Johns Hopkins University Press

Democracies used to be few in number, and most were located in the northwestern quarter of the world. Over the last two decades, however, many countries have rid themselves of authoritarian regimes. There are many variations among these countries. Some of them have reverted to new brands of authoritarianism (even if from time to time they hold elections), while others have clearly embraced democracy. Still others seem to inhabit a gray area; they bear a family resemblance to the old established democracies, but either lack or only precariously possess some of their key attributes. The bulk of the contemporary scholarly literature tells us that these “incomplete” democracies are failing to become consolidated, or institutionalized.

This poses two tasks. One is to establish a cutoff point that separates all democracies from all nondemocracies. This point’s location depends on the questions we ask, and so is always arbitrary. Many definitions of democracy have been offered. 1 The one that I find particularly useful is Robert Dahl’s concept of “polyarchy.” Once a reasonably well-delimited set of democracies is obtained, the second task is to examine the criteria that a given stream of the literature uses for comparing cases within this set. If the criteria are found wanting, the next step is to propose alternative concepts for these comparisons. This is what I attempt here, albeit in preliminary and schematic fashion.

Contemporary Latin America is my empirical referent, although my discussion probably also applies to various newly democratized countries [End Page 34] in other parts of the world. The main argument is that, contrary to what most of current scholarship holds, the problem with many new polyarchies is not that they lack institutionalization. Rather, the way in which political scientists usually conceptualize some institutions prevents us from recognizing that these polyarchies actually have two extremely important institutions. One is highly formalized, but intermittent: elections. The other is informal, permanent, and pervasive: particularism (or clientelism, broadly defined). An important fact is that, in contrast to previous periods of authoritarian rule, particularism now exists in uneasy tension with the formal rules and institutions of what I call the “full institutional package” of polyarchy. These arguments open up a series of issues that in future publications I will analyze with the detail and nuance they deserve. My purpose at present is to furnish some elements of what I believe are needed revisions in the conceptual and comparative agenda for the study of all existing polyarchies, especially those that are informally institutionalized. 2

Polyarchy, as defined by Dahl, has seven attributes: 1) elected officials; 2) free and fair elections; 3) inclusive suffrage; 4) the right to run for office; 5) freedom of expression; 6) alternative information; and 7) associational autonomy. 3 Attributes 1 to 4 tell us that a basic aspect of polyarchy is that elections are inclusive, fair, and competitive. Attributes 5 to 7 refer to political and social freedoms that are minimally necessary not only during but also between elections as a condition for elections to be fair and competitive. According to these criteria, some countries of Latin America currently are not polyarchies: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico have recently held elections, but these were marred by serious irregularities before, during, and after the voting.

Other attributes need to be added to Dahl’s list. One is that elected (and some appointed) officials should not be arbitrarily terminated before the end of their constitutionally mandated terms (Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin may have been elected in fair elections, but they abolished polyarchy when they forcefully closed their countries’ congresses and fired their supreme courts). A second addition is that the elected authorities should not be subject to severe constraints, vetoes, or exclusion from certain policy domains by other, nonelected actors, especially the armed forces. 4 In this sense, Guatemala and Paraguay, as well as probably El Salvador and Honduras, do not qualify as polyarchies. 5 Chile is an odd case, where restrictions of this sort are part of a constitution inherited from the authoritarian regime. But Chile clearly meets Dahl’s seven criteria of polyarchy. Peru is another doubtful case, since the 1995 presidential elections were not untarnished, and the armed forces retain tutelary powers over various policy areas. Third, there should be an uncontested national territory that clearly defines the voting population. 6 Finally, an appropriate definition of polyarchy should also [End Page 35] include an intertemporal dimension: the generalized expectation that a fair electoral process and its surrounding freedoms will continue into an indefinite future.

These criteria leave us with the three polyarchies—Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela—whose origins date from before the wave of democratization that began in the mid-1970s, and with nine others that resulted from this wave: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay and, with the caveats noted, Chile and Peru. Only in the oldest Latin American polyarchy (Costa Rica) and in two cases of redemocratization (Chile and Uruguay) do the executive branch, congress, parties, and the judiciary function in a manner that is reasonably close to their formal institutional rules, making them effective institutional knots in the flow of political power and policy. Colombia and Venezuela used to function like this, but do so no longer. These two countries, jointly with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru—a set that includes a large majority of the Latin American population and GNP—function in ways that current democratic theory has ill prepared us to understand.

We must go back to the definition of polyarchy. This definition, precise in regard to elections (attributes 1 to 4) and rather generic about contextual freedoms (attributes 5 to 7), is mute with respect to institutional features such as parliamentarism or presidentialism, centralism or federalism, majoritarianism or consensualism, and the presence or absence of a written constitution and judicial review. Also, the definition of polyarchy is silent about important but elusive themes such as if, how, and to what degree governments are responsive or accountable to citizens between elections, and the degree to which the rule of law extends over the country’s geographic and social terrain. 7 These silences are appropriate: the definition of polyarchy, let us recall, establishes a crucial cutoff point—one that separates cases where there exist inclusive, fair, and competitive elections and basic accompanying freedoms from all others, including not only unabashed authoritarian regimes but also countries that hold elections but lack some of the characteristics that jointly define polyarchy.

Among polyarchies, however, there are many variations. These differences are empirical, but they can also be normatively evaluated, and their likely effect on the survival prospects of each polyarchy may eventually be assessed. These are important issues that merit some conceptual clarification.

