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  • Transition Leaders Speak
  • Alfred Stepan (bio)
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.

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...


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pp. 167-172
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