November 21, 2016

Conceptual Context to Bolivia's Democratic Process: Waves of Democracy


This piece should have been published in a Routledge-sponsored "encyclopedia of democracy and democratization". But since the publication fell off the ground (I do not know why) and I had already written the article on waves of democracy, I am publishing it here. Enjoy! Please, do not forget to cite me.


Waves of democracy


Is democratization an irreversible, long-term, global trend? Is democracy a form of government that, under certain conditions and contexts, alternates with various forms of authoritarian rule over a long-term? These are the most meaningful questions the notion of waves of democracy addresses at its most fundamental level. Embedded within the democratization field of studies, the concept of waves of democracy (also referred to as waves of democratization or even as democratization waves) refers to the increasing propensity of non-democratic governments to transition towards democratic systems of governments over, more or less, distinctive periods of time. This observation was made by political scientist Samuel Huntington who coined and developed the concept. He first wrote about waves of democracy in a 1991 article published in the Journal of Democracy. He later expanded the concept in a seminal book entitled The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, published the same year.

Remarkably distinctive, the concept of democratic waves has been very useful to better understand regime transitions and, in a more indirect manner, the dynamics of larger issues such democratization processes, and ultimately, the application, endurance and stability of democracy as a regime system. In order the conceptually frame his analysis, Samuel Huntington took a chronological approach to the analysis of regime changes over a long period of time. This approach made it possible to shed light on the pattern of development, i.e. waves, through which this process could be better understood. In addition, it must be highlighted that the main focus of analysis were the so called third wave democratization processes. Samuel Huntington’s main conclusion drawn from his analysis has been to recognize that most probably, not one, not two, but many factors contribute to the democratization of countries; more likely, in a simultaneously and/or often contradictory manner. That is, for example, transition explanations for the first two waves covering from the early 1800s to the post-WWII period tended to concentrate on the role of factors such as economic development, cultural traits, decolonization and prior experience with such a government. Alternatively, the explaining factors concerning the transitions during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, tended to concentrate on the role of legitimacy problems of authoritarian systems, unprecedented global economic growth, changes in the Catholic Church’s doctrine against authoritarianism, changes in the foreign policies of international actors, and the enhancing of international communication which contributed to the snowballing effect.

This entry aims at explaining the nature and meaning of the concept of waves of democracy by, first and foremost, addressing the question: what is it meant by democracy? In second place, the entry presents the development of the term, to thirdly, present the more contemporary debate.

What is it meant by Democracy?

In order to delve into the waves of democracy subject it is necessary to understand first what type of democracy we are dealing with when we speak of ‘democracy’ in this context. To be able to follow the development of the democratic waves over time, Samuel Huntington used a contextualized definition of democracy. In that manner, in order to categorize democracies during the first wave, for example, the definition of democracy focused on two rather constraining requirements from today's point of view but adequate at the time. In the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a country that implemented male universal vote and chose its heads of states in a more or less competitive elections, was considered democratic. In a more modern context, this type of democracy can be understood as electoral democracy. However, the conception of democracy has evolved as has the practice of democracy. For that reason, in more recent times, both, academics as well as practitioners, starting with Samuel Huntington, have had liberal democracy in mind when speaking about the democratization of a country. There may well be many reasons for that, among them that the debate has been dominated by English speaking scholars who live in the United States of America or the fact that for many who dedicate their work to measuring the degree of democracy in a country have tended to have liberal democracy as a model of an ideal system of government or, not least, the fact that the American liberal democracy has become a model due to its resilience and stability since its inception.

As Samuel Huntington analyzed democratization processes in the twentieth century, he had liberal democracy in his mind when he thought of democratization. Liberal democracy has been defined as a type of democracy where democratic as well as liberal values come together. It includes the idea of free, fair, competitive and frequent elections; that political representatives get elected through an electoral process; that those results are respected by everyone with the full knowledge they are not permanent; the existence of political and civic pluralism; that people can express and associate themselves freely; that the rule of law guarantees equality and fairness; that people have free access to alternative forms of information; and that people can take part freely in the political process.

However, some authors criticize this assumption. For some scholars Samuel Huntington’s definition to democracy is not explicit enough, giving way to classify some countries as democracy which otherwise defined would not be considered as such. For other critics the definition is too narrow. They argue that it should be more inclusive of democratic as well as semi-democratic patterns. On the contrary, this last criticism often opens indeed the way for some countries with semi-democratic systems or even with apparent democratic systems to be defined as democracies.

Waves of democracy

The concept of waves of democracy is understood as the process through which groups of transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes take place within a specified period of time. Within each wave, there is an initial period where an increasing number of transitions towards democratic systems of government take place reaching a maximum after some time. Once that peak is reached, the direction of transition reverses and a smaller number of those transitions revert towards authoritarian or non-democratic regimes. Samuel Huntington observed three waves of democracy in world history. The first wave took place between the American and French revolutions in the last quarter of the XIX century and the first decades of the XX century. The second wave took place in the post WWII period and the third wave of democratization began in 1974 with the Portuguese return to democracy, with no end in sight.

