In the aftermath of recent protests and the apparent military take-over, Burkina Faso’s future path to elections and democratic stability is highly uncertain: a power vacuum at the center makes this transitional stage particularly volatile, says Rachel Beatty Riedl, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and author of the recently published book, “Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa.” What is the possibility for Burkina Faso to emerge from this upheaval more enduringly democratic? she asks, writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.
Certainly, transitions from one regime type to another — say from autocratic rule to democracy — are frequently associated with higher levels of conflict, even when the ultimate result is a stable democracy. The transitional phase itself creates the possibility for greater contestation, whether a new authoritarian regime is established or a fledgling democracy is constructed. But the uncertainty of the transitional period keeps people from recognizing the potential for new forms of democratic representation to arise from this unexpected power vacuum.
My book, “Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa,” examines the party systems established over the last 30 years across African democracies. Through historical research and quantitative analysis, I demonstrate that where authoritarian incumbents were swept out of office, that power void offered opportunities for greater reform of the political system. The founding multiparty elections reflected the power void and the new rules of the game privileged new participants. The long-term result of these open and participatory transition elections are highly volatile but democratic, representative regimes, with weakly institutionalized party systems.
The key lesson is that vibrant democracies can emerge out of power vacuums, and can withstand extremely high levels of electoral volatility and seemingly disorganized party competition over the long-term, given a foundation of civic order and political rights that allow for pluralistic competition.
Key examples of this mode of transition are Benin, Zambia, Malawi and Mali; each country is a democratic overachiever given their low levels of economic development, high ethnic heterogeneity, and overall weak state capacity. These countries have maintained democracy since the early 1990s. Even Mali’s temporary democratic breakdown was due to state weakness and regional insecurity, rather than the volatility of contending political players; the inability of the Malian government to effectively project its power over its expansive territory exacerbated the Northern separatist movement’s advance and subsequent military coup.