Democratic Progress and Regress: The Effect of Parties on the Transitions of States to and Away from Democracy

By Lai, Brian; Melkonian-Hoover, Ruth | Political Research Quarterly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Democratic Progress and Regress: The Effect of Parties on the Transitions of States to and Away from Democracy


Lai, Brian, Melkonian-Hoover, Ruth, Political Research Quarterly


This article examines how political parties and party competition affect the likelihood of nations becoming and remaining democracies. While many scholars have long assumed that this is the case, the roles of parties and party competition are indeed affected, such a likelihood has rarely been examined rigorously in cross-national evaluations. In addition to examining the links between parties and political transitions, our analysis controls for other factors purported to have a significant effect on democratization. To test the effects of parties and party competition on the transition to and survival of democracies and autocracies, this article utilizes event history analysis on all countries in political transition between the years of 1950-1992, using three different measures of democracy. Through this multifaceted and unique approach, we are able to demonstrate that across all three measures of democracy, parties do indeed play an important role in causing authoritarian states to transition to democracy and helping democratic nations remain democracies.

Political parties are not always perceived as the most desirable of political institutions by governments and politicians. Some prefer democracy without parties, fearing political parties a source of factionalism and a threat to stability. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote, "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." Indeed, in the early decades of U.S. history other critical structures of democracy were established prior to the formal institutionalization of political parties.

In spite of such concerns and prejudices, and while acknowledging that numerous factors do play a part in democratization, this article maintains that the development and formation of political parties, and the political space for such parties to participate, are primary factors in a state's chances of becoming and remaining a democracy. While many scholars have long argued this to be the case, it has rarely been rigorously examined and empirically tested. To be certain, some types of democracy can exist without strong, coherent parties (Schmitter and Karl 1991), but we present evidence that the inclusion and competition of parties is crucial to democracy's occurrence and its survival; nations are unlikely to become or remain democratic without it.

Voluminous literature in political science has been devoted to studying democratization, analyzing the factors that lead to democracy and its alternatives, as well as the consolidation thereof. We maintain, however, that political parties have been insufficiently analyzed in prior research. While many scholars have assumed democracies cannot operate without parties, cross-national evaluations have often overlooked the role that these fundamental institutions play in political transitions themselves. In those analyses that have included parties, the focus has often been limited to the negative, destabilizing impacts of party fragmentation and extremist parties on democratization. While this is one way parties can influence a democracy, there are also crucial positive linkages between parties and democratization that warrant systematic evaluation.

To test the effects of parties on democratization, this article utilizes event history analysis on all countries in political transition between the years of 1950-1992, using three different measures of democracy. We examine how parties and party competition, along with control variables for other institutional, economic, international, and cultural factors, affect the process of a nation becoming a democracy and prevent it from reverting back to authoritarianism. We evaluate the possible reciprocal relationship between democracy and our party measures as well. Through this multifaceted approach, we are able to show that across all three measures of democracy parties play an important role in causing authoritarian states to transition to democracy and causing democratic states to remain democracies. …

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