CSD Students' Working Paper Series

Centre for Studies in Democratisation
Students' Working Paper Series
Value localization through politics in
democratizing states:
Liberia’s „The Auditor General vs. The
Honorable House of the Senate“
Sebastian Gehart
[email protected]
Working Paper n. 9/ 2011
Centre for Studies in Democratisation
Department of Politics and International Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL
United Kingdom
The Centre for Studies in Democratisation (CSD) was established at
the University of Warwick in 1992 in response to a growing interest
in the study of democracy at a theoretical and empirical level.
Democratisation has become a central political theme and features
now prominently on the foreign policy agenda of western countries.
Members of CSD are seeking to understand why, how and when
democracies emerge, sustain or collapse. They also investigate the
reasons why democratisation can sometimes be problematic.
Do not hesitate to contact us for more information!
Renske Doorenspleet (Director):
[email protected]
Or visit our website:
Is democratization an improvement of the rules and institutions that govern
and constrain political competition over policies, values and – crucially –
power? Or, inversely, is it the struggle of politics that shapes those
institutions in the image of appropriated values and ideas, including
democratic ones? This article argues for the latter as both democratization
literature and the contemporary efforts to promote democracy abroad
appear negligent of the pivotal role of human political agency for mooring
democratic ideals within authoritative political routines and institutions.
Rather than subordinating the competitive struggles of politics to formal
institutions – the primacy of “good rules” – the argument is made that
currently prevailing challenges to democratization are better understood by
focussing on domestic political contestation as an essential causal
mechanism in driving transition processes. Specifically, I hypothesise in this
article that the localization of values, democratic or otherwise, by agents in
political struggles over more tangible issues, and ultimately over power,
breathe life into a value systems’ logic of appropriateness within a polity’s
institutional architecture. To provide supporting evidence, I draw on a case
of intra-elite dispute in Liberia documented in the 2008 Liberian Supreme
Court’s ruling on “the Auditor General vs. the Honourable House of Senate
of the Republic of Liberia”. Motivated by the preliminary findings of this
exploratory case, the article forwards approaches for further research on
agency-based democratization mechanisms. Emphasising the catalyst of
political agency in transition processes, the article seeks to offer valuable
new perspective on challenges to democratization that are currently widely
discussed in democratization literature and theory. Such challenges include
(i) the threat of non-democratic ideological competition, the (ii)
perseverance of hybrid regimes with only superficial democratic veneer and
(iii) the assertiveness of nationalisms against international democracy
promotion efforts.
Keywords: Agency, Democratization, Liberia, Political Contestation
The Perils of an Imported State: Explanations for Democratic
Failure in Zambia
Theo Bass
1. Introduction
Robert Putnam writes: “Montesquieu observed that, at birth of new polities,
leaders mold institutions, whereas afterwards institutions mold leaders.”
(ibid., 1993: 26)
Democratization, in many ways, is the birth of a new polity from an old. So
the question arises, whether one should look towards the agency of leaders
or toward institutions? Is democratization improving the institutions that
govern and constrain politics? Or is it the struggle of politics that shapes
institutions in the image of appropriated values and ideas, including
democratic ones? Without denying mutually interdependent effects, this
article argues in favour of placing a greater emphasis on the latter. The is a
topical argument due to the surprising hesitation of both theory and practice
of democracy promotion to address the pivotal role of political agency,
despite the fact that democracy promotion is currently challenged by a range
of questions which are not easily pursued by more structural notions of
democratization: How do politicised foreign affairs of influential nondemocratic states like China or Russia influence democratization? How can
backlashes against democracy promotion be explained? Or, how do hybrid
regimes draw stability and legitimacy from a motley bricolage of values and
institutions? Answering these questions requires a closer investigation of
political agents who localize ideas and values into norms within a polity.
Thus, if agency plays a role in mooring values and ideals, including
democratic ones, within authoritative political routines and institutions, and
if outcomes of democratization could have been different, save for the
impact and implications of certain conscious actions by agents (Jackson,
2006), than agency is a pivotal mechanism to democratization processes in
need of a more robust conceptualization. This, moreover, has immediate
practical implications as efforts of democracy promotion through aid and
foreign relations have become acutely aware of the limits of imposing
reforms without domestic support or “ownership”, yet remain similarly
reluctant to recognize the pivotal role of political agency.
This article’s exploratory venture into the concept and role of agency in
democratization builds empirically on a case study from Liberia concerning
the political contestation between Liberia’s Legislature and its contentious
General Auditor (GA) in a legal dispute in 2008. It proceeds as follows.
