How to make a successful transition from autocracy to democracy

by | Mar 4, 2011

International Crisis Group’s deputy president Nick Grono made an excellent speech recently on ‘challenges for conflict prevention and resolution over the next two decades’, the text of which is now up on ICG’s website. The whole thing is well worth a read, but especially interesting and topical is his list of seven key lessons on “what approaches [can] best support reform and improve the chances of a transition ultimately leading to a peaceful and democratic state”. Here’s a paraphrased summary:

1) Reform has to happen quickly before impetus runs out – which it will, quickly. “If reforms don’t happen almost immediately, the opportunity is soon lost. Not full democratic transition of course, but enough to establish momentum for continued transformation.”

2) Democratisation after protests can happen faster and more easily in places that don’t have entrenched traditional elites. “…frequently popular uprisings are co-opted or taken over by the members of the existing elite. Sometimes this is defensive, to ensure the elites’ survival, after the sacrifice of a few leaders … other times, as recently in Kyrgyzstan, the revolt was simply an extra-constitutional, intra-elite, reshuffle.”

3) Try to get the military out of politics as soon as possible. “All too frequently Western nations seem comfortable with this, as the militaries are known entities, create a semblance of order and normality, and their commanders have often been trained at Leavenworth or Sandhurst. But more often than not, the military just ends up undermining democratic development, as in Pakistan.”

4) Get elections right. Not too early, not too late, and understanding that “they’re not an endgame”. “Often it will be better to build elections from the ground up – starting with local elections before moving to parliamentary or presidential polls, as local democracy helps build capacity.”

5) Understand that outsiders are largely bystanders during the transition, at least in the early chaotic stages. “The US did not persuade Mubarak to leave, nor could the Saudis convince him to stay – the Egyptian army decided.”

6) Don’t try to pick winners. Often irresistible to international actors, but rarely successful (Grono cites Karzai, Kagame, Meles, Museveni); external actors should focus on institutions rather than on individuals.

7) Conflict prevention matters. “The long term, painstaking work of investing in institutions, building the rule of law and developing civil society may be the most effective way for outsider actors to influence these transitions, in the years before they occur. Those countries with more developed institutions and more entrenched rule of law will likely stand a better chance of a stable transition than those without – think Jordan, or even Egypt, as compared to Libya.”


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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