By definition, all the Latin American cases that I have labeled polyarchies are such because of a simple but crucial fact: elections are institutionalized. By an institution I mean a regularized pattern of interaction that is known, practiced, and accepted (if not necessarily approved) by actors who expect to continue interacting under the rules sanctioned and backed by that pattern. 8 Institutions are typically taken [End Page 36] for granted, in their existence and continuity, by the actors who interact with and through them. Institutions are “there,” usually unquestioned regulators of expectations and behavior. Sometimes, institutions become complex organizations: they are supposed to operate under highly formalized and explicit rules, and materialize in buildings, rituals, and officials. These are the institutions on which both “prebehavioral” and most of contemporary neo-institutionalist political science focus. An unusual characteristic of elections qua institutions is that they are highly formalized by detailed and explicit rules, but function intermittently and do not always have a permanent organizational embodiment.

In all polyarchies, old and new, elections are institutionalized, both in themselves and in the reasonable 9 effectiveness of the surrounding conditions of freedom of expression, access to alternative information, and associational autonomy. Leaders and voters take for granted that in the future inclusive, fair, and competitive elections will take place as legally scheduled, voters will be properly registered and free from physical coercion, and their votes will be counted fairly. It is also taken for granted that the winners will take office, and will not have their terms arbitrarily terminated. Furthermore, for this electoral process to exist, freedom of opinion and of association (including the freedom to form political parties) and an uncensored media must also exist. Countries where elections do not have these characteristics do not qualify as polyarchies. 10

Most students of democratization agree that many of the new polyarchies are at best poorly institutionalized. Few seem to have institutionalized anything but elections, at least in terms of what one would expect from looking at older polyarchies. But appearances can be misleading, since other institutions may exist, even though they may not be the ones that most of us would prefer or easily recognize.

Theories of “Consolidation”

When elections and their surrounding freedoms are institutionalized, it might be said that polyarchy (or political democracy) is “consolidated,” i.e., likely to endure. This, jointly with the proviso of absence of veto powers over elected authorities, is the influential definition of “democratic consolidation” offered by Juan J. Linz, who calls it a state of affairs “in which none of the major political actors, parties, or organized interests, forces, or institutions consider that there is any alternative to democratic processes to gain power, and . . . no political institution or group has a claim to veto the action of democratically elected decision makers. . . . To put it simply, democracy must be seen as the `only game in town.’” 11 This minimalist definition has important advantages. Still, I see little analytical gain in attaching the term “consolidated” to something that will probably though not certainly [End Page 37] endure—“democracy” and “consolidation” are terms too polysemic to make a good pair.

Other authors offer more expanded definitions of democratic consolidation, many of them centered on the achievement of a high degree of “institutionalization.” 12 Usually these definitions do not see elections as an institution. 13 They focus on complex organizations, basically the executive, parties, congress, and sometimes the judiciary. Many valuable studies have been conducted from this point of view. By the very logic of their assessment of many new polyarchies as noninstitutionalized, however, these studies presuppose, as their comparative yardstick, a generic and somewhat idealized view of the old polyarchies. The meaning of such a yardstick perplexes me: often it is unclear whether it is something like an average of characteristics observed within the set of old polyarchies, or an ideal type generated from some of these characteristics, or a generalization to the whole set of the characteristics of some of its members, or a normative statement of preferred traits. Furthermore, this mode of reasoning carries a strong teleological flavor. Cases that have not “arrived” at full institutionalization, or that do not seem to be moving in this direction, are seen as stunted, frozen, protractedly unconsolidated, and the like. Such a view presupposes that there are, or should be, factors working in favor of increased consolidation or institutionalization, but that countervailing “obstacles” stymie a process of change that otherwise would operate unfettered. 14 That some of these polyarchies have been in a state of “protracted unconsolidation” 15 for some 20 years suggests that there is something extremely odd about this kind of thinking.

A recently published book on democratic consolidation in Southern Europe is a case in point. 16 This is the first in a series of five volumes, resulting from an eight-year project that involved, as coauthors and discussants, many of the most active and distinguished students of democratization. The introduction (pp. 1–32) and the conclusions (pp. 389–413) by the coeditors and codirectors of the project offer an impressively learned distillation of these extensive scholarly exchanges. These texts are also paradigmatic of the views that I am criticizing. The editors use the concept of “trajectories of democratic transitions and consolidations,” with which, even though they warn that it “should in no way be understood as implying a deterministic conceptual bias,” they intend to “capture and highlight the particular combination and interplay of freedom and constraint at each successive stage of the democratization process” (p. xvi, emphasis added). Further on, they state, “We regard continued movement towards the ideal type of democratic consolidation as very significant” (p. 9, emphasis added). Consistent with this view, most of Latin America—in contrast to Southern European countries that the authors say became consolidated democracies in part because they “leap-frogged” democratization and developmental stages [End Page 38] is seen as “still struggling with transitional problems of varying, and often major, magnitude and intensity” (p. xiv–xvi, emphasis added). An exception is Chile, where the transition is “moving towards consolidation” (p. 19, emphasis added), and “seems to be well on its way to successful completion” (p. 389, emphasis added). The Southern European countries, after achieving consolidation, are said to be entering yet another stage of “democratic persistence,” which is the “end product of a long democratization process” (p. xiii, passim).

One way or the other, polyarchies that are seen as unconsolidated, noninstitutionalized, or poorly institutionalized are defined negatively, for what they lack: the type and degree of institutionalization presumably achieved by old polyarchies. Yet negative definitions shift attention away from building typologies of polyarchies on the basis of the specific, positively described traits of each type. 17 Such typologies are needed, among other purposes, for assessing each type’s likelihood of endurance, for exploring its patterns of change, and for clarifying the various dimensions on which issues of quality and performance of polyarchy may be discussed and researched.

