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  • On the Tasks of a Democratic Opposition
  • Alfred Stepan (bio)

While democracy as a form of government has long been a staple concern of social science, the question of the genesis of democracy has been largely neglected. Moreover, until very recently, most studies of the growth of democracy have restricted their focus to its emergence from traditional oligarchies or absolute monarchies over the last two centuries in Europe, or to the problem of democracy in the context of decolonization.

This is unfortunate because much of the current theoretical and political concern with democracy centers on countries that have already had some experience with it, and where what is at stake is not the original establishment of popular government but its restoration as a successor to nontraditional authoritarian regimes. Active democratic opposition movements play a particularly important role in such countries, a role that deserves more sustained attention than it has so far received. Although this essay is based primarily on the experience of authoritarian regimes in countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, South Korea, and the Philippines, I believe that the analysis also applies in substantial part to the recent breakdowns of communist regimes in Eastem Europe, most notably in Poland. What must be studied in all these cases is not merely the final collapse or overthrow of authoritarian [End Page 41] regimes, but the incremental process of "authoritarian erosion" and the opposition's contribution to it. This in turn requires a dynamic analysis both of relationships within the authoritarian regime and of the multiple functions or tasks of the opposition.

Although the installation of a democratic regime scarcely heralds the end of political struggle, it does provide a new procedural setting for political life. This setting is not only more just in itself, but in most cases also offers the great masses of the people better opportunities than does authoritarianism to pursue such other goals as economic equality, social justice, and political participation.

In order to understand how a democratic opposition can attenuate the bonds of authoritarianism, we must first consider where the opposition stands in relation to the other components of the regime. Our analysis should emphasize not governmental structures but rather the overall relationships of domination. Generally speaking, the principal parties to such relationships are: 1) the core group of regime supporters (who find that their political, economic, or institutional interests are best served under the status quo); 2) the coercive apparatus that maintains the regime in power; 3) the regime's passive supporters; 4) the active opponents of the regime; and, 5) the passive opponents of the regime.

While structural or institutional studies place the coercive elite on center stage, an analysis of power relations within the authoritarian regime gives a fuller picture by examining the interactions among these five groups. The task of the active democratic opposition is to change the relations among all the component parts of the authoritarian system in such a way as to weaken authoritarianism while simultaneously improving the conditions for democratization.

Eroding Authoritarianism

In order to understand how these power relations may change in ways that affect the prospects for a democratic transition, it is useful to consider how each group will tend to perceive its situation and possible courses of action at different stages of authoritarian rule. For illustrative purposes, we will select for comparison two positions from opposite ends of the continuum of changing relationships that characterize authoritarian systems: the first involving a strong regime ruling in an atmosphere of widespread fear, and the second a weakened and eroding regime.

In the first case, the existence of a strong regime will tend to coincide with certain attitudes on the part of both its supporters and its opponents. Its core supporters, for example, will quite likely be gripped by something on the order of a siege mentality. To them, authoritarian rule is a ready help in time of trouble and a shield against clear and present danger. They will think it in their interest actively to help the regime and will not shrink from supporting even harshly repressive measures. [End Page 42]

Like the core supporters, the military and security officials who wield the regime's coercive power will tend...


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pp. 41-49
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