of democratization, many scholars have debated whether or not there exist necessary prerequisites for the consolidation of democracies. In fact, democratic transitions toward democracy cannot occur without the state achieving a semblance of 'stateness,' (1) as a state that has various ethnic groups or polarizing cleavages may bring about political instability, which will make it unlikely for democracy to endure. Giovanni Sartori argues that democracy cannot arise in societies that are prone to internal conflict. (2) What a country needs before it can experience the advent of democratic politics is domestic security within its borders. A growing number of scholars, on the other hand, claim that the causal relationship is reversed. Samuel Huntington (3), Juan Linz (4), and Guillermo O'Donnell (5) all argue that democracies are prone to political instability primarily because they invite political pluralism. In other words, the large presence of interest groups and the mobilization of independent associations can likely weaken the state from carrying out its capacity to govern effectively. When economic modernization outpaces the development of democratic political institutions, the likelihood for the emergence of political order and stability become highly unlikely. As a result, coups, revolutions, and the breakdown of democratic institutions is a likely scenario in highly democratic regimes. This article addresses the fundamental empirical question of whether nation-states that are more democratic are more likely to be politically stable or unstable over time.

Using a global model of 122 nation-states, the cases included represent a variety of countries that experienced a legacy of colonialism, and accordingly are likely candidates to be praetorian states in the Huntingtonian sense: states that are prone to strong-armed governments and political instability. (6) A majority of the states in the study are also considered patrimonial states where government officials look at political offices and the natural resources of their country as exploitable rents that can be plundered for private personal gain or as a means to favor a particular ethnic or religious group. Due to the nature of client-patron relations and high levels of corruption, these patrimonial states are prone to low levels of economic growth and hence are more prone to higher levels of political instability, in particular the collapse of civilian governments through civil wars, military intervention, political unrest, or prolonged insurrectionist movements. (7)

A number of empirical works demonstrate the negative effect of democracy on political stability. Bingham Powell establishes the linkage on how democracies fall prey to large-scale political unrest. (8) In his study of twenty-eight nation-states during the 1958-1976 period, he finds that nation-states that had high levels of multi-party democracy experienced large-scale instability in terms of political violence, strikes, rallies and protests. Since most of the nascent democracies did not have party systems that are institutionalized, extremist groups took advantage of the weakness of the current political system and brought about political mayhem in the streets that weakened the legitimacy of elected governments. Alessina and Perroti show that democracies are prone to large scale instability primarily because sectorial interests in a pluralistic setting may bring about large scale income inequality. (9) They found that democracies are likely to generate higher levels of income inequality (measured by the share of the third and fourth quintiles of income among a population). Thus, democratic systems are prone to generate social discontent, which facilitates socio-political instability. As such, there is an indirect relationship of income inequality causing a decrease of private and public investments. They predicate the inverse relationship between socio-political instability on democracy based on uncertainty--such that private entrepreneurs are discouraged from continued investment in a nation-state blighted by assassination attempts, coup plots, and a high death rate based on domestic disturbances.

Despite the empirical evidence concerning democracy's inability to reign in political and social order, other scholars suggest that democracies promote political stability in many ways. First, democracies are known to provide a pacifying effect on social unrest by allowing citizens to express dissatisfaction with the incumbent regime through the electoral process. (10) Second, democracies are known to provide a smooth transition from one elected leader to another without political violence. (11) Third, democratic regimes are known to be responsive to citizen needs and the demands of the electorate which generates accountable, transparent, and efficient governance. (12) Democracies, due to the accompanying freedom of speech, are more reactive to social problems before they lead to the destabilization of the state. (13) Fourth, democracies are known to value the pluralistic nature of ideas. Thus, democratic systems aim to settle political conflict through meaningful debate and civilized discourse, leading to cultural values of consensus seeking and compromise building, which can offset political instability coming from minority groups in society. (14) Fifth, democratic states allow citizens to exercise their right to show displeasure about state policies without restraint from state authorities. This functions as a safety valve that allows collective dissent to be organized, civil, and work under the rule of law, thus obviating large scale demonstrations that can weaken state legitimacy. (15) Sixth, scholars allude to how democratic regimes are known to generate economic progress and development more so than autocracies, thus leading to higher levels of citizen satisfaction with their quality of life. (16)

The task of this article is to address an empirical conundrum: Does democracy promote political instability or does it have institutional mechanisms that induce political order? This study allows us to go beyond the limitations of empirical studies that have made the link between democracy and politically instability. For instance, the empirical studies previously mentioned are not truly cross national in scope and thus do not allow one to make generalizations as to whether or not regime type has an enduring effect on levels of political stability. Powell's study largely examines twenty-eight developed states, with most of them European. (17) Alessina and Perotti's study are cross-sectional regressions examining seventy states, half of which are economically developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere. (18) The findings of this project add to the scholarly conversation and provide a contemporary empirical testing of the question. This article shall utilize a large cross-national study consisting of developing states which are at highest risk of political unrest to answer this question.

This article examines 122 developing states that vary in terms of their level of ethnic and religious fractionalization, which can affect their level of democratic development and political stability. These countries are located in disparate regions of the world: from developing Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; to African patrimonial states like Nigeria, Kenya, the Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe; to Latin American polities that had varied experiences with civilian or military dictatorships (like Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Chile) and those with a long tradition of democracy (Costa Rica and Colombia); and post-communist polities like Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Kazakhstan, which all share a socialist past. The analysis involves a set of countries that endured a variety of regime types: from illiberal to liberal democracies to civilian, personalistic, and military dictatorships, one-party autocratic rule, totalitarian rule, and monarchical and sultanate type autocracies (like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman). Hence the case selection gives this study an opportunity to test if higher levels of democracy are conducive to political instability.

This article proceeds in six parts. The first part reviews literature that links democracy (as a regime system) to political instability. The second part discusses why dictatorships are likely to have a semblance of political stability over time. The third section offers theories as to why democracies should experience higher levels of political stability. The fourth part provides a brief overview of the variations in the levels of democracy among the cases. The fifth section provides a set of hypotheses, conceptualizes and operationalizes the variables, and discuss the results. The last part of the study concludes and offers theoretical insights.

Linking Democracy to Political Instability

One of the earliest studies documenting how democracies may not be a good regime system for many states that just endured the decolonization process was Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies. (19) Huntington warns that democracies can breed instability primarily if a country has not developed high levels of political development. What he means by political development is the successful creation of political parties that are capable of translating popular demands into policy proposals that the government can implement. Huntington argues that the rapid development of the industrial economy and the rapid economic modernization that it entails may place a stress on democratic institutions. Simply put, nascent democracies cannot respond to mass public demands and expectations. Furthermore if economic development and the pluralism of groups outpace the development of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT