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ABSRACT SUMMARY It has always been difficult to find an appropriate theory, which best explains the democratization or democratic consolidation in European countries. Each theory brings up some convincing arguments. Nevertheless, none of them can be considered as the best. In this paper, I will describe three mainstream theories with reference to their strengths and weaknesses, and then I will argue that transitional and structural approaches together are better in explaining the democratization in Europe, whereas the modernization theory does not reflect the reality and it stands as too idealistic. I will give examples from European countries to show the strengths and weaknesses of these three approaches; namely, modernization theory, structuralist approach and transitional paradigm. The examples I will give from Europe will be focused on three countries: Poland, Sweden and Spain.

KEYWORDS: democratization, democratic consolidation, Western Europe, modernization theory, structuralist approach, transitional paradigm, Spain, Sweden, Poland.


Democracy by dictionary definition means “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives”[1] and is accepted as the best or at least the “least bad”[2] method of governing. Democracy was first appeared in ancient Greek city states called polis where the economic welfare provided by the forced labor of slaves created a convenient environment for elites to deal with sciences, to think and philosophize about the “just” and best way of government. There have always been discussions about the definition of democracy. Minimalist Schumpeterian[3] definition of democracy refers to a “polity that permits the choice between elites by citizens voting in regular and competitive elections” (Karl, pp 164). Samuel Huntington also with his “two turnover” test[4], places himself in the category of this minimalist definition. However, broader definition of democracy includes important conditions such as the freedom of expression, absence of discrimination against particular groups and political parties, freedom of association for all interests, an active civil society and civilian control over military forces. Even broader definition of democracy also includes increasing economic equity and increasing proportion of population participating in elections and referendums etc. While minimalist approach is criticized for equation democracy with electoralism, maximalist approach is blamed to be too idealistic. Democratic consolidation on the other hand, refers to the internalization of democracy by all social and political actors and the transformation of democracy as the “only game in the town” in people’s eyes using Adam Przeworski’s famous definition.

It has always been difficult to find an appropriate theory, which best explains the democratization or democratic consolidation in Europe. Each theory brings up some convincing arguments. Nevertheless, none of them can be considered as the best. In this paper, I will describe three mainstream theories with reference to their strengths and weaknesses, and then I will argue that transitional and structural approaches together are better in explaining the democratization in Europe, whereas the modernization theory does not reflect the reality and it stands as too idealistic. I will give examples from European countries to show the strengths and weaknesses of these three approaches; namely, modernization theory, structuralist approach and transitional paradigm. The examples I will give from Europe will be focused on three countries: Poland, Sweden and Spain. I have many reasons to choose these countries which are now accepted as western European tradition. First of all, these countries in fact are not really from the Western Europe since Poland belongs to Eastern Europe, Spain is a part of Southern Europe and Sweden is in the northern part of Europe. Secondly, these three countries have gone through a process of democratization from different types of regimes. Sweden became a democracy gradually from a monarchical rule whereas Spain had a transition from dictatorial fascist rule and Poland experienced a Communist rule. Thirdly, these countries experienced democratization process in different time periods, at different waves according to Huntington. Swedish democratization began in the late 19th century and was accelerated in the early 20th century as a part of second wave democratization. Spanish democratic transition which took place in the 1970’s is considered as a part of third wave of democratization whereas Polish democratization took place with the decline and fall of USSR and the communist world which can be considered as the fourth wave. However, before passing to explain three main perspectives and these countries’ democratization process, I want to begin with explaining the concept of democratization more closely.

Democratization as a dictionary definition means “the action of making something democratic”[5]. In comparative politics discipline, we use the term democratization to refer to the transition of a country from authoritarian or partial democracy to liberal democracy. According to Linz and Stepan, democratization is a broader term that contains liberalization in itself. Democratization includes liberalization, open contestation over the right to win control of the government and free competitive elections. Linz and Stepan assert that liberalization can take place without a complete democratization. They also define democracy on three levels. According to Linz and Stepan, behaviorally, a system is democratic when there are no significant political, social or economic actors that want to demolish the regime. Attitudinally, a democratic regime is consolidated when the very majority of people in this country are committed to democratic principles. Constitutionally, a regime should be called democracy when there are specific laws, regulations, and procedures in the constitution that prevent the collapse of democratic system (Linz & Stepan, pp. 5-8). Democratization became an area of interest, when the post-World War II scholars created theories in order to find answers to the question “Why do some countries shift their existing political systems for liberal democracy?” after witnessing some European, East Asian, Latin and African countries adopting the universal suffrage and the rule of law to secure the social, political and economic liberties of their citizens. Scholars like Samuel Huntington defined this movement as “democratization wave” and claimed that starting from the mid 1970’s there has been a visible trend -using the old categorization- in second and third world countries to make democratic reforms and to transform their political regimes into Western type democracies. As a result, the scholars had developed three main theories of democratization: the modernization approach, the transitional approach and the structural approach. Each theory tried to explain the factors that lead to democratization with paying attention to these factors differently. Therefore, modernization approach scholars explained the transition by pointing to a state’s economic development. On the other hand, transitional scholars argued that democratization is led by the initiatives of the political elites, whereas the scholars belonging structural approach suggested that this had occurred by the change in the “structures of class, state and transitional power” (Potter, p. 22).

Modernization approach was the first theory that explained the process of democratization. According to the founding father of this theory Seymour Martin Lipset (Lipset, p. 75), the main premise of modernization approach is “democracy is related to the state of economic development”, and thus “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy”. Higher degree of industrialization, urbanization and educational level in a given state necessary leads to liberal democracy. On the other hand, the traditionally underdeveloped parts of the world usually “lack an enduring tradition of political democracy” (Lipset, p. 73). In order to prove his argument, Lipset illustrates a chart showing the per capita incomes, thousands of persons per doctor, number of persons per motor vehicles, number of telephones per 1000 persons, number of radios per 1000 persons and newspaper copies per 1000 persons in European and English speaking countries and in Latin American countries to have a correlation between the higher degree of above mentioned variables and the degree of democratization. What he finds out that European and English speaking countries, which are democratic, have more income, more doctors for less number of people, higher number of telephones, vehicles, radios and newspaper copies than the Latin American countries have, which are ruled with dictatorship or unstable democracy. As a result, the economic development is regarded as “modernization” of the state and hence, it will inevitably lead to democratization. Lipset also mentions that there are prerequisites for democratization[6]:

– Uninterrupted continuation of political democracy since WW I

– The absence of a major political movement against democracy in the last 25 years

Lipset also argues that there is a historical process to democratization. At the first stage of this process, lower classes become more involved in politics, when the class struggle emerges by the development of wealth and degree of education. At the second stage, with the development of wealth and level of education, lower classes turn out to be the advocates of democracy and political rights. Finally, at the third stage the existence of the newly adopted democratic rule is protected and guaranteed by the lower -now middle- classes against the influence of extremist parties. Modernization is also a unilinear process, which all countries will follow with no exception and eventually become liberal democracies. Lipset by using statistical correlations strengthens his arguments and asserts that more a country industrializes, urbanizes, economically enriches and educates its citizens, the more it will have chance to consolidate its democracy. Lipset asserts that Max Weber was right in saying that modern democracy is the product of capitalist industrialization because stable democracies are only visible in industrialized, capitalist countries (Lipset, Political Man, p. 28). He also mentions that although it is very difficult to draw conclusions from correlations, there are important determinants like income, education and literacy which are positively correlated with democracy. At this point, Lipset ignores other factors, such as cultural, historical and political differences each state has, and also the influence of the international environment. What he foresaw never happens in reality. Indeed, there are economically developed countries, which are not democracies. For instance, the Gulf States are all oil rich countries, but none of them can be classified as liberal democracies. Lipset had blatantly ignored the fact that the factors that constitute an obstacle to the implementation of democratic rules and laws, like religious law and traditions cannot be easily abolished or even changed.

During the end of 1960’s, the assumptions of modernization theory had failed to match with the realities. Therefore, a new theory of democratization was born as a response to modernization approach. It was the structural approach, which was first argued by Barrington Moore in his work “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”. Moore’s main concern is why some countries become liberal democracies, but others ended up having communist or fascist dictatorships in the 20th century. In addition to this, Potter (Potter, p. 18) gives the main argument of structural approach as “democratization processes are explained … by changing structures of power”. Moore talks about different changing relationships of classes in the early modernization period had directed some states towards democracy but others fascism or communism. Moore (Moore, pp. 430-431) proposes five preconditions of democracy:

1) The development of a balance to avoid too strong a crown or too independent a landed aristocracy

2) A turn toward an appropriate form of commercial agriculture

3) The weakening of the landed aristocracy

4) The prevention of an aristocratic-bourgeois coalition against the peasants and workers

5) A revolutionary break with the past

What is meant with these preconditions is that when landed aristocracy loses its power, and the bourgeoisie does not see this as an opportunity to ally themselves with the aristocracy against the peasants and the workers, and the economy becomes dependent on commercial agriculture, the state does not get too powerful. As a result, the democratic rule comes into existence. Nevertheless, if the bourgeoisie is not sufficient in establishing equilibrium with the foremost upper class, this ends up the domination of the latter over the commercial agriculture and eventually fascism. The five classes, the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, the landed aristocracy, the proletariat and the state are the structures of power in a country. Moore gives the examples of Great Britain, United States and France, which become liberal democracies. Scholars such as Barrington Moore believe that democracy is the product of rising bourgeoisie but it was only completed after the emergence of strong proletariat opposition. Moore thinks that countries where landed aristocracy is strong and labor-repressive agriculture is the dominant mode of production democratic settlement would be much more difficult. Structuralist approach focused on class struggles and the mode of production. However, its inefficiency in understanding the role of contingency and political actors led to the emergence of the transitionalist approach.

The transition approach came into sight in the article “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model” written by Dankwart Rustow in 1970. This theory basically advocates “democracy is produced by the initiatives of human beings [i.e. political elites]” (Potter, p. 15), and Rustow explains the transformation of a state into democracy in four developmental stages. In the first stage, people living in a certain territory come together and establish a national unity “to share a political identity” (Potter, pp 14), even if the individuals do not share the same beliefs. In the second stage, after the national unity is realized, there arises a major conflict between different classes of the society. “Each country goes through a different struggle; the historical details differ in each case” (ibid.). As a result, “democracy … is born of conflict, even violence, never as a result of a simply peaceful evolution” (ibid). The clash of classes at this stage is a difficult one, and not all countries achieve democratization afterwards. Some end up having authoritarian rule and some others face disintegration of their national territory. The countries that are successfully democratized pass to the third stage. At this phase, the elites make a compromise with each other over the adoption of the democratic rules. In the final stage, the next generation political elite makes a habit of the democratic rules and the democratization of the state is successfully realized.

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, the scholars following Rustow, had brought further explanation to the difference between the “initial transition from authoritarian rule or preliminary political liberalization” from “the consolidation of liberal democracy” (Potter, p. 15). The political liberalization does not always lead to democracy, since it occurs when the authoritarian or semi democratic state administration decides to give some concessions to the public, such as less censorship over media, more autonomy to civil organizations, emancipation of political prisoners and more freedom to opposition. On contrary, the consolidation of democracy can only be achieved when the state is totally democratized in all aspects. In his famous article Rustow criticized scholars for considering positive correlations as causal relations. In his view, things that are named prerequisites of democracy can be rather the outcome of democracy. According to Rustow, democratization is not a worldwide uniform process and there can be many ways to democracy. Rustow proposed students of comparative politics to concentrate on political actors and their strategies who are assumed to be rational and autonomous. He also underlined the importance of choice and contingency. There is no doubt that Rustow’s accent on agency, process and the bargaining opened a new field in comparative politics. Moreover, Rustow rejected and offered an alternative to functionalist theories. Together with the devaluation of the modernization theory (emergence of Dependency School etc.), functionalist theories began to lose their supremacy in comparative politics works. However, according to Haggard and Kauffman, “emphasis on process has come to exercise a disproportionate influence on theoretical analyses” (Haggard & Kaufman, p. 263). They claim that these bargaining models miss underlying economic conditions and social forces that heavily affect the bargaining process. Although transitionalist approach is very beneficial, in their view it fails to address the factors that shape actors’ preferences and capabilities in the first place and the conditions under which they might change over time. In addition, transitionalist theories pay relatively little attention to economic variables and interests which could play a major role in the behaviours of political actors (Haggard & Kaufman, p. 266).

After analyzing these three approaches, we can continue to our discussion with examples from European countries which would help us to test whether these theories work for real cases. Polandis an ancient nation of Europeand the first Polish state was established around the 10th century. Polish people have always been integrated into the European culture and starting from the 11th century, they began to convert into Catholic Christendom.  Polish history is full of invasions, collapses and reestablishments. “Poland’s location in the very center of Europe became especially significant in a period when both Prussia and Russia were intensely involved in European rivalries and alliances and modern nation states took form over the entire continent”[7] towards the end of 19th century. Poland regained its independence after the First World War in 1918 but the tragic destiny of the country continued with the its invasion by Nazi Germany and Soviet Union in 1939 via a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the event that started the Second World War. After the Second World War, with the increasing prestige and effect of USSR, Poland became “People’s Republic of Poland” in 1952 under strict Soviet control.

Polish transition to democracy from the authoritarian Communist rule was mainly carried out by the civil society. “In Poland, the impetus for change also came originally from outside the incumbent elite, from the labor-based social movement called Solidarity, founded in 1980”[8]. Nevertheless, the external influences by the Western states had also led to the development of the civil resistance against the antidemocratic communist regime, which West had always criticized. Poland was the only former East European communist country, which was never become totalitarian. That was primarily because “Poland always had a significant de facto degree of societal pluralism” (Linz & Stepan, p. 16). This social pluralism created an environment, which cause the rise a movement called the Solidarity under the leadership of Lech Walesa. The Solidarity movement in the long run became a de facto representative organization of the Polish people, which defended their rights against the Communist authoritarian administration. Furthermore, this movement had become the first independent union to get legal recognition from a Communist government. Another aspect that made Polish case different than other Communist states was the autonomy of the Polish Catholic Church. The Church had played an active role by mobilizing the people against the pro-Soviet Polish Communist Party for attainment of the democracy. Potter (Potter, p. 29) argues that “[a] religious institution together with its adherents is politically significant because it is socially powerful”, that is why the Polish Church was so influential in driving the masses to fight for democratic rule. The influence of the elites -especially Lech Walesa- and the political -Solidarity Movement- and religious -the Polish Catholic Church- institutions was the main driving force in the democratization process. This was what the transitionalists would argue. The decision made by these actors directed Poland to abolish the Communist regime and made progress towards democratization. Munck and Leff define Polish democratization as reform “through transaction” together with Brazilian democratic transition (Munck & Leff, p. 347).

Yet, the structural approach would look at the issue from a broader perspective. They would argue that the capitalist advance in Western countries, the eroding Marxist economy in the Eastern Block and the decline of the influence of the Soviets as a superpower were the primary reasons that lead eventually to the democratization of Poland. Moreover, Poland faced with terrible economic crises in the 1980’s which made the transformation inevitable and also strengthened the position of Walesa and the Solidarity. In addition to this, from the beginning there had been always an “Organic Rejection of Communism”, because the Poles “consider themselves part of the European civilization” (Sanford, p. 171). Nevertheless, the modernization theory’s assumption of “economic development leads democratization” is not valid in the Polish case, since there had been a very small amount of progress in the economy with the import of some Western technology for the purpose of export-led economy. Poland is generally known to be the “bread-basket” of Europe and country’s economy is mostly based on agricultural production. Thus, for the Polish case Lipset’s economic development theory seems inconsistent. We can say that in Polish case the economic development was not the means but rather the outcome of the democratization since the country is now making huge progress in economics especially after the European Union membership.

