Democracy is often seen to be the most desirable form of political regime, where, as Mahatma Gandhi (1948) had put it in its simplest yet modest interpretation, “My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest shall have the same opportunities as the strongest”. It is intuitive then to assume that all regimes in the world should be democracies, where citizenry values are adopted to the fullest extent in assigning power to ensure that the government elected is stewarded by the will of the people. In reality, this is not the case. Although a majority of countries in the world today practices elements of democracy, there are still countries which values does not apply. Beyond standard measures of conceptualising democracy, in explaining this, literature on politics often gravitated the debate towards economic and cultural factors, and how one might be a stronger case than the other. In this essay, we will explore arguments on strategic bargain between social groups by influential authors (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2006; Ansell & Samuels, 2014), which suggests that these best answers regime variations, democratic or otherwise.
By definition, when is a country democratic, and when is it not? We need to understand how political scientists conceptualise and measure democracy. This is the first step towards classifying countries as either democratic or dictatorial. This involves coming up with concrete observable phenomena or indicators that capture the abstract concept of democracy. Robert Dahl (1971) for example, believes that political scientists should employ a minimalist or procedural view of democracy, which focuses on the classification of political regimes only in regard to their institutions and procedures. Dahl identified two dimensions as being particularly important in this approach, which is to capture the degree of contestation and inclusion in the democratic process. He adopted the term “polyarchy” to define high levels of both. Elaborating on Dahl’s concept, Clark, Golder and Golder (2013) defines contestation as “the extent to which citizens are free to organise themselves into competing blocs in order to press for the policies and outcomes they desire” (p. 152), and inclusion as “to do with who gets to participate in the democratic process” (p. 152). Building on Dahl’s insights, comparative scholars have come up with several different measures of democracy and dictatorship (Coppedge & Gerring, 2011; Munck & Verkuilen, 2002; Peimstein, Meserve & Melton, 2010) to better operationalise the concept of democracy. Here, we will briefly compare the varying approach towards conceptualising democracy on two most commonly used measures in comparative politics literature – Democracy-Dictatorship (DD) and Polity IV. First developed by Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub and Limongi (1996, 2000), the DD measure which was then revised by Chebuib, Gandhi and Vreeland (2010) employ four rules to operationalise their conceptualisation of democracy and dictatorship. A democracy if identified if all of the following rules apply: (1) the chief executive is elected; (2) the legislature is elected; (3) there is more than one party competing in the elections; (4) an alternation in power under identical electoral rules has taken place. The inclusion of the third and fourth rule is a clear recognition of the fact that elections, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to distinguish between democracies and dictatorships. In China, a single party (Communist Party of China) has historically dominated the elections overwhelmingly. In Malaysia, the incumbent party (National Front) has been in power since independence (1957). According to the rules within the DD measure, both these countries should not be classified as democratic, as they do not fall in line with Dahl’s contestation condition even when they do hold elections. Polity IV (Marshall, Gurr & Jaggers, 2010) gives a Polity Score for each country which ranges from a score of -10 (as dictatorial as possible) to +10 (as democratic as possible), based on five different attributes: (a) the competitiveness of executive recruitment; (b) the openness of executive recruitment; (c) the constraints that exist on the executive; (d) the regulation of political participation; (e) the competitiveness of political participation. Together, these dimensions capture Dahl’s notion of both contestation and inclusion. Going back to Malaysia, with a Polity Score of +6 in 2013 (Polity IV Country Regime Trends 2013, 2013), it would fall under democracy. This is in contrast with the DD’s rules of conceptualising democracy, which would categorise Malaysia as non-democratic as it fails to satisfy one of the four cumulative conditions of a democracy.
The importance of the significance between the varying approach on different measures of democracy is to prove that different conceptualisations of democracy would categorise some countries as being either democratic or dictatorial, depending on the type of measure used. This proves that researchers need to be cautious on this, as this would greatly affect how we consider some countries in the world, by definition, to be democratic or otherwise.
The economic perspective towards explaining why some countries are democratic and non-democratic is often associated with the modernisation theory. Modernisation theory argues that all societies pass through the same historical stages of economic development. Classic modernisation theory outlines the economic and social shifts in a society: from large to small agriculture; small to large industry and service; or from dictatorship to democracy. Although it was first developed by economist and economic historians, it was later adopted by political scientists, most famously by Seymour Martin Lipset (1959, 1960). It was stated that:
Modernisation theorists in political science claim that as a society moves from being immature or “traditional” to being mature or “modern”, it needs to change to a more appropriate type of government. Dictatorships might be sustainable in immature societies, but this is no longer the case in mature societies once they develop economically (Clark et al. 2013, p. 172).
This theory was further strengthened by a different author in comparative politics in the following way:
As a country develops, its social structure becomes complex, new groups emerge and organise, labor processes require the active cooperation of employees, and, as a result, the system can no longer be effectively run by command: The society is too complex, technological change endows the direct producers with autonomy and private information, civil society emerges, and dictatorial forms of control lose their effectiveness. Various groups, whether the bourgeoisie, workers, or just the amorphous “civil society”, rise against the dictatorial regime, and it falls (Przeworski et al. 2000).
