A Review of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders

Looking Leadership in the Face

by Jorge I. Domínguez

Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders by Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

The premise of this well-written and absorbing book is that political leaders matter decisively for democratic regime change. Sergio Bitar and Abe Lowenthal conducted face-to-face interviews with thirteen political leaders (twelve former presidents and one former prime minister) from nine countries who helped to end autocracies and craft democracies in their place in their respective countries during the last quarter of the 20th century. The leaders are Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Patricio Aylwin and Ricardo Lagos (Chile), and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), along with leaders from Ghana, Indonesia, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa and Spain.

Bitar and Lowenthal emphasize that democratic transitions were not determined by “… structural, historical, and contextual factors by themselves,” adding that leadership played an important role in deciding “when and how autocracies ended, or whether and how democracy could ultimately be fashioned. Critical decisions had to be made by political leaders in governments, parties, and movements, often among unattractive options” (420).

The book’s masterful design makes it accessible to those who are reading about these issues for the first time but it is also a gold mine for scholars who work on these countries and these events. Nine chapters are organized by country (there is also a chapter on the role of women activists in democratic transitions in addition to the authors’ thoughtful conclusion). The main element in each chapter is the edited transcript of long interviews with each of the thirteen political leaders. In order to make the interview understandable to general readers, each chapter has also a brief yet comprehensive essay, which places the political leader or leaders to be interviewed in the context of broader political processes leading to the democratic transition. Frances Hagopian wrote on Brazil, Genaro Arriagada on Chile, and Soledad Loaeza on Mexico. Each interviewee is introduced through a one-page biosketch. Each chapter features a timeline of key events during the autocracy, the transition, and the challenges as well as consolidation thereafter; the timeline includes the interviewee but it focuses mainly on the wider political processes. Each chapter ends with a page of suggestions for further reading. A novice reader is consequently well equipped to understand the issues discussed during each interview.

The genius of Bitar and Lowenthal is especially evident through the questions they pose to each interviewee. Their questions are informed by their prior immersion in the evidence for each case and, for the Latin American political leaders, by their prior acquaintance with them, close in some instances. Perhaps for this last reason or perhaps because of my own interests, I find the interviews with the four Latin American leaders among the best in the book. The Bitar- Lowenthal questions, moreover, reappear, with only slight variations, in each of the interviews, thereby facilitating comparisons among the responses of the political leaders. For scholars, this constructed cross-interview comparative framework is especially valuable, as are the individual nuggets in the answers from each of the interviewees.

Bitar and Lowenthal draw their own lessons in the concluding chapter. Several of those deserve to
be highlighted. Luck matters. In Brazil, Spain, South Africa and the Philippines, the death of a key politician had a significant effect on the politics of the transition, just as the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 accelerated changes in Communist Eastern Europe and the 1997-98 East Asian financial crisis was the prologue to regime change in Indonesia. International context mattered everywhere albeit to varying degrees, most so in Communist Europe at the end of the Cold War but also significantly so in South Africa, Indonesia, and Chile. Formal pacts, which the transition in Spain made famous (Moncloa Pacts), turned out to be rare in other cases although “mutual approximation” among key adversaries, as Bitar and Lowenthal call it, and often intense and prolonged dialogues mattered nearly everywhere.

Activists often find it very difficult to accept one of the key responses from their leaders, a challenge that Bitar and Lowenthal properly highlight: moving forward incrementally worked best and, in nearly every case, it required making deals that both democratic leaders and the activists detested; the leaders regretted these deals yet found them essential to achieve the change. Chile’s Aylwin led the opposition to agree to participate in
the 1988 plebiscite, which would prove decisive but had required accepting General Pinochet’s constitution and Pinochet’s rules for the plebiscite. In Poland,
the democratic opposition felt compelled to agree to election rules for 1989 that guaranteed 65 percent of the lower-chamber seats to the Communist party regardless of the actual vote tallies; this agreement’s consequences would open the floodgates of regime change. Brazil’s Cardoso led the opposition to agree to work within the military regime’s rules to contest the presidential elections in 1985, which led to his victory. Ghana’s Kufuor rejected his own party’s boycott of the 2000 election in Ghana, and he won it.

A theme throughout the interviews that Bitar and Lowenthal do not highlight in their conclusion is the role of interpersonal relations. Cardoso reports that one of his assets in his dealings with generals was that he came from a military family and many of his ancestors had been generals themselves. Thabo Mbeki, in great detail, and F. W. de Klerk describe the process of the construction of interpersonal trust between adversaries during the secret negotiations that would culminate in the end of the apartheid regime; without such a process, the outcome might have taken longer to achieve. Indeed, as former President Ricardo Lagos ponders why the transition took such a long time, one of his principal answers is that it took a very long time to build trust between the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, necessary
to work jointly to end the dictatorship, because the Socialists believed that the Christian Democrats bore a significant share of responsibility for the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, leader of the Socialist party. This variable, to succumb to social science in this sentence, did vary: The presence or construction of nonpolitical interpersonal trust led toward success, whereas the persistent absence of such trust delayed the change.

Bitar and Lowenthal anticipate this paragraph in a charming footnote, to wit, “We do not offer this essay
as a contribution to political science theory, for which other methods and additional cases would be necessary.” True, and that is one mild frustration upon reading this marvelous book. The authors deliberately choose successful cases and only successful cases. Thus we read about success in South Africa but not about its absence thus far in neighboring Zimbabwe. We learn about success in Poland but not about its absence in neighboring Belarus. We might have learned some missing lessons by thinking counterfactually. Why did Chile not succeed sooner (it was the last of the South American military regimes to end)? Alternatively, why did post-communist Russia revert to an autocratic-enough regime but not neighboring post-communist Poland? Why has Indonesia outperformed Thailand in sustaining democratic constitutionalism when Thailand had had a more prolonged albeit intermittent encounter with democratic politics? The political science problem, “choosing cases on the dependent variable,” remains pertinent. If we choose
only successful cases, it is more difficult to distinguish between comparably plausible explanations for success because none has been also assessed with cases of failure.

A regret, rather than a critique, is that the authors eschew addressing one of the key concerns of the regime-change scholarly literature. “Leaders cannot by themselves,” Bitar and Lowenthal write, “bring about democracy, but their contributions are essential” (416). But beyond this, and the expression quoted at the start of this review, they tell us little. Under what circumstances may what kind of leaders be more or less successful, or more or less important? The bottom-up and the top-down explanations of big historical events are never easy to discern or to disentangle, but it would have been
more satisfying if these two talented authors had worked at it more.

One of the book’s key lessons appears in the last remarks in the interview with Ricardo Lagos. In response to a targeted summary question, Lagos explains why he devoted his life to this work and how he chose to proceed. Lagos argued, “understand that the starting point is that people fear going back to dictatorship and repression.” A key goal, therefore, is not only to free the nation from the dictatorship but also to make it possible for human beings to free themselves from their fearsome nightmares. The method then followed. “In politics you
do what you can, and you have to do so with passion, forcefully, so that people
see that you truly believe
in what you are calling for.” He did and he succeeded. And in evoking all of these collective distilled experiences from some of the world most successful politicians from recent decades, Bitar and Lowenthal also convey their passion for democracy forcefully, and they enable the college freshman and the scholar to understand better the events and processes that have shaped the world for the better in which we live.

Jorge I. Domínguez is the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico in the Government Department and Chair of The Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University.

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