The Swedish case is rather different than of Poland. Parliamentary system was first established in 1865 in Sweden when the Diet of the Four Estates was abolished and replaced with the two-chamber parliament. The right to vote was very restricted, being based on privileged people. In 1907, another reform was passed that meant universal suffrage. But there were still restrictions for some, depending on their social status. In 1907, the second chamber election was won by the Social Democrats. They wanted to speed up the democratisation process. The Social Democrats and the Liberals, who agreed on this matter, finally formed a government and started the reform work. In the elections of 1921, the new reformed constitution allowed men and women to vote in free elections for the first time. The constitution of 1809 was replaced in 1974 when a one-chamber parliament was introduced. It was a modern constitution where, for instance, the role of the monarch was made constitutional.

In his work “Democratization in Scandinavia: The Case of Sweden”, Premfors finds all three theories reasonable and complementary. However, he argues that “[Sweden] appears as a not very exciting illustration of the major thesis that modernization, particularly economic development, has caused or at least accompanied democratization” (Premfors, p. 14). That is because Sweden was one of the poorest European countries in 1800’s and experienced an economic growth during the early 1920’s, long after the initiation of the democratization process. Moreover, Swedish economic development was basically a state led model and was not based on the effect strong bourgeoisie. Thus, the Swedish way of democratization cannot also be explained with Barrington Moore’s structural approach. First of all, Sweden had never experienced a bourgeoisie revolution, which a powerful middle class emerges out of it and ultimately transform the state into democracy, as it happened in England and France. Secondly, Moore talks about the peasants as “hostile or detrimental to democracy” (Premfors, p. 15), which is not a true statement for the Swedish peasants, in view of the fact that they usually consider themselves as the defenders of the democracy. On the other hand, Rustow’s argument of the transformation of a state into democracy in four developmental stages, is very much consistent with the Swedish experience. Sweden is a nation-state without any ethnic or regional tensions, and it “developed a strong tradition of legality, liberalism, and a complex constitutional government” (Premfors, p. 16). Democratization of Sweden was possible step by step upon the initiatives of political elites. The role of Social Democrat Party especially determined the fate of Sweden.

Spanish transition to democracy in 1970’s after a long period of dictatorship is somewhat similar to the Polish case. The existence of a strong opposition was the main element that brought the end of General Franco’s. Pollack (Pollack, p. 217) identifies the way how this opposition movement had been in transferring the existing type of regime to the new one as: Working class and student organizations play a vanguard role in the development of political participation and mobilization patterns, and, subsequently, exist as formal structures for the articulation of the ever-increasing demands that the new situation makes possible.

The transitionalist approach would be the best to explain the Spanish case as the political elites and individual organizational groups drove the masses for democracy. Nevertheless, the opposition was not the only reason for the democratic transition. The increase of the repression by the state, the polarization of the State and Church, the split within the political elite and the armed forces, the division within the army as “liberal modernizers” and the “reactionary traditionalists”, and a powerful but illegal labor movement organized by the Left were the other factors that led to the collapse of the Francoist regime. The structuralist approach, on the other hand would suggest that the external actors, like the European Economic Community had also given support to the anti-Francoist movements, such as suggesting Community membership as a reward if Spain transforms itself into democracy. Therefore, the Spanish civil society and labor unions are motivated by the European integration process and understood that the democratization of the Spanish state would end up becoming one of the members of the European Community.