There is no theory that would tell us why and how the new polyarchies that have institutionalized elections will “complete” their institutional set, or otherwise become “consolidated.” All we can say at present is that, as long as elections are institutionalized, polyarchies are likely to endure. We can add the hypothesis that this likelihood is greater for polyarchies that are formally institutionalized. But this proposition is not terribly interesting unless we take into account other factors that most likely have strong independent effects on the survival chances of polyarchies. 18 Consequently, calling some polyarchies “consolidated” or “highly institutionalized” may be no more than saying that they are institutionalized in ways that one expects and of which one approves. Without a theory of how and why this may happen, it is at best premature to expect that newer polyarchies will or should become “consolidated” or “highly institutionalized.” In any event, such a theory can only be elaborated on the basis of a positive description of the main traits of the pertinent cases.

The Importance of Informal Rules

Polyarchy is the happy result of centuries-long processes, mostly in countries in the global Northwest. In spite of many variations among these countries, polyarchy is embodied in an institutional package: a set of rules and institutions (many of them complex organizations) that is explicitly formalized in constitutions and auxiliary legislation. Rules are supposed to guide how individuals in institutions, and individuals interacting with institutions, behave. The extent to which behavior and expectations hew to or deviate from formal rules is difficult to gauge [End Page 39] empirically. But when the fit is reasonably close, formal rules simplify our task; they are good predictors of behavior and expectations. In this case, one may conclude that all or most of the formal rules and institutions of polyarchy are fully, or close to fully, institutionalized. 19 When the fit is loose or practically nonexistent, we are confronted with the double task of describing actual behavior and discovering the (usually informal) rules that behavior and expectations do follow. Actors are as rational in these settings as in highly formalized ones, but the contours of their rationality cannot be traced without knowing the actual rules, and the common knowledge of these rules, that they follow. One may define this situation negatively, emphasizing the lack of fit between formal rules and observed behavior. As anthropologists have long known, however, this is no substitute for studying the actual rules that are being followed; nor does it authorize the assumption that somehow there is a tendency toward increasing compliance with formal rules. This is especially true when informal rules are widely shared and deeply rooted; in this case, it may be said that these rules (rather than the formal ones) are highly institutionalized. 20

To some extent this also happens in the old polyarchies. The various laments, from all parts of the ideological spectrum, about the decay of democracy in these countries are largely a consequence of the visible and apparently increasing gap between formal rules and the behavior of all sorts of political actors. But the gap is even larger in many new polyarchies, where the formal rules about how political institutions are supposed to work are often poor guides to what actually happens.

Many new polyarchies do not lack institutionalization, but a fixation on highly formalized and complex organizations prevents us from seeing an extremely influential, informal, and sometimes concealed institution: clientelism and, more generally, particularism. For brevity’s sake, I will put details and nuances aside 21 and use these terms to refer broadly to various sorts of nonuniversalistic relationships, ranging from hierarchical particularistic exchanges, patronage, nepotism, and favors to actions that, under the formal rules of the institutional package of polyarchy, would be considered corrupt. 22

Particularism—like its counterparts, neopatrimonial 23 and delegative conceptions and practices of rule—is antagonistic to one of the main aspects of the full institutional package of polyarchy: the behavioral, legal, and normative distinction between a public and a private sphere. This distinction is an important aspect of the formal institutionalization of polyarchy. Individuals performing roles in political and state institutions are supposed to be guided not by particularistic motives but by universalistic orientations to some version of the public good. The boundaries between the public and the private are often blurred in the old polyarchies, but the very notion of the boundary is broadly accepted and, often, vigorously asserted when it seems breached by public [End Page 40] officials acting from particularistic motives. Where particularism is pervasive, this notion is weaker, less widely held, and seldom enforced.

But polyarchy matters, even in the institutional spheres that, against their formal rules, are dominated by particularism. In congress, the judiciary, and some actions of the executive, rituals and discourses are performed as if the formal rules were the main guides of behavior. The consequences are twofold. On one side, by paying tribute to the formal rules, these rituals and discourses encourage demands that these rules be truly followed and that public-oriented governmental behavior prevail. On the other side, the blatant hypocrisy of many of these rituals and discourses breeds cynicism about the institutions of polyarchy, their incumbents, and “politicians” in general. As long as this second consequence is highly visible, particularism is taken for granted, and practiced as the main way of gaining and wielding political power. In such polyarchies, particularism is an important part of the regime. 24 Polyarchies are regimes, but not all polyarchies are the same kind of regime.

Here we see the ambiguity of the assertion made by Juan J. Linz, Adam Przeworski, 25 and others who argue that consolidation occurs when democracy becomes “the only game in town.” It is clear that these authors are referring to the formal rules of polyarchy. More generally, even though they may not refer to “institutionalization,” authors who limit themselves to the term “consolidation” also assert, more or less implicitly, the same close fit between formal rules and actual behavior. 26 For example, Przeworski argues that democratic consolidation occurs “when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions.” But this does not preclude the possibility that the games played “inside” the democratic institutions are different from the ones dictated by their formal rules. Przeworski also states: “To put it somewhat more technically, democracy is consolidated when compliance—acting within the institutional framework—constitutes the equilibrium of the decentralized strategies of all the relevant forces.” 27 Clearly, Przeworski is assuming that there is only one equilibrium, the one generated by a close fit between formal rules and behavior. Yet however inferior they may be in terms of performances and outcomes that we value, the situations that I am describing may constitute an equilibrium, too. 28

A Theoretical Limbo

If the main criterion for democratic consolidation or institutionalization is more or less explicitly a reasonably close fit between formal rules and actual behavior, then what of countries such as Italy, Japan, and India? These are long-enduring polyarchies where, by all indications, various forms of particularism are rampant. Yet these cases do not appear problematic in the literature I am discussing. That they are listed [End Page 41] as “consolidated” (or, at least, not listed as “unconsolidated”) suggests the strength—and the inconsistency—of this view. It attaches the label “consolidated” to cases that clearly do not fit its arguments but that have endured for a significantly longer period than the new polyarchies have so far. This is a typical paradigmatic anomaly. It deals with these cases by relegating them to a theoretical limbo, 29 as if, because they are somehow considered to be “consolidated,” the big gaps between their formal rules and behavior were irrelevant. This is a pity, because variations that are theoretically and empirically important for the study of the whole set of existing polyarchies are thereby obscured.

