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How to Establish Democracy? New Book Examines Pathways

June 20, 2013


As countries from Libya to Tunisia to Myanmar navigate complex paths to democracy, a new CFR book offers insights and recommendations from political and economic transitions that have unfolded in recent decades. "By understanding the trade-offs and critical economic and policy decisions that transitioning countries have faced in the past, policymakers can make smarter choices to improve the chances of successful democratization in states undergoing transitions today," write Isobel Coleman, CFR senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, and Terra Lawson-Remer, CFR fellow, in Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions.

Eight case studies feature historical analysis by leading experts: CFR's Shannon K. O'Neil on Mexico; Carlos Pio of the Universidade de Brasilia and Australian National University on Brazil; Grzegorz Ekiert and George Soroka of Harvard University on Poland; CFR's John Campbell on Nigeria and South Africa; CFR's Joshua Kurlantzick on Indonesia and Thailand; and Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations on Ukraine. One chapter, by Jan Teorell of Lund University, examines a range of political, economic, and social developments in light of statistical evidence.

Coleman and Lawson-Remer identify seven factors critical to the success of economic and political transitions:

  • Armed rebellions rarely lead to democracy and often just replace one dictatorship with another. Peaceful protests, by contrast, "have a stronger track record of laying the groundwork for democratic change."
  • Economic crisis, not growth, generally triggers the downfall of authoritarian regimes. Once democracy emerges, however, higher-income countries with robust middle classes are better able to sustain it.
  • The promise of political freedom raises popular expectations for economic and social opportunities, making it imperative for young democracies to deliver on social inclusion and better living standards.
  • Rule of law reforms that create a fair and level economic and political playing field and protect core rights are essential to safeguard against corruption, ensure government accountability, and maintain public confidence during turbulent transitions.
  • Even flawed elections under autocracies can be worthwhile because they can pave the way for more substantial democracy down the road.
  • Good neighbors and other external forces can help nascent democracies succeed by establishing economic ties and offering technical aid as well as "constructive political pressure" to support internal reformers. Bad neighbors, however, "can undermine transitions by fostering power-grabbing, corruption, and authoritarian reversals."
  • Decentralizing power to regional and local governments can "dilute the dangerous concentration of central authority," bolster accountability, and improve the delivery of government services.

Coleman and Lawson-Remer also offer broad policy recommendations for both new democracies and supportive outside governments and institutions. For example, they recommend that new democracies "adopt policies aimed at materially improving the lives of the poor."

Further, "rather than arming insurgents or sponsoring coups d'états," they write, "governments and international organizations interested in nurturing democracy should support civil society and independent media under authoritarian regimes." They urge outside governments dealing with transitioning states to "pursue economic strategies—including trade, foreign aid, and investment policies—that spur the emergence of a middle class, rather than promote economic ties that increase overall growth and wealth but concentrate these gains in the hands of elites."

Read excerpts and chapter previews from the book at