Democratization (or democratisation) is the transition to a more democratic political regime, including substantive political changes moving in a democratic direction. It may be the transition from an authoritarian regime to a full democracy, a transition from an authoritarian political system to a semi-democracy or transition from a semi-authoritarian political system to a democratic political system.
The outcome may be consolidated (as it was for example in the United Kingdom) or democratization may face frequent reversals (as it has faced for example in Chile in 1973). Different patterns of democratization are often used to explain other political phenomena, such as whether a country goes to a war or whether its economy grows.
Democratization itself is influenced by various factors, including economic development, history, and civil society. The ideal result from democratization is to ensure that the people have the right to vote and have a voice in their political system.
There is considerable debate about the factors which affect or ultimately limit democratization. A great many things, including economics, culture, and history, have been cited as impacting on the process. Some of the more frequently mentioned factors are:
- Wealth. A higher GDP/capita correlates with democracy and some claim the wealthiest democracies have never been observed to fall into authoritarianism. The rise of Hitler and of the Nazis in Weimar Germany can be seen as an obvious counter-example, but although in early 1930s Germany was already an advanced economy, by that time, the country was also living in a state of economic crisis virtually since the first World War (in the 1910s), a crisis which was eventually worsened by the effects of the Great Depression. There is also the general observation that democracy was very rare before the industrial revolution. Empirical research thus lead many to believe that economic development either increases chances for a transition to democracy (modernization theory), or helps newly established democracies consolidate. One study finds that economic development prompts democratization but only in the medium run (10–20 years). This is because development may entrench the incumbent leader but make it more difficult for him deliver the state to a son or trusted aide when he exits. However, the debate about whether democracy is a consequence of wealth, a cause of it, or both processes are unrelated, is far from conclusive. Another study suggests that economic development depends on the political stability of a country to promote democracy. Clark, Robert and Golder, in their reformulation of Albert Hirschman's model of Exit, Voice and Loyalty, explain how it is not the increase of wealth in a country per se which influences a democratization process, but rather the changes in the socio-economic structures that come together with the increase of wealth. They explain how these structure changes have been called out to be one of the main reasons several European countries became democratic. When their socioeconomic structures shifted because modernization made the agriculture sector more efficient, bigger investments of time and resources were used for the manufacture and service sectors. In England, for example, members of the gentry began investing more on commercial activities that allowed them to become economically more important for the state. This new kind of productive activities came with new economic power were assets became more difficult for the state to count and hence more difficult to tax. Because of this, predation was no longer possible and the state had to negotiate with the new economic elites to extract revenue. A sustainable bargain had to be reached because the state became more dependent of its citizens remaining loyal and, with this, citizens had now leverage to be taken into account in the decision making process for the country.
- Social equality. Acemoglu and Robinson argued that the relationship between social equality and democratic transition is complicated: People have less incentive to revolt in an egalitarian society (for example, Singapore), so the likelihood of democratization is lower. In a highly unequal society (for example, South Africa under Apartheid), the redistribution of wealth and power in a democracy would be so harmful to elites that these would do everything to prevent democratization. Democratization is more likely to emerge somewhere in the middle, in the countries, whose elites offer concessions because (1) they consider the threat of a revolution credible and (2) the cost of the concessions is not too high. This expectation is in line with the empirical research showing that democracy is more stable in egalitarian societies.
- Culture. It is claimed by some that certain cultures are simply more conductive to democratic values than others. This view is likely to be ethnocentric. Typically, it is Western culture which is cited as "best suited" to democracy, with other cultures portrayed as containing values which make democracy difficult or undesirable. This argument is sometimes used by undemocratic regimes to justify their failure to implement democratic reforms. Today, however, there are many non-Western democracies. Examples include: India, Japan, Indonesia, Namibia, Botswana, Taiwan, and South Korea. Research finds that "Western-educated leaders significantly and substantively improve a country's democratization prospects".
- Social Capital. Robert Putnam argues that certain characteristics make societies more likely to have cultures of civic engagement that lead to more participatory democracies. Putnam argues that communities with denser horizontal networks of civic association are able to better build the "norms of trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement" that lead to democratization and well-functioning participatory democracies. Putnam contrasts communities with dense horizontal networks, to communities built around vertical networks and patron-client relations which he asserts are unlikely to build the culture of civic engagement necessary for democratization.
- Dictatorship type. The three dictatorship types, monarchy, civilian and military have different approaches to democratization as a result of their individual goals. Monarchic and civilian dictatorships seek to remain in power indefinitely through hereditary rule in the case of monarchs or through oppression in the case of civilian dictators. A military dictatorship seizes power to act as a caretaker government to replace what they consider a flawed civilian government. Military dictatorships are more likely to transition to democracy because at the onset, they are meant to be stop-gap solutions while a new acceptable government forms.
