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.

Whether and to what extent democratization occurs has been attributed to various factors, including economic development, history, and civil society.


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.

Economic development and modernization

Scholars such as Seymour Lipset,[1] Carles Boix, Susan Stokes,[2] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens[3] argue that economic development increases the likelihood of democratization. According to Daniel Treisman, there is "a strong and consistent relationship between higher income and both democratization and democratic survival in the medium term (10–20 years), but not necessarily in shorter time windows."[4]

A higher GDP/capita correlates with democracy and some claim the wealthiest democracies have never been observed to fall into authoritarianism.[5] 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.[5][6] 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.[7] However, the debate about whether democracy is a consequence of wealth, a cause of it, or both processes are unrelated, is far from conclusive.[8] Another study suggests that economic development depends on the political stability of a country to promote democracy.[9] 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.[10][unreliable source?]

Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argue that while economic development makes democracies less likely to turn authoritarian, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that development causes democratization (turning an authoritarian state into a democracy).[11] Eva Bellin argues that under certain circumstances, the bourgeoise and labor are more likely to favor democratization, but less so under other circumstances.[12] Economic development can boost public support for authoritarian regimes in the short-to-medium term.[13] Andrew Nathan argues that China is a problematic case for the thesis that economic development causes democratization.[14]

There is research to suggest that greater urbanization, through various pathways, contributes to democratization.[15][16] A 2016 study found that preferential trade agreements "encourage the democratization of a country, in particular if the PTA partners are themselves democracies."[17]

Equality and inclusive institutions

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.[18] This expectation is in line with the empirical research showing that democracy is more stable in egalitarian societies.[5]


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".[19]

Steven Fish and Robert J. Barro have linked Islam to undemocratic outcomes.[20][21] However, Michael Ross argues that the lack of democracies in some parts of the Muslim world has more to do with the adverse effects of the resource curse than Islam.[22] Lisa Blaydes and Eric Chaney have linked the democratic divergence between the West and the Middle-East to the reliance on mamluks (slave soldiers) by Muslim rulers whereas European rulers had to rely on local elites for military forces, thus giving those elites bargaining power to push for representative government.[23]

Social capital and civil society

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 with vertical networks and patron-client relations, and asserts that the latter are unlikely to build the culture of civic engagement necessary for democratization.[24]

Sheri Berman has rebutted Putnam's theory that civil society contributes to democratization, writing that in the case of the Weimar Republic, civil society facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party.[25] Subsequent empirical research has lent support for Berman's argument.[26]

Elite-driven democratization

Scholars have argued that processes of democratization may be elite-driven or driven by the authoritarian incumbents as a way for those elites to retain power amid popular demands for representative government.[27] If the costs of repression are higher than the costs of giving away power, authoritarians may opt for democratization and inclusive institutions.[28][29]

According to a study by political scientist Daniel Treisman, influential theories of democratization posit that autocrats "deliberately choose to share or surrender power. They do so to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, incentivize governments to provide public goods, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence." His study shows that in many cases, "democratization occurred not because incumbent elites chose it but because, in trying to prevent it, they made mistakes that weakened their hold on power. Common mistakes include: calling elections or starting military conflicts, only to lose them; ignoring popular unrest and being overthrown; initiating limited reforms that get out of hand; and selecting a covert democrat as leader. These mistakes reflect well-known cognitive biases such as overconfidence and the illusion of control."[30]

Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik dispute that elite-driven democratization produce liberal democracy. They argue that low levels of inequality and weak identity cleavages are necessary for liberal democracy to emerge.[31]

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.[32][33][34]

Waves of democracy

A wave of democracy refers to a major surge of democracy in history. According to Seva Gunitsky, these waves are caused by "abrupt shifts in the distribution of power among leading states create unique and powerful incentives for sweeping domestic reforms."[35][36] Seva Gunitsky has referred to 13 waves from the 18th century to the Arab Spring (2011-2012).[37]

Samuel P. Huntington defined three waves of democratization that have taken place in history.[38] The first one brought democracy to Western Europe and Northern America in the 19th century. It was followed by a rise of dictatorships during the Interwar period. The second wave began after World War II, but lost steam between 1962 and the mid-1970s. The latest wave began in 1974 and is still ongoing. Democratization of Latin America and the former Eastern Bloc is part of this third wave.