As a consequence, democracy emerges out of dictatorship by economic development. Lipset (as cited in Clark et al. 2013, p.172) also argues that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy”. This means that a democracy will be more likely to survive in economically developed countries, making the understanding of the classic modernisation theory as to predict that as an economy develops, it will help: (a) the emergence of democracy; (b) the survival of democracy.
From the modernisation theory established above, it should be reasonable to think that as an economy develops, a country should either transition into a democracy or stay a democracy. However, this is proven to not be the universal case, specifically noticed in oil-rich countries who are curiously undemocratic by any standard measures of democracy. Oil-rich countries in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Libya are considered as Michael L. Ross (2012) put it, to be under “The Oil Curse”. Although countries like Norway and Canada have extracted lots of oils and had few ill effects, Ross argues the following:
Most social scientists trace the oil curse to the undemocratic governments of petroleum-producing states, although they agree on little else. Almost all studies focus on just one of the problems that seem to be linked to petroleum – like poor economic performance, the lack of democracy, or the unusual frequency of civil wars. They offer many explanations for these problems, faulting oil’s alleged links to corruption, rent seeking, inequality, shortsighted policies, and weakened state institutions (Ross, 2012).
Another interesting observation is that recent studies suggests that the conventional wisdom of democratic survival in high income countries may no longer hold true. A recent controversial paper revealed that undemocratic sentiments have risen especially quick among the wealthy (Foa & Mounk, 2016). This shows that the economic argument towards the survival of democracy may be flawed.
Expanding briefly on the classic modernisation theory, would be the discussion on the cultural factor. Is culture as powerful as economic development in determining whether a country is democratic? Democracy is more common in some cultures which support democratic values, such as individual liberty, freedom of expression, equality than in others. China for example, which is accepted as dictatorial by all measures of democracy, has a very different attitude towards political competition, the rule of law, the rights of the individual and so forth. This Confucianist tradition, arguably, does not fit with Westernised liberal democratic values. Therefore, culture potentially could be a strong justification towards the adoption of democratic procedures in a country. However, regression analysis from Przeworski (2000) suggests that culture (specifically countries adopting Muslim traditions and beliefs) is not a statistically signifant factor after accounting towards control variables such as GDP per capita, growth in GDP per capita, oil producers and number of ethnic groups. This can be seen in Table 1. Empirical evidence suggests then that culture is not as important as it was once assumed.
As the discussion on economic and cultural factors on the existence of democracy in a country grows, political economists presents another powerful explanation on why democracy exists, one where the central thesis of this essay mentions to be the strongest explanation on why some countries are democratic. Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) approaches this issue on the view of what kind of bargain gets done when democracy is formed. They try to move away from historical patterns of economic and cultural factors in influencing democracy, and instead focus on the microfoundations of the actual mechanism that happens when a country transitions from dictatorship to a democracy. This approach is called the strategic bargain. In strategic bargain, the groups of actors, the models of government and the factors that influence political transitions are illustrated in the following figure:
Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) argued that income inequality undermines democratisation. This can be explained through several hypotheses, mainly credible commitment and wealth inequality. Elites in non-democracies cannot credibly commit to redistribute wealth without democratic institutions such as elections and majoritarian parliaments, and a higher wealth inequality raises the risk of democracy for non-democratic elites, which leads to more efforts to support democracy. They give the example of Singapore which by some measures of democracy, is undemocratic because one party dominates in elections. Singapore, with low income inequality as a result from a wealthy society (large elite groups), is seen to be as highly stable. This is because there is not a big appetite towards a transition towards democracy because there is a perception that they do not need it.
In contrast, it is important to note that Ansell and Samuels (2014) challenges Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument that income inequality undermines democratisation. Ansell and Samuels instead believes that democratisation occurs when there is a high income inequality in societies where there is a rapidly emerging economic elites (middle class). They argue that “Autocracies with equal land distribution are indeed more likely to democratise, but contrary to the conventional wisdom, income inequality is more likely to promote democratisation” (Ansell & Samuels, 2014). Their view on strategic bargain is that democratisation is promoted by an emerging middle class who are politically disenfranchised, but fear that an authoritarian government will expropriate their assets. Competition between elites are now more prevalent, hence, democracy is seen as a “contract” to protect the interests of the middle classes rather than to redistribute wealth to fend off revolution.
In conclusion, in determining whether a country is democratic or not, it is first essential to understand what standard conceptualisations of democracy are available when measuring democracy. This is because different measures may give different perceptions towards how some countries are identified either democratic or dictatorial based on the convention used surrounding the adopted standard. We can then delve into economic and cultural arguments, which empirical evidences have shown support for, at the same time providing reason to suggest that it could be rejected. Strategic bargain between social groups remains the better way in explaining why some countries are democratic and some otherwise, although there is ongoing debate in political science about whether income inequality undermines democratisation or reinforces it.