- Scrambled Constituencies. Mancur Olson theorizes that the process of democratization occurs when elites are unable to reconstitute an autocracy. Olson suggests that this occurs when constituencies or identity groups are mixed within a geographic region. He asserts that this mixed geographic constituencies requires elites to for democratic and representative institutions to control the region, and to limit the power of competing elite groups.
- Education. It has long been theorized that education promotes stable and democratic societies. Research shows that education leads to greater political tolerance, increases the likelihood of political participation and reduces inequality. One study finds "that increases in levels of education improve levels of democracy and that the democratizing effect of education is more intense in poor countries".
- Urbanization. There is research to suggest that greater urbanization, through various pathways, contributes to democratization.
- Natural Resources. University of California, Berkeley political scientist Thad Dunning proposes a plausible explanation for Ecuador’s return to democracy that contradicts the conventional wisdom that natural resource rents encourage authoritarian governments. Dunning proposes that there are situations where natural resource rents, such as those acquired through oil, reduce the risk of distributive or social policies to the elite because the state has other sources of revenue to finance this kind of policies that is not the elite wealth or income. And in countries plagued with high inequality, which was the case of Ecuador in the 1970s, the result would be a higher likelihood of democratization. In 1972, the military coup had overthrown the government in large part because of the fears of elites that redistribution would take place. That same year oil became an increasing financial source for the country. Although the rents were used to finance the military, the eventual second oil boom of 1979 ran parallel to the country’s re-democratization. Ecuador’s re-democratization can then be attributed, as argued by Dunning, to the large increase of oil rents, which enabled not only a surge in public spending but placated the fears of redistribution that had grappled the elite circles. The exploitation of Ecuador’s resource rent enabled the government to implement price and wage policies that benefited citizens at no cost to the elite and allowed for a smooth transition and growth of democratic institutions.
- Foreign trade. A 2016 study found that preferential trade agreements "encourage the democratization of a country, in particular if the PTA partners are themselves democracies."
- Democracy protests. Research indicates that democracy protests are associated with democratization. A 2016 study found that about a quarter of all cases of democracy protests between 1989-2011 lead to democratization.
- Threat of civil conflict. Research suggests that the threat of civil conflict encourages regimes to make democratic concessions. A 2016 study found that drought-induced riots in Sub-Saharan Africa lead regimes, fearing conflict, to make democratic concessions.
- Overthrow of dictators. Rebels may overthrow their dictators with the aim of establishing a democratic government, but this method is rarely successful. The death of a dictator rarely ushers in democracy. One analysis found that "of the 79 dictators who have died in office (1946-2014)... in the vast majority (92%) of cases, the regime persists after the autocrat's death."
- International cooperation. A 2002 study found that membership in international organizations "is correlated with transitions to democracy during the period from 1950 to 1992."
- Foreign intervention. Democracies have often been imposed by military intervention, for example in Japan and Germany after WWII. In other cases, decolonization sometimes facilitated the establishment of democracies that were soon replaced by authoritarian regimes. For example, Syria, after gaining independence from French mandatory control at the beginning of the Cold War, failed to consolidate its democracy, so it eventually collapsed and was replaced by a Ba'athist dictatorship. In general, most attempts to establish democracy by military means have failed.
- War-making. Jeffrey Herbst, in its acclaimed paper "War and the state in Africa", explains how democratization in European states was achieved through war making and how it is a cause of state formation missing in Africa today. He exemplifies how war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection, it forced leaders to improve administrative capabilities; and created and environment where populations could develop a sense of unification. European states where under constant threat of being invaded and bursting into war with their neighboring countries. This demand to be constantly vigilant enabled the development of effective revenue collection systems and, those states that did not raise sufficient revenue for war perished. War also created a common and powerful association between the state and its people, given that citizens felt threatened as a nation and, it was only as a nation that they would thrive. Fighting wars made people feel more associated with the state.
- Peace and security. Wars may contribute to the state building that precedes a transition to democracy, but war is also a serious obstacle to democratization. While adherents of the democratic peace theory believe that democracy comes before peace, historical evidence shows the opposite. In almost all cases, peace has come before democracy. There is little support for the hypothesis that democracy causes peace, but strong evidence for the opposite hypothesis that peace leads to democracy. Christian Welzel's human empowerment theory posits that existential security leads to emancipative cultural values and support for a democratic political organization. This is in agreement with theories based on evolutionary psychology. The so-called regality theory finds that people develop a psychological preference for a strong leader and an authoritarian form of government in situations of war or perceived collective danger. On the other hand, people will support egalitarian values and a preference for democracy in situations of peace and safety. The consequence of this is that a society will develop in the direction of autocracy and an authoritarian government when people perceive collective danger, while the development in the democratic direction requires collective safety. This explains why almost all attempts to establish democracy by violent means have failed