Charles (Chip) Hauss

August 2003

Democratization is one of the most important concepts and trends in modern political science, one whose significance is just beginning to be understood by conflict-resolution practitioners. On one level, it is a relatively simple idea, since democratization is simply the establishment of a democratic political regime. However, in practice, democratization has been anything but easy to understand, let alone achieve.

What is Democratization?

Democracy, as we know it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. While some of the Greek city states and medieval Poland had regimes that had democratic aspects, modern democracy only dates from the late 18th century. To be considered democratic, a country must choose its leaders through fair and competitive elections, ensure basic civil liberties, and respect the rule of law. Some observers also claim that a democracy has to have a capitalist economy and a strong civil-society and civic culture, although not all political scientists would include these two criteria.

Democratization is the process whereby a country adopts such a regime. There is less agreement among political scientists about how that process occurs, including the criteria to use in determining if democratization has, in fact, taken place. Many countries have adopted democratic regimes only to see them collapse in a military coup or other revolt that yields an authoritarian government instead. Typically, we do not think that democracy has truly taken root until at least three national elections have been held. Another criterion raised by many experts is the peaceful transfer of power from one political party or coalition to the former opposition. Such a transition is critical because it indicates that the major political forces in a country are prepared to settle their disputes without violence and to accept that they will all spend periods of time out of office.

Less clear is how democratization occurs. It took an extended period of time to develop in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America. In the United States and Great Britain, it took well over a century before all the institutions and practices mentioned above were firmly in place. France, Germany, and Italy saw their democratic regimes collapse and be replaced by fascist ones. It is undoubtedly true that democratization can take place faster today. However, it certainly is not something that can be instituted overnight. Democratization takes time because it requires the development of new institutions and widespread trust in them, which almost never happens quickly.

Why is Democratization Important?

Terrence Lyons suggests that in post-conflict settings, there are risks associated both with premature elections and with waiting too long to hold elections.

As with the definition of the term, the importance of democratization is easy to see at first glance but is much more complicated in practice. Democratization is important because of one of the most widely (but not universally) accepted trends in international relations, known as the democratic peace. Put simply, democracies do not have wars with other democracies. There were a handful of ambiguous cases in the 19th century in which democratizing countries fought other emerging democracies. But there have been no cases of an established democracy going to battle with another one since 1900. Obviously, that does not mean that democracies cannot go to war with each other. But there is something about democracy and the relationship between democracies that allows them to settle their disputes peacefully.

There is no agreement about why the democratic peace exists. Some political scientists stress the cultural norms of trust and tolerance which underlie democracy. Others emphasize the institutions democracies develop for nonviolent conflict resolution, including elections and legislatures. Still others highlight the cultural and economic relations that have increasingly tied the wealthy democracies to each other. Whatever the exact mix of causes, there is little debate that the wealthy democracies have become what Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky have called a "zone of peace" in which war has become all but unimaginable.[1] They have achieved what Kenneth Boulding called "stable peace."[2]

Whatever the exact set of factors that contribute to democratic peace, democratization is particularly important in countries which have gone through an extended period of intractable conflict. The institutions and value systems that make democracy possible are based on the development of the trust, tolerance, and capacity for cooperation that make stable peace and reconciliation possible outcomes of a conflict-resolution process.

Unfortunately, the very same reasons that make democratization important make it difficult to achieve. The ethnic and other tensions that give rise to intractable conflict create so much mistrust and intolerance that cooperation is very difficult to achieve.

Indeed, there are very few countries that have been able to move from intractable conflict to democracy quickly or easily. One exception is South Africa, where the black and white political elites summoned up unprecedented political will and commitment to the multiracial democracy that came into effect in 1994. There are very few countries which experienced intractable conflict where it would have been possible for someone who was jailed for 27 years (Nelson Mandela) to have the head of the former racist and authoritarian government (F. W. de Klerk) serve as his vice president.

Far more common is Nigeria, which returned to democracy in 1999 after more than a decade of repressive and corrupt military rule. Even though the highly-respected Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president, the country actually saw a sharp upsurge in political violence after the Third Republic was created, including riots over whether or not the Miss Universe Contest should be held in the Muslim-dominated northern region of the country and other incidents which has claimed hundreds if not thousands of lives.

And there is no certainty that the democratic peace will hold if and when democracy truly takes root in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. One possible explanation for the democratic peace involves the political cultures of Western Europe and North America, which are very different from those in the third world, with their history of colonialism and ethnic division.

What Individuals Can Do

There is often little that an individual can do directly to promote democracy. People can volunteer for official programs like the United States Peace Corps, the French program of cooperants, and similar programs run by religious groups and other NGOs. Not all of these programs explicitly aim to foster democracy, but it is at least viewed as an important byproduct of their development and relief work. Individual volunteers are often needed in missions or to serve as poll-watchers, those sent to observe elections to try to ensure that they are held fairly and honestly.

Most average citizens do not have the time or the skills to do this kind of work. What they can do, however, is to engage in the political process of their home country to promote policies that help democratization. In the advanced industrialized democracies, that means building? grassroots support for what former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook called an "ethical foreign policy." For people in Nigeria or South Africa it means becoming involved in civil-society organizations that are working to build democracy itself.

What States and Third Parties Can Do

As already noted, we do not really know how democratization works. Therefore, there are no firm guidelines about what states and other third parties can do to promote it.

There is some agreement about what some of the best practices are likely to be, however. All involve a commitment to an integrated approach to democratization in which it is inextricably intertwined with sustainable economic development, education, and conflict resolution. There is some agreement that "pacts" like the one between the ANC and National Party in the early post-apartheid South Africa can help, because moderates from the old regime develop the ability to work with their counterparts in the former opposition. Finally, and perhaps unfortunately, many political scientists think that democracy should be introduced gradually. All too often when a regime change leads to the introduction of a wide-open democracy with few constraints on participation, the kind of violence seen in Nigeria's Third Republic or Germany's interwar Weimar Republic is the norm.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the reality of public policy does not live up to the rhetoric about democratization in the industrialized democracies. Almost 40 years ago, the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) committed themselves to contribute the equivalent of 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) for development assistance each year. In the early 21st century, only the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries came close to that mark. The United States, for instance, barely surpassed 0.1 percent, and its overall contributions have been declining in recent years, as is the case for many other donor countries. Furthermore, not all of that aid goes to support democratization, nor is it targeted at the countries that have experienced the most devastating intractable conflicts.

There is some good news: the major political parties in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany all have programs to support democracy in other countries. Thus, the American and British parties helped the young people of Otpor who were largely responsible for the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in the 2000 elections in Serbia. Similarly, the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung has long supported efforts to foster links between democratically-oriented politicians in Israel and Palestine, including sending a delegation from both communities to see the link between democratization and peacekeeping in the Balkans.

[1] Singer, M. & Wildavsky, A., 1993: The Real World Order. Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House Publishers.

[2] Boulding, Kenneth, 1978: Stable Peace. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Democratization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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