Another confusing issue is raised by the requirement of “legitimacy” that some definitions of consolidation add. Who must accept formal democratic rules, and how deep must this acceptance run? Here, the literature oscillates between holding that only certain leaders need adhere to democratic principles and arguing that most of the country’s people should be democrats, and between requiring normative acceptance of these principles and resting content with a mere perception that there is no feasible alternative to democracy. The scope of this adherence is also problematic: Is it enough that it refers to the formal institutions of the regime, or should it extend to other areas, such as a broadly shared democratic political culture?

Given these conceptual quandaries, it is not surprising that it is impossible clearly to specify when a democracy has become “consolidated.” To illustrate this point, consider the “tests” of democratic consolidation that Gunther, Diamandouros, and Puhle propose. These tests supposedly help them to differentiate the consolidated Southern European cases from the unconsolidated Latin American, as well as East European and Asian, ones. The indicators that “may constitute evidence that a regime is consolidated” are: 1) “alternation in power between former rivals”; 30 2) “continued widespread support and stability during times of extreme economic hardship”; 3) “successful defeat and punishment of a handful of strategically placed rebels”; 4) “regime stability in the face of a radical restructuring of the party system”; and 5) “the absence of a politically significant antisystem party or social movement” (pp. 12–13).

With respect to Latin America, it bears commenting in relation to each of these points that: 1) alternations in government through peaceful electoral processes have occurred in Latin America as frequently as in Southern Europe; 2) in the former, support for regime stability has persisted—in Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, among other countries—even in the face of far more acute recessions than Southern Europe has seen, and in the midst of quadruple-digit inflation; 3) the record of punishment is poor, albeit with important exceptions in both regions; 4) even when thinking about Italy today, it is hard to imagine party-system restructurings more radical than the ones that occurred in [End Page 42] Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador; and 5) “antisystem” political parties are as absent from the Latin American as from the Southern European polyarchies. The indicators of democratic consolidation invoked by these authors (and shared by many others) suffer from extreme ambiguity. 31 Finally, one might note that their argument points toward a reductio ad absurdum, for one could in following its logic argue that Latin America’s polyarchies are actually “more consolidated” because they have endured more “severe tests” (p. 12) than their Southern European counterparts.

Polyarchies, Particularism, and Accountability

It almost goes without saying that all actual cases exhibit various combinations of universalism and particularism across various relevant dimensions. This observation, however, should not lead to the Procrustean solution of lumping all cases together; differences in the degree to which each case approximates either pole may justify their separate classification and analysis. Of course, one may for various reasons prefer a political process that adheres quite closely to the formal rules of the full institutional package of polyarchy. Yet there exist polyarchies—some of them as old as Italy, India, and Japan, or in Latin America, Colombia, and Venezuela—that endure even though they do not function as their formal rules dictate. To understand these cases we need to know what games are really being played, and under what rules.

In many countries of the global East and South, there is an old and deep split between the pays réel and the pays légal. Today, with many of these countries claiming to be democracies and adopting a constitutional framework, the persistence and high visibility of this split may not threaten the survival of their polyarchies—but neither does it facilitate overcoming the split. Institutions are resilient, especially when they have deep historical roots; particularism is no exception. Particularism is a permanent feature of human society; only recently, and only in some places and institutional sites, has it been tempered by universalistic norms and rules. In many new polyarchies, particularism vigorously inhabits most formal political institutions, yet the incumbency of top government posts is decided by the universalistic process of fairly counting each vote as one. This may sound paradoxical but it is not; it means that these are polyarchies, but they are neither the ones that the theory of democracy had in mind as it grew out of reflection on the political regimes of the global Northwest, nor what many studies of democratization assume that a democracy should be or become.

That some polyarchies are informally institutionalized has important consequences. Here I want to stress one that is closely related to the blurring of the boundary between the private and the public spheres: accountability, a crucial aspect of formally institutionalized polyarchy, is [End Page 43] seriously hindered. To be sure, the institutionalization of elections means that retrospective electoral accountability exists, and a reasonably free press and various active segments of society see to it that some egregiously unlawful acts of government are exposed (if seldom punished). Polyarchy, even if not formally institutionalized, marks a huge improvement over authoritarian regimes of all kinds. What is largely lacking, however, is another dimension of accountability, which I call “horizontal.” By this I mean the controls that state agencies are supposed to exercise over other state agencies. All formally institutionalized polyarchies include various agencies endowed with legally defined authority to sanction unlawful or otherwise inappropriate actions by other state agents. This is an often-overlooked expression of the rule of law in one of the areas where it is hardest to implant, i.e., over state agents, especially high-ranking officials. The basic idea is that formal institutions have well-defined, legally established boundaries that delimit the proper exercise of their authority, and that there are state agencies empowered to control and redress trespasses of these boundaries by any official or agency. These boundaries are closely related to the private-public boundary, in that those who perform public roles are supposed to follow universalistic and public-oriented rules, rather than their own particular interests. Even though its actual functioning is far from perfect, this network of boundaries and accountabilities is an important part of the formal institutionalization of the full package of polyarchy. 32