An example of a region which passed through all the three waves of democratization is the Middle East. During the 15th century it was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, "when the empire finally collapsed [...] towards the end of the First World War, the Western armies finally moved in and occupied the region".[39] This was an act of both European expansion and state-building in order to democratize the region. However, what Posusney and Angrist argue is that, "the ethnic divisions [...] are [those that are] complicating the U.S. effort to democratize Iraq". This raises interesting questions about the role of combined foreign and domestic factors in the process of democratization. In addition, Edward Said labels as 'orientalist' the predominantly Western perception of "intrinsic incompatibility between democratic values and Islam". Moreover, he states that "the Middle East and North Africa lack the prerequisites of democratization".[40]

Class structures, class alliances and cleavages

In his influential Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Harvard University political scientist Barrington Moore Jr. argues that the distribution of power among classes – the peasantry, the bourgeoise and the landed aristocracy – and the nature of alliances between classes determined whether democratic, authoritarian or communist revolutions occurred.[41]

According to New York University political scientist David Stasavage, representative government is "more likely to occur when a society is divided across multiple political cleavages."[42]

Democracy promotion, outside linkages and foreign intervention

The European Union has contributed to the spread of democracy, in particular by encouraging democratic reforms in aspiring member states. Thomas Risse wrote in 2009, "there is a consensus in the literature on Eastern Europe that the EU membership perspective had a huge anchoring effects for the new democracies."[43]

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have argued that close ties to the West increased the likelihood of democratization after the end of the Cold War, whereas states with weak ties to the West adopted competitive authoritarian regimes.[44][45]

A 2002 study found that membership in regional organizations "is correlated with transitions to democracy during the period from 1950 to 1992."[46]

A 2004 study found no evidence that foreign aid led to democratization.[47]

Democracies have often been imposed by military intervention, for example in Japan and Germany after World War II.[48][49] 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.[50]

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.[51]


It has long been theorized that education promotes stable and democratic societies.[52] Research shows that education leads to greater political tolerance, increases the likelihood of political participation and reduces inequality.[53] 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".[53]

Natural resources

Research shows that oil wealth lowers levels of democracy and strengthens autocratic rule.[54][55][56][57][58][59][60][61][62][63] According to Michael Ross, "only one type of resource has been consistently correlated with less democracy and worse institutions: petroleum, which is the key variable in the vast majority of the studies that identify some type of curse."[64] A 2014 meta-analysis confirms the negative impact of oil wealth on democratization.[65]

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.[66] 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.[67] In 1972, the military coup had overthrown the government in large part because of the fears of elites that redistribution would take place.[68] That same year oil became an increasing financial source for the country.[68] Although the rents were used to finance the military, the eventual second oil boom of 1979 ran parallel to the country's re-democratization.[68] 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.[68] 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.[68]

Protests and threat of civil conflict

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.[69]

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.[70]

Death or ouster of dictator

One analysis found that "Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential. ... 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."[71]


Jeffrey Herbst, in his paper "War and the State in Africa" (1990), explains how democratization in European states was achieved through political development fostered by war-making and these "lessons from the case of Europe show that war is an important cause of state formation that is missing in Africa today."[72] Herbst writes that war and the threat of invasion by neighbors caused European state to more efficiently collect revenue, forced leaders to improve administrative capabilities, and fostered state unification and a sense of national identity (a common, powerful association between the state and its citizens).[72] Herbst writes that in Africa and elsewhere in the non-European world "states are developing in a fundamentally new environment" because they mostly "gained Independence without having to resort to combat and have not faced a security threat since independence."[72] Herbst notes that the strongest non-European states, South Korea and Taiwan, are "largely 'warfare' states that have been molded, in part, by the near constant threat of external aggression."[72]

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. Some scholars have argued that there is little support for the hypothesis that democracy causes peace, but strong evidence for the opposite hypothesis that peace leads to democracy.[73][74]

Christian Welzel's human empowerment theory posits that existential security leads to emancipative cultural values and support for a democratic political organization.[75] 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.[76]

Contingency and negotiations

Scholars, such as Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Dankwart A. Rustow have argued against the notion that there are structural "big" causes of democratization. These scholars instead emphasize how the democratization process occurs in a flukey manner which depends on the unique characteristics and circumstances of the elites who ultimately oversee the shift from authoritarianism to democracy.[77][78][79]