To sum up, the main argument of this essay was to explain the three democratization approaches briefly with reference to their pros and cons. Additionally, it was also argued that none of these theories are enough to explain the democratization in Europe, but the transition and structural approaches are complimentary with each other and thus better in describing the democratic transformation of the states. By looking at these three examples, I think we have the right to say that the modernization approach is inefficient, because it uses simple correlations between socio-economic development and democracy. Consequently, if people get wealthier, then they start demanding more rights, such as political rights and this end up with the alteration of the existing authoritarian or semi-democratic rule to liberal democracy. On the other hand, the transitionalist approach favored a different explanation that the democratization process can only be set off by the willingness of the political elites. That is why, this theory concludes that democracy did not come out of a peaceful negotiation, but came after a long lasting struggle between the opposed parties. The last theory, the structural approach, discusses the formation of the democratic rule as the gradual changes in the power structures affect the daily lives of individuals and the elites, and in the long run these actors engage in activities to transform their state into democracy.

In addition, when we look at the similarities and especially differences of these countries which directed me to choose these countries, I think we can create some correlations. For instance, Swedish transition, which started much earlier than two other transitional processes, can be said to be developed more gradually and reached a better consequence. Although today Spain still suffers from Bask question and Poland faces with economic problems, Sweden is considered as one of most consolidated and internalized democracies of the world. Furthermore, although these countries belong to different parts of Europe and had different cultures, we can claim that after democratization processes, all three countries were able to become European Union members and are now considered as part of Western European culture. In all three countries, we see the importance of political actors and structural conditions which facilitated democratization. However, we do not see real concrete evidence for the role of economic development in accordance with the modernization theory advocated by Martin Lipset. Lastly, I want to make it clear that for the democratization of Europe, we see that the transitionalist approach together with the structural approach help us more and better explain the democratization process.




– web site,

– Haggard, Stephan & Kaufman, Robert R., (1999), “The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions” in ed. Lisa Anderson, Transitions to Democracy

– Karl, Terry Lynn, (1990), “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America”, Comparative Politics October 1990

– Linz, J. & Stepan, A., (1996), “Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, JohnHopkinsUniversity Press

– Lipset, S. M., (1959), “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, American Political Science Review 53 (1) pp. 69-105

– Lipset, S. M., (1983), “Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics”, pp. 33-53

– Moore, B., (1966), “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World”,London: Penguin Books

– Munck, Gerardo L. & Leff, Carol Skalnik, (1997), “Modes of Transition and Democratization: South America and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective”, Comparative Politics Vol. 29, no: 3, April 1997

– Pollack, B. & Taylor, J., (1983), “The Transition to Democracy in Portugal and Spain”, British Journal of Political Science 13 (2) pp. 209-242

– Potter, D. & Goldblatt D. & Kiloh M. & Lewis, P., (1997), “Democratization, Open University Press

– Premfors R., (2003) “Democratization in Scandinavia: The Case of Sweden” (Stockholm:StockholmCenter for Organizational Research)

– Rustow, D. A., (1970), “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model”, Comparative Politics 2 (3) pp. 337-363

– Sanford, G., (1997), “Communism’s Weakest Link – Democratic Capitalism’s Greatest Challenge: Poland”, G. Pridham, E. Herring, G. Sanford, (eds) “Building Democracy? The International Dimension of Democratization in Eastern Europe” pp. 169-194

– Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia web site,


[1] Definition taken from

[2] “Democracy is not at all the best of political regimes, but rather the least bad”; a famous saying of Winston Churchill.

[3] Reference to Joseph Schumpeter.

[4] Samuel Huntington by his “two turnover” test basically claims that if a country has been able to experience change in the governmental power without any serious regime problems at least twice, we can assert that this country is democratic.

[5] Definition taken from

[6] Lipset, Seymour Martin, “Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics”, p. 30.

[7] Taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

[8] Munck, Gerardo L. & Leff, Carol Skalnik, “Modes of Transition and Democratization: South America and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective”, p. 349.

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