Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Rethinking Democracy: The End of Democratic Transitions?

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Rethinking Democracy: The End of Democratic Transitions?

Article excerpt


The literature on democratic transitions and consolidations is struggling to properly understand a growing number of regimes that fail to conform to existing typologies. These regimes lie within a grey zone between the black and white dichotomy of authoritarianism and democracy. How should these be categorised? Is it correct to refer to regimes that exhibit some democratic characteristics as forms of democracy? Here it is argued that a democracy can only exist when all its required elements are present. Most approaches within transitology miscategorise these mixed regimes by relying upon a flawed understanding of democracy. In analysing a number of important works, it is argued that the problem is largely definitional. In concluding, a solution to these shortcomings is forwarded. As these new regime types are fast populating the globe it is important that they are categorised correctly.

Keywords: democracy; the third wave; transition theory; consolidation theory; semidemocracy; electoral democracy


The third wave of democratisation reached its apex in the early 1990s as the communist challenge collapsed and countries worldwide appeared to take up liberal perspectives on democracy (2). This was closely followed by another wave consisting of articles, books, conference papers and various other manuscripts all grappling with this serious challenge to prevailing understandings of democracy. The immediate response was characterised by an almost blind optimism with scholars becoming caught up in the historic events that suddenly appeared to leave democracy, 'without an enemy' (3) . John Mueller went so far as to suggest that, 'democracy can come about rather naturally, almost by default' (4). As Guillermo O'Donnell admits, in chastising himself and others, there was a strong teleological tendency throughout the literature (5) . It presumed the end point for these newly democratising countries would be regimes similar to the ones that populate the industrialised first world. However, it has become obvious that the defeat of open authoritarianism in many states did not equate to the victory of Western-style democracy. These heady days also challenged dominant modernisation discourses that prescribed a long list of preconditions to be fulfilled before democratisation could successfully occur. At its zenith, the third wave seemed to indicate that the delicate flower of democracy could appear in even the most arid and inhospitable terrain.

Once the initial euphoria had worn off, a second phase quickly emerged within the literature on democratic transitions, one that was far more critical. Here there was a self-correcting move away from approaches that either explicitly or implicitly contained teleological characteristics. On an empirical level there was an understanding that there was no guarantee that the regimes to emerge in third wave countries would be Western-style democracies. On a normative level there was no longer the assumption that new democracies must replicate existing models. Importantly, there also was a realisation that simply equating democracy with elections is insufficient. Such an understanding ignores other vital aspects of democracy and has a tendency to overlook the validity of the actual elections. These are, however, issues that we shall return to later. What is pertinent here is that, in developing a more nuanced approach to transitions, a significant amount of regimes were identified that fall within a grey zone between the black and white dichotomy of authoritarianism and democracy (6). These regimes pass some but not all of the definitional criteria for what constitutes a democracy. Collier and Levitsky, in their article 'Democracy with Adjectives', highlight the proliferation of terms to describe these regimes: 'psuedodemocracy', 'authoritarian democracy', 'electoral democracy', 'delegative democracy', 'semidemocracy' and 'virtual democracy' being some of the more prominent examples (7). …

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