By contrast, little horizontal accountability exists in most new polyarchies. Furthermore, in many of them the executive makes strenuous, and often successful, efforts to erode whatever horizontal accountability does exist. The combination of institutionalized elections, particularism as a dominant political institution, and a big gap between the formal rules and the way most political institutions actually work makes for a strong affinity with delegative, not representative, notions of political authority. By this I mean a caesaristic, plebiscitarian executive that once elected sees itself as empowered to govern the country as it deems fit. Reinforced by the urgencies of severe socioeconomic crises and consonant with old volkisch, nonindividualistic conceptions of politics, delegative practices strive headlong against formal political institutionalization; congress, the judiciary, and various state agencies of [End Page 44] control are seen as hindrances placed in the way of the proper discharge of the tasks that the voters have delegated to the executive. The executive’s efforts to weaken these institutions, invade their legal authority, and lower their prestige are a logical corollary of this view. 33 On the other hand, as Max Weber warned, institutions deprived of real power and responsibility tend to act in ways that seem to confirm the reasons adduced for this deprivation. In the cases that concern us here, particularism becomes even more rampant in congress and parties, courts ostensively fail to administer justice, and agencies of control are eliminated or reduced to passivity. This context encourages the further erosion of legally established authority, renders the boundary between public and private even more tenuous, and creates enormous temptations for corruption.

In this sea of particularism and blurred boundaries, why does the universalistic process of fair and competitive elections survive? Governments willing to tamper with laws are hardly solid guarantors of the integrity of electoral processes. Part of the answer, at least with respect to elections to top national positions, is close international attention and wide reporting abroad of electoral irregularities. Fair elections are the main, if not the only, characteristic that certifies countries as democratic before other governments and international opinion. Nowadays this certification has important advantages for countries and for those who govern them. Within the country, elections are a moment when something similar to horizontal accountability operates: parties other than the one in government are present at the polling places, sharing an interest in preventing fraud. Elections create a sharp focus on political matters and on the symbols and rituals that surround the act of voting. At this moment, the citizens’ sense of basic fairness manifests itself with special intensity. Violations are likely to be immediately reported. Faced with the protests that might ensue and their repercussions in the international media, and considering the further damage that would come from trying to impose obviously tainted results, most governments are willing to run the risks inherent in fair and competitive elections.

Pervasive particularism, delegative rule, and weak horizontal accountability have at least two serious drawbacks. The first is that the generalized lack of control enables old authoritarian practices to reassert themselves. 34 The second is that, in countries that inaugurated polyarchy under conditions of sharp and increasing inequality, the making and implementation of policy becomes further biased in favor of highly organized and economically powerful interests.

In the countries that occupy us here, the more properly political, democratic freedoms are effective: uncoerced voting; freedom of opinion, movement, and association; and others already listed. But for large sections of the population, basic liberal freedoms are denied or recurrently trampled. The rights of battered women to sue their husbands and of peasants to obtain a fair trial against their landlords, the inviolability of domiciles in poor neighborhoods, and in general the right of the poor and various minorities to decent treatment and fair access to public agencies and courts are often denied. The effectiveness of the whole ensemble of rights, democratic and liberal, makes for full civil and political citizenship. In many of the new polyarchies, individuals are citizens only in relation to the one institution that functions in a manner close to what its formal rules prescribe—elections. As for full citizenship, only the members of a privileged minority enjoy it. 35 Formally [End Page 45] institutionalized polyarchies exhibit various mixes of democracy, liberalism, and republicanism (understood as a view that concurs with liberalism in tracing a clear public-private distinction, but that adds an ennobling and personally demanding conception of participation in the public sphere). Informally institutionalized polyarchies are democratic, in the sense just defined; when they add, as they often do, the plebiscitarian component of delegative rule, they are also strongly majoritarian. But their liberal and republican components are extremely weak.

Freeing Ourselves from Some Illusions

I have rapidly covered complicated terrain. 36 Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me insist that I, too, prefer situations that get close to real observance of the formal rules of polyarchy, a citizenry that firmly approves democratic procedures and values, fair application of the law in all social and geographical locations, and low inequality. Precisely because of this preference, I have argued for the need to improve our conceptual tools in the complex task of studying and comparing the whole set of existing polyarchies. It is through a nonteleological and, indeed, nonethnocentric, positive analysis of the main traits of these polyarchies that we scholars can contribute to their much-needed improvement. This is especially true of the polyarchies that are institutionalized in ways we dislike and often overlook, even if they do not—and some of them may never—closely resemble the “consoli-dated democracies” of the Northwest.

For this purpose, we must begin by freeing ourselves from some illusions. As an author who has committed most of the mistakes I criticize here, I suspect that we students of democratization are still swayed by the mood of the times that many countries have more or less recently passed through. We believe that democracy, even in the rather modest guise of polyarchy, is vastly preferable to the assortment of authoritarian regimes that it has replaced. We shared in the joy when those regimes gave way, and some of us participated in these historic events. These were moments of huge enthusiasm and hope. Multitudes demanded democracy, and international opinion supported them. The demand for democracy had many meanings, but in all cases it had a powerful common denominator: “Never Again!” 37 Whatever confused, utopian, or limited ideas anyone held concerning democracy, it was clear that it meant getting rid of the despots once and for all. Democracy, even if—or perhaps precisely because—it had so many different meanings attached to it, was the central mobilizing demand that had to be achieved and preserved forever. Somehow, it was felt, this democracy would soon come to resemble the sort of democracy found in admired countries of the Northwest—admired for their long-enduring regimes and for their wealth, and because both things seemed to go together. As in [End Page 46] these countries, after the transition democracy was to be stabilized, or consolidated; the Northwest was seen as the endpoint of a trajectory that would be largely traversed by getting rid of the authoritarian rulers. This illusion was extremely useful during the hard and uncertain times of the transition. Its residue is still strong enough to make democracy and consolidation powerful, and consequently pragmatically valid, terms of political discourse. 38 Their analytical cogency is another matter.

