Factors supporting the emergence of democracies


What are the enabling factors/conditions that support the emergence of democracies (transition from an undemocratic/autocratic regime to a more democratic one)? What are the triggers for this: is change precipitated by crisis?


This review of empirical case studies in this report suggests that, rather than a single theory to explain democratic transitions, a combination is usually applicable. In all cases it was a mix of factors that supported the emergence of democracies, due to time frames (some short-term, some long-standing) and also origin (some domestic, some external). This report draws on the experience of five countries to identify factors that support the emergence of democracies after authoritarian/undemocratic rule and triggers for this: South Africa (1986), Ghana (2000), the Philippines (1986), Indonesia (1999) and Ukraine (2004).

The report takes a ‘minimalist’ definition of democracy: ‘the removal of an autocratic regime and the establishment of a system for free and fair multi-party elections’ (Jennings, 2012: 5). It focuses on enabling factors to bring about such democratic transitions, and does not look at the factors required for democratic consolidation or to sustain democracies.

Mass mobilisation was a critical factor in most of the successful democratic transitions reviewed here. Mass protests created an irreversible momentum for change, and often led to defection/unwillingness to use violence against demonstrators on the part of the security forces. Alongside mass mobilisation, divisions among regime’s coercive forces was perhaps the single most important factor once opposition movements got underway. In some cases it was the loss of military support that proved the final straw, persuading autocrats to step down.

Other key factors enabling the emergence of democracies include:

  • Unpopular incumbent.
  • International pressure/support.
  • Semi-autocratic, rather than a fully autocratic, regime.
  • The role of the media and internet/social media.
  • Organised civil society.
  • The emergence of the middle class.
  • The economic situation and rising expectations.
  • A united opposition and strong leadership.
  • A triggering event or crisis.


Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2016). Factors supporting the emergence of democracies (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1349). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.