Transition Leaders Speak

Issue Date January 2016
Volume 27
Issue 1
Page Numbers 167-74
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Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders. Edited by Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and International IDEA, 2015. 468 pp.

It is a sobering truth that most attempts at democratic transition fail, with disappointment and reversal their unhappy lot. Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal refuse to take this as a counsel of despair, however. Instead, they see it as all the more reason to study the cases of democratization that did work, in hopes of learning how they beat the odds and managed to implant government by consent and the rule of law in places where these had been absent and indeed denied. To that end, they have produced this volume of probing and meticulously prepared interviews with thirteen presidents and prime ministers from nine countries, all of which, in Bitar and Lowenthal’s judgment, “achieved democratic governance—uneven and in some senses incomplete—but without reversal.” There might have been more than nine countries chosen, but the deaths of some leaders, such as the Czech Republic’s President Václav Havel (1936–2011), precluded their inclusion.

Students of democratic transition will note with delight the extensive new material that this book gives us on some of the classic cases of successful democratization, including those of Brazil, Chile, Poland, and Spain. That would be cause enough for celebration, but beyond this, the book covers countries that are missing from older standard works on democratic transition. Such works include the four volumes on Transitions from Authoritarian Rule edited by Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe [End Page 167] Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead in the mid-1980s, and the work that Juan J. Linz and I published on Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation in the mid-1990s. Neither of these works analyzed a democratic transition in a majority-Muslim country, a sub-Saharan African country, or a Southeast Asian country. Now, Bitar and Lowenthal have given us chapters on the transitions in Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim-majority country), South Africa and Ghana, and the Philippines. Reading key leaders’ own accounts of what they thought and did is compelling and adds immeasurably to our understanding, especially when we take into consideration the implied comparative framework in which the interviews are placed.

About the Author

Alfred Stepan is the founding director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion (CDTR), and author (with Juan J. Linz) of Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe.

View all work by Alfred Stepan

Sergio Bitar is a Chilean activist and public intellectual who for more than forty years has been involved in struggles on behalf of democracy as a member of the Christian Left Party. He was minister of mines and energy under President Salvador Allende, and after General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup against Allende was put in a concentration camp for a year and then exiled. When Bitar returned to Chile in 1985, he acted as a crucial link between the then still mutually mistrustful Socialist and Christian Democratic parties, which would prove jointly able to defeat Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite and then formed a successful governing coalition for twenty years. Abraham Lowenthal founded the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. From this base in 1979, he launched the research effort that would give rise to the core work in the scholarly literature on “third-wave” (post-1974) democratic transitions: the four-volume Transitions from Authoritarian Rule mentioned above. Bitar and Lowenthal, with support from the Stockholm-based International IDEA, conducted all the interviews for the present book themselves.

The volume that they have crafted from these talks is exceptionally reader-friendly. Each conversation with a democratic leader (or leaders) is prefaced by a substantial introduction from the pen of a leading scholar of the democratic transition in the relevant country. There are biographical sketches of all the leaders, as well as an invaluable multipage timeline and an up-to-date “Guide to Further Reading” (including original sources) at the close of each of the nine chapters dealing with particular countries. A tenth chapter, by Georgina Waylen, covers the role of women in democratic transitions. She offers an acute comparative analysis of the reasons for the successes and failures of reform efforts concerning policies toward women in Chile, Spain, Brazil, South Africa, and Poland. In the eleventh and final chapter, Bitar and Lowenthal conclude with insights that they have gained by reflecting on this interview collection as a whole. They stress that some transitions—the ones in Poland and South Africa, for instance—began with almost invisible exchanges between a few key leaders of the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition. Most importantly, Bitar and Lowenthal note, their interviews showed that leaders [End Page 168] in these successful cases of democratic transition engaged in even more dialogue and compromise than any of them had ever previously revealed.

The interviews themselves testify to much preparation on the interviewers’ part, to the stellar quality of the interviewees, and to the great seriousness with which they viewed these conversations for posterity. The first and longest is with former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (in office from 1995 to 2003). Although I have written two books on the Brazilian transition and edited two more, I learned many new things from reading this interview. Next come Chile’s former presidents Patricio Aylwin (1990–94) and Ricardo Lagos (2000–2006); Ghana’s John Kufuor (2001–2009) and Jerry John Rawlings (who ruled as a military-coup leader but also served as elected president from 1993 to 2001); Indonesia’s B.J. Habibie (1998–99); Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000); the Philippines’ Fidel Ramos (1992–98); Poland’s Aleksander Kwaœniewski (1995–2005) and Tadeusz Mazowiecki (premier from 1989 to 1991); South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk (1989–94) and Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008); and Spain’s Felipe González (premier from 1982 to 1996).

It is striking that in every case except that of Chile, some people who played key roles in the authoritarian regime also wound up playing key roles in the democratic transition. What kinds of incentives lead authoritarian officials to maneuver themselves into cooperating with the work of democratic transition, and what mechanisms promote this? I see at least four types of situations in which incentives line up in a way that is promising for transition: 1) The authoritarian regime and its democratic opponents may begin to sense that they should negotiate before things get really out of hand and explode into violence; 2) a military regime may begin to feel that “the military as government” is beginning to threaten the long-term interests of “the military as institution”; 3) an unfairly elected chief executive may seek “forward legitimation” by conciliating democratic oppositionists; and 4) a dictator may see a voluntary exit from authoritarian power as leading to a viable—and much safer—career path in democratic politics.