On the other hand, because the values that inspired the demands for democracy are as important as ever, the present text is an effort toward opening more disciplined avenues for the study of a topic—and a concern—I share with most of the authors that I have discussed: the quality, in some cases rather dismal, of the social life that is interwoven with the workings of various types of polyarchy. How this quality might be improved depends in part on how realistically we understand the past and present situation of each case.

Guillermo O’Donnell

Guillermo O’Donnell is Helen Kellogg Professor of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. An earlier version of this essay was first presented at a conference on “Consolidating Third Wave Democracies: Trends and Challenges,” held on 27–30 August 1995 in Taipei, Taiwan, under the auspices of the Institute for National Policy Research of Taipei and the International Forum for Democratic Studies of Washington, D.C.


For their comments on an earlier version of this text, I am grateful to Michael Coppedge, Gabriela Ippolito-O’Donnell, Scott Mainwaring, Sebastián Mazzuca, Peter Moody, Gerardo Munck, and Adam Przeworski.


1. Reflecting the lack of clearly established criteria in the literature, David Collier and Steven Levitsky have inventoried and interestingly discussed the more than one hundred qualifiers that have been attached to the term “democracy.” Many such qualifiers are intended to indicate that the respective cases are in some sense lacking the full attributes of democracy as defined by each author. See Collier and Levitsky, “Democracy `With Adjectives’: Finding Conceptual Order in Recent Comparative Research” (unpubl. ms., University of California-Berkeley, Political Science Department, 1995).

2. I have tried unsuccessfully to find terms appropriate to what the literature refers to as highly versus noninstitutionalized (or poorly institutionalized), or as consolidated versus unconsolidated democracies, with most of the old polyarchies belonging to the first terms of these pairs, and most of the new ones to the second. For reasons that will be clear below, I have opted for labeling the first group “formally institutionalized” and the second “informally institutionalized,” but not without misgivings: in the first set of countries, many things happen outside formally prescribed institutional rules, while the second set includes one highly formalized institution, elections.

3. This list is from Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 221; the reader may want to examine further details of these attributes, discussed by Dahl in this book.

4. See, especially, J. Samuel Valenzuela, “Democratic Consolidation in Post-Transitional Settings: Notion, Process, and Facilitating Conditions,” in Scott Mainwaring, Guillermo O’Donnell, and J. Samuel Valenzuela, eds., Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 57–104; and Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Summer 1991): 75–88.

5. See Terry Lynn Karl, “The Hybrid Regimes of Central America,” Journal of Democracy 6 (July 1995): 73–86; and “Imposing Consent? Electoralism vs. Democratization in El Salvador,” in Paul Drake and Eduardo Silva, eds., Elections and Democratization in Latin America, 1980–85 (San Diego: Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies, 1986), 9–36.

6. See, especially, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Postcommunist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming); and Philippe Schmitter, “Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (April 1994): 57–74.

7. For a useful listing of these institutional variations, see Schmitter and Karl, “What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not.”

8. For a more-detailed discussion of institutions, see my “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (January 1994): 56–69.

9. The term “reasonable” is admittedly ambiguous. Nowhere are these freedoms completely uncurtailed, if by nothing else than the political consequences of social inequality. By “reasonable” I mean that there are neither de jure prohibitions on these freedoms nor systematic and usually successful efforts by the government or private actors to annul them.

10. On the other hand, elections can be made more authentically competitive by, say, measures that diminish the advantages of incumbents or of economically powerful parties. These are, of course, important issues. But the point I want to make at the moment is that these differences obtain among countries that already qualify as polyarchies.

11. Juan J. Linz, “Transitions to Democracy,” Washington Quarterly 13 (1990): 156. The assertion about “the only game in town” entails some ambiguities that I discuss below.

12. Even though most definitions of democratic consolidation are centered around “institutionalization” (whether explicitly or implicitly, by asserting acceptance or approval of democratic institutions and their formal rules), they offer a wide variety of additional criteria. My own count in a recent review of the literature is twelve; see Doh Chull Shin, “On the Third Wave of Democratization: A Synthesis and Evaluation of Recent Theory and Research,” World Politics 47 (October 1994): 135–70.

13. Even though he does not use this language, an exception is the definition of democratic consolidation offered by J. Samuel Valenzuela, which is centered in what I call here the institutionalization of elections and the absence of veto powers; see his “Democratic Consolidation in Post-Transitional Settings,” 69.

14. It is high time for self-criticism. The term “stunted” I used jointly with Scott Mainwaring and J. Samuel Valenzuela in the introduction to our Issues in Democratic Consolidation, 11. Furthermore, in my chapter in the same volume (pp. 17–56), I offer a nonminimalist definition of democratic consolidation, and propose the concept of a “second transition,” from a democratically elected government to a consolidated democratic regime. These concepts partake of the teleology I criticize here. This teleological view is homologous to the one used by many modernization studies in the 1950s and 1960s; it was abundantly, but evidently not decisively, criticized at the time. For a critique of the concept of “democratic consolidation” that is convergent with mine, see Ben Ross Schneider, “Democratic Consolidations: Some Broad Comparisons and Sweeping Arguments,” Latin American Research Review 30 (1995): 215–34; Schneider concludes by warning against “the fallacy of excessive universalism” (p. 231).

