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Key Text Democratization and the State

Author: J Grugel
Date: 2002
Size: 22 pages

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What type of reform is necessary to build a democratic state? Why do a number of developing countries find it difficult to bring about democracy by holding elections? This chapter from Democratization: A Critical Introduction examines the type of institutional reform that democratization should involve. It argues that reforms so far have stopped at the introduction of minimal democracy, and therefore failed to produce fully democratic states. The reasons for this failure include weak state capacity, authoritarian legacies and the imperative of economic reform.

There is general agreement that democratization means more than the introduction of elections, but there is no academic consensus about what reforms, precisely, are required. Democratic states are those governed by the rule of law, through an elected and representative government, with access to decision making for all social groups. Democratization therefore involves institutional, representative and functional change. Currently attention is focused upon institutional changes (the form of the state), rather than transforming who has influence or what the state is responsible for. States tend to resist a deeper democratization.

Changes to visible institutions are not sufficient for a full democratization of the state. Elections and new constitutions do not challenge non-democratic cultures or values.

  • Elections are seen as the first stage in democratization. However, they are often only a step in a round of aid negotiations with the international community.
  • The nature of political parties can determine how democratic elections are. The emergence of a strong and competitive party system can depend on the regional, socio-economic and historical context.
  • The type of political systems adopted by new democracies has varied. However, to be successful in democratisation the chosen approach must be underpinned by democratic norms and clear constitutional procedures.
  • If institutional change is to lead to full democratization of the state it needs to involve significant reforms. For instance, reforming the police and judicial system is particularly important to strengthen democratic rights.

Institutional change marks the opening of democratization, but there is no evidence that deeper state reform will automatically follow. In some cases, institutional arrangements developed during transition actually hinder deeper democratization. There are a number of obstacles to democratization in post transitional states, which include:

  • Nationality problems: Sub-state nationalism can take the form of unequal political, economic, social and cultural rights, which reduce the chances of democracy.
  • Poor state capacity: States with insufficient capability will not be able to withstand popular pressure or complete necessary reforms. It is difficult for democratization to occur without state capacity.
  • In addition, developing countries also face the challenge of increasing capacity and delivering more and better services whilst simultaneously responding to the pressures of globalisation.
  • Authoritarian legacies: democratization is unable to break from the past and reforms can be blocked by the influence of the culture, legality, composition and ideology of the state.
  • Economic reform: globalisation, indebtedness and protectionism all push developing countries towards economic reform, affecting the process of democratisation.

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Source: Grugel, J., 2002, ‘Democratization and the State’, chapter 4 in Democratization: A Critical Introduction’, Palgrave, United Kingdom