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The End of the Transition Paradigm

Author: T Carothers
Date: 2002
Size: 20 pages (15 KB)

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Are ‘transitional countries’ necessarily moving towards democracy? This paper published by the Journal of Democracy questions the transitional paradigm. The ‘transitional democracy’ model emerged in the US democracy-promotion community during the 1980s. In most cases, its core assumptions have not been confirmed by actual patterns of political change. The transitional paradigm is outdated and no longer useful in the analysis of democratisation.

Since the late 1970s, many developing countries have moved away from authoritarianism. This includes the fall of dictatorships in Latin America, the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Southern Europe, the break up of USSR and opening of Eastern Europe, the decline of authoritarian rule in some Asian and Sub Saharan countries and liberalising trends in the Middle East. Some Western observers see this as a 'third wave of democracy'. This new 'transitional' framework moved away from the view that non-Western developing countries lacked the prerequisites for democracy.

The transitional model is based on five assumptions: 1) countries moving from authoritarianism necessarily go towards democracy; 2) this happens through set stages; 3) free elections are a crucial factor; 4) there are no socio-economic or cultural preconditions for democratisation; 5) democratic transition occurs in fully functioning states.

Few cases confirm these assumptions. After the fall of authoritarianism, most countries enter a political 'grey zone'.

  • Two major political syndromes are likely to affect 'grey zone' countries: feckless pluralism and dominant power politics.
  • The former combines pluralism with corruption and low participation, and is common in Latin America. In the latter, basic democratic institutions do not lead to alternation of power, as in Sub Saharan Africa or the former USSR.
  • These conditions are not permanent but can become stable. When countries move out of them, their trajectory is not predictable: some may turn to authoritarianism, or move to another syndrome.
  • In both cases, state institutions tend to be weak and corrupted, bureaucracies disorganised and ineffective.
  • Cases such as Congo challenge the idea of 'natural' progression from authoritarianism to democracy. In successful cases such as Taiwan, democratisation did not occur through set stages.
  • Elections do not ensure public participation in politics, as the divide between elites and citizens is rooted in socio-economic and cultural conditions.

Success stories such as Central Europe, East Asia and the Southern Cone show that structural conditions are relevant to democratisation. State building is a major issue for democratisation. Emphasis on decentralisation has led donors to neglect it in extremely weak states, such as for example Sub Saharan ones.

  • The transitional model should be abandoned. This does not mean that developing countries cannot be democratic, but that new frameworks are needed to analyse political change.
  • Expectations of political change in developing countries should be realistic. Analysis should proceed through open-ended questions. Donors' strategy should emerge from the analysis of each county's specific political syndrome and political landscape.
  • Donors should support the development of political parties, new political actors, and connections between parties and civil society.
  • There is a need for bridging the gap between pro-democracy and socio-economic development programmes.

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Source: Carothers, T., 2002, ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 13, no. 1.