15. Philippe C. Schmitter with Terry Lynn Karl, “The Conceptual Travels of Transitologists and Consolidologists: How Far to the East Should They Attempt to Go?” Slavic Review 63 (Spring 1994): 173–85.

16. Richard Gunther, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, and Hans-Jurgen Puhle, eds., The Politics of Democratic Consolidation: Southern Europe in Comparative Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

17. We should remember that several typologies have been proposed for formally institutionalized polyarchies; see, especially, Arend Lijphart, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-one Countries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). This work has been extremely useful in advancing knowledge about these polyarchies, which underscores the need for similar efforts on the now greatly expanded whole set of polyarchies. For an attempt in this direction see Carlos Acuña and William Smith, “Future Politico-Economic Scenarios for Latin America,” in William Smith, Carlos Acuña, and Eduardo Gamarra, eds., Democracy, Markets, and Structural Reform in Latin America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1993), 1–28.

18. Adam Przeworski and his collaborators found that higher economic development and a parliamentary regime increase the average survival rate of polyarchies. These are important findings, but the authors have not tested the impacts of socioeconomic inequality and of the kind of informal institutionalization that I discuss below. Pending further research, it is impossible to assess the causal direction and weight of all these variables. I suspect that high socioeconomic inequality has a close relationship with informal institutionalization. But we do not know if either or both, directly or indirectly, affect the chances of survival of polyarchy, or if they might cancel the effect of economic development that Przeworski et al. found. See Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, “Modernization: Theories and Facts” (Working Paper No. 4, Chicago Center for Democracy, University of Chicago, November 1994); and Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, “What Makes Democracies Endure?” Journal of Democracy 7 (January 1996): 39–55.

19. A topic that does not concern me here is the extent to which formal rules are institutionalized across various old polyarchies and, within them, across various issue areas, though the variations seem quite important on both counts.

20. The lore of many countries is filled with jokes about the naive foreigner or the native sucker who gets in trouble by following the formal rules of a given situation. I have explored some of these issues with reference to Brazil and Argentina in “Democracia en la Argentina: Micro y Macro” (Working Paper No. 2, Notre Dame, Kellogg Institute, 1983); “Y a mí qué me importa? Notas Sobre Sociabilidad y Política en Argentina y Brasil” (Working Paper No. 9, Notre Dame, Kellogg Institute, 1984); and “Micro-Escenas de la Privatización de lo Público en Brasil” (Working Paper No. 21, with commentaries by Roberto DaMatta and J. Samuel Valenzuela, Notre Dame, Kellogg Institute, 1989).

21. For the purposes of the generic argument presented in this essay, and not without hesitation because of its vagueness, from now on I will use the term “particularism” to refer to these phenomena. On the contemporary relevance of clientelism, see Luis Roniger and Ayse Gunes-Ayata, eds., Democracy, Clientelism, and Civil Society (Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner, 1994). For studies focused on Latin America that are germane to my argument, see especially Roberto DaMatta, A Case e a Rua: Espaco, Cidadania, Mulher e Morte no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1985); Jonathan Fox, “The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship,” World Politics 46 (January 1994): 151–84; Francis Hagopian, “The Compromised Transition: The Political Class in the Brazilian Transition,” in Mainwaring et al., Issues in Democratic Consolidation, 243–93; and Scott Mainwaring, “Brazilian Party Underdevelopment in Comparative Perspective,” Political Science Quarterly 107 (Winter 1992–93): 677–707. These and other studies show that particularism and its concomitants are not ignored by good field researchers. But, attesting to the paradigmatic force of the prevalent views on democratization, in this literature the rich data and findings emerging from such case studies are not conceptually processed as an intrinsic part of the problématique of democratization, or are seen as just “obstacles” interposed in the way of its presumed direction of change.

22. Particularistic relationships can be found in formally institutionalized polyarchies, of course. I am pointing here to differences of degree that seem large enough to require conceptual recognition. One important indication of these differences is the extraordinary leniency with which, in informally institutionalized polyarchies, political leaders, most of public opinion, and even courts treat situations that in the other polyarchies would be considered as entailing very severe conflicts of interest.

23. For a discussion of neopatrimonialism, see my “Transitions, Continuities, and Paradoxes,” in Mainwaring et al., Issues in Democratic Consolidation, 17–56. An interesting recent discussion of neopatrimonialism is Jonathan Hartlyn’s “Crisis-Ridden Elections (Again) in the Dominican Republic: Neopatrimonialism, Presidentialism, and Weak Electoral Oversight,” Journal of Interamerican and World Affairs 34 (Winter 1994): 91–144.

24. By “regime” I mean “the set of effectively prevailing patterns (not necessarily legally formalized) that establish the modalities of recruitment and access to governmental roles, and the permissible resources that form the basis for expectations of access to such roles,” as defined in my Bureaucratic Authoritarianism: Argentina, 1966–1973, in Comparative Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 6.

25. Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

26. See, among many others that could be cited (some transcribed in Shin, “On the Third Wave of Democratization”), the definition of democratic consolidation proposed by Gunther, Diamandouros, and Puhle in Politics of Democratic Consolidation, 3: “the achievement of substantial attitudinal support for and behavioral compliance with the new democratic institutions and the rules which they establish.” A broader but equivalent definition is offered four pages later.