Bitar and Lowenthal’s interviews from South Africa and Poland illuminate the motives and mechanisms at work in the first, or “negotiated exit,” scenario. President de Klerk, who headed the ruling Afrikaner party of the apartheid regime, says near the outset that the “best starting point” for resolving a conflict is for the main parties to grasp that keeping it up “will end in the devastation of the country. … We realized we needed a political solution” (p. 304). Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), he adds, made the same judgement. Thabo Mbeki, who served as the ANC’s chief negotiator, confirms as much in his interview.

Aleksander Kwaœiewski was a 35-year-old Polish Communist Party leader when he co-chaired one of the famous Round Table talks of February to April 1989 that structured the transition to democracy. He explains why General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist regime’s [End Page 169] military leader and premier, imposed martial law and banned Solidarity in 1981, but at decade’s end insisted on engaging it in the Round Table talks. The general, says Kwaœniewski, “understood that martial law was necessary in the early 1980s, but after martial law he saw that his only option was dialogue. He did not have any way to be tougher, stronger, or more repressive. For him, the only way forward was to be a more liberal leader, not a more repressive one” (p. 257). Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who in August 1989 became Poland’s first non-Communist premier since 1946, also felt an urgent need not merely to talk with the Communists but to draw them into his government: “The Communist Party couldn’t be in the opposition. It wasn’t an option because they had a decisive influence on the security apparatus and Army. Imagine an opposition that has control of the military” (p. 278). Mazowiecki named Communists to serve as his defense, interior, and transport ministers.

Brazil under its military government (1964–85) exemplifies the second of the four transition scenarios listed above. That regime’s top general, Ernesto Geisel, and his chief of staff launched a controlled transition after nine years because they feared that the “military as government”—meaning especially its increasingly autonomous and violent military-intelligence arm—was hurting the long-term interests of the “military as institution.” At the very outset of his interview, Cardoso stresses that, except for one brief period, “The military in Brazil kept the Congress running. … Under the national security directive, the military could not (and did not want to) let go of the appearance of liberal institutions. The existence of these institutions was fundamental to the dynamics of the transition” (p. 12). Why were they fundamental? As Cardoso immediately explains, they allowed the democratic opposition to combine “social pressure with occupying institutional spaces” in order to press the military back step by step.

B.J. Habibie’s interview shows how, in Indonesia, the “military as institution” (pressured by growing student and Islamic movements) let Suharto’s three and a half decade old military government fall rapidly once a financial crisis brought things to a head in 1998. Habibie, a top technocrat and longtime Suharto supporter, had been made vice-president by Suharto four months before his fall. Habibie carried out possibly the fastest democratic transition ever, largely to preserve the nation’s and the military’s stability and to win some legitimacy for himself.

In Mexico’s case, we see how the third scenario—the one that features an authoritarian urge for “forward legitimation”—can work in democracy’s favor. Presidents from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had begun using so much force and fraud in order to win election that their fixed six-year terms were starting off with dangerously low levels of legitimacy. None would constrain his own presidency, but from 1977 on, most agreed to fund new procedures and institutions that would make the elections of future presidents more free and fair. For [End Page 170] instance, after Carlos Salinas won the highly contested 1988 election, he allowed the creation of the Independent Electoral Commission, with a large independent budget and a high-quality staff, to oversee national-level voting. Later this was extended to the states and the opposition began to win victories at that level.

Ernesto Zedillo’s interview may represent his first major public comments on these reforms. He says he came into office knowing—and told his PRI colleagues at the time—that his 1994 election had been “clean and legal” but “not fair because the conditions for political competition were still not fair in Mexico” (p. 183). Thanks to Bitar and Lowenthal’s probing queries, we gradually learn how and why key reforms—such as the appointment of a figure from the opposition National Action Party (PAN) as federal attorney-general—became reality. Eventually, the almost two and half decades of gradually established new procedures aided democratization by promoting party turnover: In July 2000, the PAN’s Vicente Fox became Mexico’s first non-PRI president since 1928. New guarantees of freedom and fairness may make it easier for the ruling party to accept losing because they make more credible the prospect of a return to power via a free and fair balloting: The ousted party can be confident that its comeback try will be able to proceed on level ground, and in Mexico the PRI retook the presidency in 2012 after just such a vote.

The fourth and final democratic-transition scenario can become a reality if pressures at home and abroad are raising the cost of dictatorship, while the dictator himself comes to believe that he can handle the challenge of free elections. Jerry John Rawlings exemplifies this. He first took power in Ghana in 1979, while he was a pilot and flight lieutenant in that small West African country’s tiny air force—and not quite 22 years old. He soon handed the government over to elected civilians (he had overthrown a military regime, executing several of its senior figures), but tossed them out within a few years and ruled as a military dictator from 1981 to 1992. He then allowed competitive elections, and was voted in as Ghana’s president for two terms, leaving office in early 2001 after the election of his successor.

In his interview, Rawlings reveals how his fellow citizens’ eight years of life under democracy created new and powerful disincentives that raised the cost he would have had to pay had he unconstitutionally extended his time in office: “I couldn’t have [held on to power], even if I had wanted to. Because once you empower people and they get the taste of freedom and justice, it can be difficult to take it away from them. … I chose the easier option, the more sensible option, and at least for me there was no other way, there was no other alternative than to have free elections and to step down after my second presidential term” (p. 125).

Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal have given us a volume that deserves wide use in graduate and undergraduate courses alike. It also should become a standard reference not only for academics, but for journalists and democracy and human-rights activists as well. If new futures [End Page 171] for democratization are to be imagined, this invaluable interview collection—set to appear also in Arabic, Burmese, Dutch, French, and Spanish versions in 2016—will prove an indispensable guide along the way.


Copyright © 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press