When Democracy Endures

January 29, 2009

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[First published August 31, 2005] Research by Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi has shown the importance of economic development and growth in the survival of democracies. In the study, “What Makes Democracies Endure,” they did a second analysis, now with Michael Alvarez and Josà Antonio Cheibub, in which they studied other conditions that enhance the survival of democracy. I need not extensively quote from this article, since it is in the Journal of Democracy (7.1, 1996) available online.

The basis of this study is:

135 countries observed annually between 1950 or the year of independence or the first year when economic data are available (“entry” year) and 1990 or the last year for which data are available (“exit” year), for a total of 4,318 country-years. We found 224 regimes, of which 101 were democracies and 123 dictatorships, observing 40 transitions to dictatorship and 50 to democracy. Among democratic regimes, there were 50 parliamentary systems, 46 presidential systems, and 8 mixed systems.

Their conclusion:

If a country, any randomly selected country, is to have a democratic regime next year, what conditions should be present in that country and around the world this year? The answer is: democracy, affluence, growth with moderate inflation, declining inequality, a favorable international climate, and parliamentary institutions.

I can’t resist mentioning a few gems:

It may seem tautological to say that a country should have a democratic regime this year in order to have a democracy next year. We do so in order to dispel the myth, prevalent in certain intellectual and political circles (particularly in the United States) since the late 1950s, that the route to democracy is a circuitous one. The claim is that 1) dictatorships are better at generating economic development in poor countries, and that 2) once countries have developed, their dictatorial regimes will give way to democracy. To get to democracy, then, one had to support, or at least tolerate, dictatorships.
Both of the above propositions, however, are false.

. . . . An overthrow of democracy at any time during the past history of a country shortens the life expectancy of any democratic regime in that country. To the extent that political learning does occur, then, it seems that the lessons learned by antidemocratic forces from the past subversion of democracy are more effective than the traditions that can be relied on by democrats.

. . . . the survival of democracies does depend on their institutional systems. Parliamentary regimes last longer, much longer, than presidential ones. Majority-producing electoral institutions are conducive to the survival of presidential systems: presidential systems facing legislative deadlock are particularly brittle. Both systems are vulnerable to bad economic performance, but presidential democracies are less likely to survive even when the economy grows than are parliamentary systems when the economy declines. The evidence that parliamentary democracy survives longer and under a broader spectrum of conditions than presidential democracy thus seems incontrovertible.

. . . . For a variety of reasons, however, this is not an optimistic conclusion. Poverty is a trap. Few countries with annual per-capita income below $1,000 develop under any regime: their average rate of growth is less than 1 percent a year; many experience prolonged economic decline. When poor countries stagnate, whatever democracies happen to spring up tend to die quickly. Poverty breeds poverty and dictatorship.
Institutional choice offers a partial escape from this trap: parliamentary systems in the poorest countries, while still very fragile, are almost twice as likely to survive as presidential democracies, and four times as likely when they grow economically. Yet since it appears that poor countries are more likely to choose presidentialism, little solace is offered by the possibility of institutional engineering.

. . . . In sum, the secret of democratic durability seems to lie in economic development–not, as the theory dominant in the 1960s had it, under dictatorship, but under democracy based on parliamentary institutions.

What about Afghanistan and Iraq’s democratic institutions? Afghanistan has a Presidential system of direct election (Constitution here). The President is elected, “by receiving more than 50% of the votes cast through free, general, secret, and direct voting.” The National Assembly consists of two houses. In the House of Representatives, members represent regions by direct election, their number proportional to a region’s population. For the Senate, however, 2/3rds are elected or appointed from provincial councils, and 1/3rd are appointed by the President (50% must be women).

As to the draft Iraq Constitution (here), it creates a parliamentary system. Its legislature consists of two houses, one of which is a Council of Representatives (Parliament) to be elected by a nation-wide direct, secret ballot. A second house is a Council of Union, which will include representatives of provinces and regions. The President of the Republic is to be determined by a 2/3rds majority of the Council of Representatives.

So, in light of the above research of Adam Przeworski and colleagues, the constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq are positive for the success of their democracies. Although Afghanistan has created a presidential system, it provides in its two houses and regional councils a means for many interests to be represented in the government and, if a significant segment of the population, to make their interests respected. Similarly, with the proposed Iraqi parliamentary system, and even more so. Clearly, small parties will have to be invited to form a collation with the larger parties in order to achieve the 2/3rds necessary to elect a president. As I noted yesterday, although both are at that low level of national income which makes the success of democracy a serious question, both promise rapid development. This, along with their democratic institutions, make their democratic suvival more than a hope.

Link of Note

“Democracy, Cappitalism and Development” By Khandakar Elahi and Constantine P Danopoulos (2004)


In social science, a passionate debate continues about the expected effect of democracy on development. Many authors believe that democracy dampens development. This paper discredits this view by clarifying the debate’s critical conceptions- democracy, capitalism and development. In the non-communist state, private individuals inspire economic development, because they own the major portion of the nation=s resources. Since individuals are selfish by nature, they ordinarily improve their economic welfare if they enjoy ‘fair freedoms’ meaning that the social environment of fair freedom is the key to economic development in the non-communist state. Capitalism guarantees this environment, which suggests that the desirable functioning of capitalism is the clue to economic development. Democracy is the only system of governance that can guarantee long run peaceful functioning of the capitalist economy. Thus, a nation cannot remain poor if she is governed according to the principles of democracy.

This study, along with the two of Adam Przeworski and colleagues, suggest that there will be continued rapid growth of democracies among poor nations, and that democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq will survive as long as we continue to secure them against insurrection and terrorists.

When will the world be least 90 percent democratic? Between 2022 and 2076.

See the last question on the page.