27. Przeworski, Democracy and the Market, 26.

28. In another influential discussion, Philippe C. Schmitter, although he does not use this language, expresses a similar view of democratic consolidation; see his “Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (April 1994): 56–74. Schmitter begins by asserting, “In South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia the specter haunting the transition is . . . nonconsolidation. . . . These countries are `doomed’ to remain democratic almost by default.” He acknowledges that the attributes of polyarchy may hold in these countries—but these “patterns never quite crystallize” (pp. 60–61). To say that democracy exists “almost by default” (i.e., is negatively defined) and is not “crystallized” (i.e., not formally institutionalized) is another way of stating the generalized view that I am discussing.

29. An exception is Gunther et al., Politics of Democratic Consolidation, where Italy is one of the four cases studied. But the way they deal with recent events in Italy is exemplary of the conceptual problems I am discussing. They assert that in Italy “several important partial regimes . . . were challenged, became deconsolidated, and entered into a significant process of restructuring beginning in 1991” (p. 19). On the same page, the reader learns that these partial regimes include nothing less than “the electoral system, the party system, and the structure of the state itself.” (Added to this list later on is “the basic nature of executive-legislative relations” [p. 394].) Yet the “Italian democracy remains strong and resilient”—after practically every important aspect of its regime, and even of the state, became “deconsolidated” (p. 412). If the authors mean that, in spite of a severe crisis, the Italian polyarchy is likely to endure, I agree.

30. Actually, the authors are ambiguous about this first “test.” Just before articulating their list of tests with this one at its head, they assert that they “reject [peaceful alternation in government between parties that were once bitterly opposed] as a prerequisite for regarding a regime as consolidated.” See Gunther et al., Politics of Democratic Consolidation, 12 (emphasis added).

31. In the text on which I am commenting, the problem is further compounded by the use of categories such as “partial consolidation” and “sufficient consolidation” (which the authors say preceded “full consolidation” in some Southern European cases). They even speak of a stage of “democratic persistence” that is supposed to follow the achievement of “full [democratic] consolidation.”

32. I may have sounded naive in my earlier comments about how individuals performing public roles are supposed to be guided by universalistic orientations to some version of the public good. Now I can add that, as the authors of the Federalist Papers knew, this is not only, or even mostly, a matter of the subjective intentions of these individuals. It is to a large extent contingent on institutional arrangements of control and accountability, and on expectations built around these arrangements, that furnish incentives (including the threats of severe sanctions and public discredit) for that kind of behavior. That these incentives are often insufficient should not be allowed to blur the difference with cases where the institutional arrangements are nonexistent or ineffective; these situations freely invite the enormous temptations that always come with holding political power. I wish to thank Adam Przeworski and Michael Coppedge for raising this point in private communications.

33. The reader has surely noticed that I am referring to countries that have presidentialist regimes and that, consequently, I am glossing over the arguments, initiated by Juan J. Linz and followed up by a number of other scholars, about the advantages of parliamentarism over the presidentialist regimes that characterize Latin America. Although these arguments convince me in the abstract, because of the very characteristics I am depicting I am skeptical about the practical consequences of attempting to implant parliamentarism in these countries.

34. For analyses of some of these situations, see Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, “The Legacy of Authoritarianism in Democratic Brazil,” in Stuart S. Nagel, ed., Latin American Development and Public Policy (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995), 237–53; and Martha K. Huggins, ed., Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America: Essays on Extralegal Violence (New York: Praeger, 1991). See also the worrisome analysis, based on Freedom House data, that Larry Diamond presents in his “Democracy in Latin America: Degrees, Illusions, and Directions for Consolidation,” in Tom Farer, ed., Beyond Sovereignty: Collectively Defending Democracy in the Americas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). In recent years, the Freedom House indices reveal, more Latin American countries have regressed rather than advanced. For a discussion of various aspects of the resulting obliteration of the rule of law and weakening of citizenship, see Guillermo O’Donnell, “On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Post-Communist Countries,” World Development 21 (1993): 1355–69.

35. There is a huge adjacent theme that I will not discuss here: the linkage of these problems with widespread poverty and, even more, with deep inequalities of various sorts.

36. Obviously, we need analyses that are more nuanced, comprehensive, and dynamic than the one that I have undertaken here. My own list of topics meriting much further study includes: the opportunities that may be entailed by demands for more universalistic and public-oriented governmental behavior; the odd coexistence of pervasive particularism with highly technocratic modes of decision making in economic policy; the effects of international demands (especially regarding corruption and uncertainty in legislation and adjudication) that the behavior of public officials should conform more closely to the formal rules; and the disaggregation of various kinds and institutional sites of clientelism and particularism. Another major issue that I overlook here, raised by Larry Diamond in a personal communication, is locating the point at which violations of liberal rights should be construed as cancelling, or making ineffective, the political freedoms surrounding elections. Finally, Philippe C. Schmitter makes an argument worth exploring when he urges that polyarchies be disaggregated into various “partial regimes”; most of these would surely look quite different when comparing formally versus informally institutionalized cases. See Schmitter, “The Consolidation of Democracy and Representation of Social Groups,” American Behavioral Scientist 35 (March–June 1992): 422–49.

37. This is the title of the reports of the commissions that investigated human rights violations in Argentina and Brazil. For further discussion of what I call a dominant antiauthoritarian mood in the transitions, see my “Transitions, Continuities, and Paradoxes,” in Mainwaring et al., Issues in Democratic Consolidation, 17–56; and Nancy Bermeo, “Democracy and the Lessons of Dictatorship,” Comparative Politics 24 (April 1992): 273–91.

38. Symptomatically illustrating the residues of the language and the hopes of the transition as well as the mutual influences between political and academic discourses, on several occasions the governments of the countries that I know more closely (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay) triumphantly proclaimed that their democracies had become “consolidated.”

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