The most important factors to democratic stability

Huntington (1991) outlines aspects of the third wave of democratization that began in the 1970s and that has seen many countries across the world undergo democratic transitions. He criticizes the modernization theory and the view of scholars such as Acemoglu and Robinson that economic development and change are the key factors that influence the stability of democracy in a country.  Huntington stresses that this argument is flawed and instead, focuses on five key factors namely; level of urbanization and economic and social development, public dilemma regarding authoritarian regime, influence from religious factors, influence from foreign actors and the international environment and snowball effect. Other factors that may influence stability prospects of democracy are; level of public disillusionment with the existing regime, the ability of the public to distinguish between government or rulers and regime, transparency, structure and strength of the existing government institutions, geography and demography. This paper focuses on the five key factors mainly because as Huntington explains, they are brought about by major changes occurring in third wave nations namely; deepening problems of authoritarian systems, increased levels of economic growth among third wave nations, changes in doctrines of some religions such as the Catholic Church, changes in policies of international and foreign actors and increased snowballing effects.

The most important factors to democratic stability

According to Huntington (1991), the extent of economic development of a country influences the existence of democratic regimes. According to Huntington, a more industrialized country with a modern economy and educated population is more likely to embrace and to support democratic regimes compared to less- or non-industrialized countries. Third wave countries such as Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Portugal Uruguay, Korea and Brazil had an average per capita Gross National Product (GNP) of more than $2,000 between 1988 and 1990. These countries became conducive to democratic leadership and citizens had been highly supportive to established institutions of democracy. On the other hand, countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Sudan had average per capita GNPs of less than $500 during the same period. As of late 1990, Sudan and Nigeria had reverted to military rule while the democratically elected ruler of Pakistan was removed from the office by the army and replaced with another leader. Therefore, urbanization, economic and social development of a country is important factor to democratic stability.

Another important factor influencing stability prospects of a country’s democracy, according to Huntington (1991), is public dilemma regarding authoritarian regime. Authoritarian nostalgia, for instance, can slowly lead to the death of a democratic regime with authoritarian forces such as the military resuming power. The publics in Peru, Brazil, Portugal and Spain simultaneously saw Velasco, Geisel, Caetano, and Franco as effective rulers while they supported democracy as a better system of governance at the same time. In Peru, four studies conducted between 1982 and 1988 indicated that majority of citizens (between 66 percent and 88 percent) agreed that democracy was the best political system for their country. According to Huntington (1991), similar levels of support for democracy were evident in other third wave countries. Despite this, authoritarian hand-over groups (both extremists and standpatter) existed in most of these countries especially during the first fifteen years of the third wave.

In Germany, more than a third of citizens indicated that they would support a move by the Nazi party to seize power during early 1950s. When asked to state when German was better off, 42 percent chose the period during which Nazi party was in power. However, this view changes over time with over 80 percent supporting democratic regime in 1970s. In Germany and Japan, it took longer for the public to reach a consensus on the suitability of a democratic regime compared to Peru and Spain where instant consensus was reached. However, according to Huntington (1991), the quick change in opinions to support democracy in countries such as Peru and Spain meant that opinions could also shift quickly to anti-democratic direction where circumstances warranted. In countries such as Japan and Germany, the slow change and the eventual broad support for democracy indicated that there was a generational change and hence, the situation was irreversible in the short-run.  Therefore, the public dilemma on whether to choose an authoritarian or a democratic system of government plays an important role in determining stability prospects of a country’s democracy.

The influence of the foreign actors and the international environment are also important factors in determining stability prospects of democracy.  Foreign governments and other actors supportive to democracy and with close relations to a country usually support consolidation of democracy. This is more significant in countries where foreign actors exercise influence in that country. For instance, democratic governance is a requirement for all members of European Union and in response, third wave nations such as Greece, Portugal and Spain try as much as possible to maintain democratic institutions. According to Huntington (1991), countries that began transition in the early stages of the third wave such as Peru and Ecuador were influenced by domestic causes while those that went through transition later in the wave such as Mexico, South Africa and Taiwan were highly influenced by external causes.

Huntington (1991) also emphasize on the important or religion in influencing democratic stability. Religions with strong hierarchical structures and dogmas that remain unchallenged may block or support democratization. Precisely, close links between the state and clergy may impede or support democratization. According to Huntington (1991), there were strong ties between state and religion in Muslim, Catholic, Confucian and Orthodox countries in 1970s and 1980s. These religions have hierarchical structures that are often resistant to change. While the Catholic Church reduced its influence states and started supporting democracy, the Muslim clergy continued to emphasize its focus on tradition. The Catholic Church repositioned itself from supporting authoritative regimes to opposing them.

Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council started using the power of the Catholic Church to defend human rights. The pope made many politically motivated visits in many third wave countries and his influence was significant. In fact, according to Huntington (1991), the Catholic religion was second force after economic development to support democratization especially in the first fifteen years of the third wave. In South Korea, there was tremendous expansion of Christianity from around 1 percent immediately around World War II to 25 percent by mid 1980s. This led to an increase in number of churches in the country, which became principle forum for opposing authoritative military regime that existed during that time. Eventually, transition to democratic regime took place in 1988. National churches in countries such as Korea, Philippines, Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile, Poland, and Panama supported the public with resources to war against authoritative regimes.

Snowball effect is the last factor mentioned by Huntington among the most important factors to economic stability.  Snowballing occur when changes in one country trigger similar changes in another country. Huntington (1991) argues that successful democratization in one country often encourages democratization in other countries. This occurs after the public realizes that it is possible to bring down an authoritative regime and how to do it and after learning the dangers to be avoided and the difficulties to overcome. Countries such as Philipinses, Bolivia, Grenada and Central American countries were close to and have been heavily influenced by the U.S. The influence of major democratic powers was minimal in countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, India, Romania, Bulgaria, Sudan, Argentina and Mongolia.


Given the major changes that have occurred in the third wave countries since 1970s, it is clear that the five factors examined in this paper are the most important determinants of democratic stability. As Huntington notes, it is inaccurate to attribute transitions of political systems of governance that have occurred over the last four decades only to economic development and change as the key causal factor. There are also other influencing factors, though they may not be as significant in effect as the above factors described by Huntington.  Huntington’s analysis, however, fails to recognize some of the transitions that lead to semi-authoritarian rule in some of the third wave countries, as demanded by the international realities of post-cold war world. Nonetheless, Huntington provides deep and more comprehensive assessment of the factors influencing democratic stability compared to modernization theory and other scholars holding the same view as this theory.



Huntington (1991). The Third Wave. University of Oklahoma Press


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