Considering Democratization Through Strength
This podcast has explored many counterintuitive theories about democracy and autocracy. Bryn Rosenfeld explained why a state-dependent middle class resists efforts to democratize. James Loxton introduced listeners to the idea of authoritarian successor parties. Michael Miller made an ambitious argument where “democratization is most likely when the resulting shift in power is as small as possible, because leaders either are already weak in autocracy or believe they will be strong in democracy.” Part of Miller’s argument was based on an article Dan Slater and Joseph Wong wrote titled, “The Strength to Concede: Ruling Parties and Democratization in Developmental Asia.” In this paper, Slater and Wong argue strong ruling parties sometimes initiate democratization, because they know they can succeed.
They have a new forthcoming book titled From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia. It expands upon the ideas of their paper through multiple examples where democratization succeeded and where it did not occur. But their insight still revolves around why strong authoritarian regimes transition to democracies. They explain, “Authoritarian regimes can democratize from a position of strength, and those authoritarian elites can maintain much of their strength in a new democratic form.” Moreover, transitions from a position of strength represent some of the most successful democracies in the world. Some examples include South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
At the same time, it is not a panacea. Slater and Wong write, “Democracy is never a risk-free proposition, either for the ruling elites who choose to accept it or the citizens who decide to demand it.” Myanmar is an example where the process failed. The transition also brings baggage from the authoritarian regime. It is not a fresh start. But it is an opportunity many overlook. Over the next few days we will explore it further.