The first wave of democratization

The first wave of democratization took place between the years 1828 and 1926. Rooted in the American and French revolutions, the first wave took roughly one hundred years. The most active time was however the time after the collapse of the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and the Romanov empires. During this time somewhere in the order of thirty countries established some type of democratic institutions in their systems. Subsequently, the first reverse wave took place from 1922 to 1942. Notable was, the reversal occurring in the nations which had less experience with democracy and those new nations which emerged after World War II. Notable was also that almost none of the nations with long-term democratic experience had experienced reversal. The reasons for the reversals have been traced to the great depression, the inexperience with democracy of newly created nations, and the emergence of communist, fascist and military nationalist ideologies.

Second wave of democratization

The second waves of democratization, and the shortest of them all, took place from 1943 to 1962. This wave began in the aftermath of World War II and was, to some extent, reinforced by the beginning of the decolonization process. A counter balancing force, however, was the expansion of communism in the context of the Cold War.  All in all, around forty countries became democracies in this period. The second reverse wave happened between 1958 and 1975. By all accounts, this reversal period was the most significant. Not only because from thirty democracies twenty two had reversed to some type of authoritarian regime, but also because the decolonization process gave way to many new independent nations which turned authoritarian right away and also because this reversal had included some nations which had had experience with democracy for the best part of a quarter of a century.

Third wave of democratization

The third wave of democratization began in 1974 in Portugal. In contrast to the previous reversal, this rise in the number of democracies by a number of thirty five countries was impressive. Not only did this wave reach parts of Southern Europe, Latin America and Asia during the 1970s, where there had been prior experience with it, but endured throughout the 1980s and some part of the 1990s reaching Eastern Europe and some parts of Africa and the Middle East where democracy for the most part was a relatively new experience. The third wave is seen as a truly global event.

Debating about the waves

The overarching conceptual category framing the debate about democratic waves is regime change. Within this debate, regime change or transition may refer to a change from authoritarian to a democratic regime, from a democratic to an authoritarian regime or even to a change from an authoritarian to another authoritarian regime. The focus here is on the transition of the particular regime, without any specific direction. However, the debate over waves of democracy has a distinct direction which denotes a transition from a non-democratic towards a democratic regime. In this debate, which has generated a vast amount of literature, the questions have concentrated on the existence of waves and reverse waves, wave patterns, on whether these waves have happened in distinguishable periods, on whether there were only three distinct waves, and on whether the third wave is still happening or is it over or the waves in general are over.

The existence of waves

This part of the debate focuses on whether the waves of democracy were indeed waves. While the original argument makes use of the concept of waves to characterize the increase in regime transformations from non-democratic to democratic systems and the subsequent reversal of these transformations in a given time, Samuel Huntington warned that history was messy and not unidirectional and therefore it could not be expected that these historical events would fit a neat pattern as the one the idea of waves portraits. Nevertheless, he argued further, the conceptualization of waves of democracy was useful to understand the phenomenon.

In contrast, for many critics, the idea of wave patterns was difficult to argue, if not impossible. A group of scholars argued the different regime transformation patterns in question did not reflect waves precisely because these events did not fit neatly into the pattern of a wave. Instead, these processes could be better understood by looking for regional patterns, e.g. Western Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. This approach takes into account the structural, socio-economic, cultural and contextual differences in each region. Moreover, for a number of scholars the manner in which Samuel Huntington defined waves using the percentage of democracies in the world at some point in time was problematic. Had he instead focused on regime transitions rather than the number of democracies he would have found no evidence for waves. Similarly, other critics find no evidence for reverse waves, which supports the contention of no waves.

Other critics, while accepting the idea of waves, criticized the manner in which waves themselves were placed in time and the number of waves that took place. Contrasting to what Samuel Huntington proposed, scholars have pointed out that the first wave was really two distinct ones. One involved the European-settled countries which had already managed to establish certain freedoms and rule of law and that over this period moved towards an expanded understanding of democracy by extending voting rights. The second cluster was made up of countries which in the aftermath of WWI became democratic because they lost the war. Additionally, the second Huntington wave could be divided into three waves. One made up of countries defeated in WWII, a second wave made up with countries born out of decolonization, and a third cluster included coincidences, mainly in Latin America. Lastly, during the so called third wave, two clusters could be distinguished. One was the wave of democratization that swept Southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. The second cluster had to do with the disintegration of the USSR.

