Does Democratization Depress Participation? Voter Turnout in the Latin American and Eastern European Transitional Democracies

Article excerpt

Scholars and policy makers have advanced conflicting hypotheses about the dynamics of voter participation in nascent democratic regimes. The authors advance the research program by examining 108 parliamentary elections in postauthoritarian Latin America and post-Communist Europe from 1978 through 2003. Institutional, political, and demographic variables shape turnout in new democracies, but there is also a strong temporal effect: voter turnout drops sharply after founding elections and continues to fall through the fourth electoral cycle. Moreover, after appropriate controls, rates of turnout in Eastern Europe are consistently higher than the equivalent rates for Latin America. The authors attribute these differences to historical legacies and the mode of transition to democracy.

Keywords: voter turnout; disengagement; founding elections; Third Wave democracies; electoral dynamics

TO what extent do citizens in nascent democracies exercise their newfound right to vote? Contemporary political regimes feature a bewildering variety of forms of political participation. However, in democratic regimes, the one form of political participation that is definitionally connected to the concept of democracy is the act of voting in competitive elections. In the final quarter of the twentieth century, several dozen countries around the world underwent democratic transitions that made this unique form of participation available to their citizens for the first time in memory. Regardless of the prior regime type, the underlying popular demand in these political transitions was to offer citizens the chance to choose their rulers-a choice that is exercised via participation in direct, competitive elections.

Although many observers have applauded the struggles that overthrew dictatorships, few have examined the dynamics of electoral participation under new democracies. In the mid-1980s, Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter suggested that pressures for popular participation would build irresistibly under authoritarian rule, only to be discharged in a "founding election" that would inaugurate the new democracy. Voter participation should then be expected to decline in subsequent elections as the excitement of the transition wears off and voters learn that elections are not a panacea (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986; see also Turner 1993). However, a recent study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) claimed that the "founding election" hypothesis is wrong and that there is no significant difference in voter turnout between the first postauthoritarian election and subsequent elections in new democracies (International IDEA 2002). Given that O'Donnell and Schmitter did not test their expectation empirically, and given that International IDEA'S counterclaim is based only on a simple difference-ofmeans test,1 researchers have begun to probe these questions more deeply using multivariate approaches. For example, in examining post-Communist elections in Eastern Europe, Kostadinova (2003) found strong evidence that the second and third elections under democratic rule were associated with significant declines in voter turnout. Similarly, a study of Latin America in the 1980 to 2000 period by Fornos, Power, and Garand (2004) reported that founding elections were associated with a 16 percent higher turnout rate than other elections, net of all other variables in their model. These singleregion studies suggest that citizens begin to disengage from electoral participation almost immediately after the democratic transition has been completed. However, to date we know of no sophisticated, multivariate studies that examine the dynamics of posttransitional electoral participation using a large number of elections and covering more than one world region.

In this article, we advance the research program on turnout dynamics in new democracies by comparing electoral participation in posttransition Eastern Europe and Latin America. …


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