Furthermore, other scholars argue a fourth wave is under way. With this scholars refer to the events beginning in 2011 known as the Arab Spring, albeit this wave having not produced as many stable democracies as one might expect in a wave. The argument highlights the differences in types of regimes and the time in which these events took place. In addition, other arguments have been proposed following this logic which introduces further waves at distinct points in time. This debate, to this day, has not been resolved, and it will continue until a clear pattern of reversals can be observed which would signal the clear end of the third wave of democratization.

Why do waves happen? External and internal factors

Another part of the debate concentrates on the factors that trigger waves. Based on Samuel Huntington’s argument, scholars have been able to identify internal and external factors playing a role in the transition process for an authoritarian regime to turn democratic. By the same token, scholars, by observing the transitions from democratic regimes towards authoritarianism or other non-democratic systems have also been able to discern relevant factors. The relevance of such factors and their contribution towards the establishment or reversal of democracy is what largely makes up the content of the current debate in this field.

Samuel Huntington proposed four ways in which waves happened. He first pointed to factors that could evolve parallel to each other, such as socio-economic developments. Second, he argued that many times there is an agreement among political actors across societies that institutional reforms are needed as solution to a particular situation. Third, he argued there were spill-over effects of democratization from one country to another. These could be elite-led or opposition-led. Finally, he argued that there could be one significant factor happening, mainly external - changing attitude of a great power or wars, etc.

Arguments highlighting internal factors tend to explain the first and third waves in the following manner. The first wave transitions before WWI signified a change to democracy from oligarchies by the extension of political rights such as universal vote and were primarily affected by internal factors. The third wave transitions were relatively quick and affected largely by internal factors and they were from an authoritarian to a democratic regime pushed by popular demand. Those scholars who tend to emphasize external factors explain the second wave thus. The transitions after WWI and the ones after WWII were affected mostly by external factors such as the aftermath of the two wars, the end of the major empires and the efforts to decolonize.

More often than none, however, there are explanations that combine both external and internal factors contributing to a democratization wave. Most of those arguments support Samuel Huntington’s proposition that regime changes do occur in waves, in particular regions and in particular times. For example, external factors simultaneously impact the systems of multiple countries, whereby the system in each particular country finds itself in an unstable period being affected by particular internal factors. Particularly susceptible are the countries where the institutional arrangements are not solid and the influences of neighboring countries are significant as are any external shocks to the interstate system. These, combined with the slow but certain impact of economic development, are the causes for waves.

Is the Third Wave Over?

Indeed, it is precisely the definition of this wave that triggered the most significant and enduring debate. The wave had been defined as beginning in 1974 and was literally left with no recognizable end. However, in most recent times, many scholars have argued the third wave did come to an end, while others argue it continues but in a different quality. Marc Plattner has suggested the waves are over. Primarily because within the pool of countries, the ones more apt for democracy have already transitioned while those remaining are less prone to democracy. Also, the attractiveness of the world's leading democracies has been declining and their institutions have been functioning poorly, therefore the attractiveness of democracy has diminished. In addition, foreign policies and supporting actions for democracy have been discredited. Finally, the influence and assertiveness of authoritarian regimes has been increasing. Moreover, many scholars have even go as far as recognizing a reverse wave, especially in the Latin American region, which would definitely bring the third wave to an end.

Other scholars argue the third wave has not come to an end but it is stagnating. They point out at the vast literature showing empirical evidence that very few democratization processes are being started. Finally, other scholars characterize the third wave as continuing to progress but in a different quality. With that is meant the various deepening or consolidation processes having been started around the world.

Dr. Miguel A. Buitrago

See also: Democratic Process; Stages of Democratization; Liberal Democracy; Regime Type; South American Transitions to Democracy; South Asian Transitions to Democracy

Further readings

Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: democratization in the late twentieth century. Norman, London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Huntington, Samuel P. “Democracy’s Third Wave”. Journal of Democracy, 2, 2, pgs. 12 – 24, 1991.

Plattner, Marc. “The end of the transition era?”. Journal of Democracy, 25, 3, pgs. 5 – 16, 2014.

Moeller, Jurgen and Sven-Erik Skanning. “The Third Wave: Inside the Numbers”. Journal of Democracy, 24, 4, 2013.

Moeller, Jurgen and Sven-Erik Skanning. Democracy and Democratization in Comparative Perspective: Conceptions, Conjunctures, Causes and Consequences. London: Routledge, 2013.

Perez-Liñan, Anibal and Scott Mainwaring. “Hegemony or Contagion? International Factors and Democratization in Latin America, 1945 – 2005”. Paper prepared for the FLACSO-ISA Joint International Conference in Buenos Aires, July 23 – 25, 2014.

Doorenspleet, Renske. “Reassessing the three Waves of Democratization”. World Politics, 52, 3, 2000.

Dahl, Marianne, Scott Gates, Havard Hegre, and Havard Strand. “Why Waves? Global Patterns of Democratization, 1820 – 2008”. Accessed on December 24, 2014.

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