First, I outline three prominent contemporary issues which challenge
democratization theory today. Second, I briefly review influential
democratization literature with a view towards the lacuna of omitting
political agency, before, third, introducing a preliminary concept of value
localization through agency in political contestations as pivotal mechanism
in democratization processes. Fourth, I provide support for the hypothesized
concept with an exploratory case of a dispute among political elites in
Liberia. The fifth part revisits the outlined challenges to democratization
with a perspective from the newly conceptualized notion of agency. The
final part concludes.
2. Three puzzles for democratization efforts and theory
The promotion of good governance and democracy in developing countries
remains an important ambition of the international community even as the
post-Cold War “wave” (Huntington, 1991) of democratization throughout
the world has abated and democratic values and practices appear to be in
retreat. Concerning democratic values, the annual Freedom House (FH)
survey of political and civil rights reports that the year 2009, with 40
countries becoming “less free”, was the fourth consecutive year with global
freedom in decline. This makes it the longest consecutive period of setbacks
for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report (Puddington, 2010).
Regarding democratic practices, electoral democracies (by the definition of
FH) declined from the all-time high of 123 countries in 2006 to 116 in 2009
(Freedom House, 2010). Though the precise measures used by FH are
contested, the institute’s basic diagnosis of a “global freedom recession” is
generally accepted. As a consequence, democracy promotion in Africa and
other parts of the world are under greater scrutiny and a range of issues have
been identified which complicate transition processes. Unsurprisingly, these
issues receive significant attention today as researchers and policy-makers
strife to both understand the global freedom recession and to support
budding new opportunities for democratizations as in, most prominently,
Egypt or Tunisia.
The aim of this article is to offer new insights on several challenges to
democratization and democracy promotion by forwarding a new perspective
on the underlying mechanisms of democratization processes. The three
challenges discussed are (i) concerns about the impacts of a competing
‘autocracy promotion’, (ii) the potentially ambivalent results of democracy
promotion and (iii) the prevalence of hybrid regimes exhibiting a bricolage
of democratic and non-democratic institutions. I argue that these persist to
challenge contemporary understandings of democratization precisely
because the literature has long neglected the mechanisms within transition
states that link causes of democratization, including its promotion through
aid and diplomacy, to final outcomes.
Autocracy promotion: How does democracy promotion interact with
competing value systems? Even though communism no longer poses a
credible global alternative to democracy, distinct ideological challenges
remain. These range from cultural and/or religious forces (Fish, 2002) over
domineering nationalisms to “boutique ideologies” of more limited scope
(Ottaway, 2010). Here, the active engagement of China in its periphery, the
Near East and Africa, as well as political efforts by Russia to rebuild its
influence in former USSR states, have led scholars to speculate on a distinct
“autocracy promotion” (Burnell, 2010a). Two caveats apply however. First,
as Burnell notes, conceptualizing external agency of (semi-) authoritarian
regimes as a mirror to democracy promotion would likely be a fallacy. Little
suggests that these states seek to specifically export their model of
governance. Second, any connections between cross-border influences of
these regimes with observed democratization set-backs are currently
speculative at best. Lacking a clear understanding on causation and
processes of democratization itself, it is impossible to judge whether foreign
interventions of autocratic states could account for democratization setbacks.
And yet, the very idea of credible anti-democratic alternatives which
compete with democratization efforts in transition states reveals a crucial
omission in the literature. Democratization has, at least for the post-Cold
War period, been conceptualized as the more or less successful adoption of
globally uncontested ideals. As obvious as is may appear, it is rarely
acknowledged that democratic ideas in any transition process must
necessarily interact with other, competing values, ideas and norms. What is
needed to adequately gauge the impact such alternatives – whether
autocratic or democratic, actively promoted or merely emulated, exogenous
or native to a particular polity – is therefore an analytical concept of how
different values systems interact, compete and intermingle with one another
as they shape a transition process.
Ambivalent effects of democracy promotion: A further puzzle for advocates
of an active democracy promotion is the potential of anti-democratic
backlashes against a democracy promotion that is perceived as an
illegitimate, external assault on a nation’s sovereignty (Whitehead, 2010).
This challenge broadly corresponds with the assumption that recent efforts
by the US and its allies to change political regimes may have stained
democracy promotion’s broader claims of legitimacy and international
legality (Burnell, 2010a). Burnell termed this observation “anti-assistance”
(2006), referring to cases where intervening states gave priority to other
foreign policy goals at the expense of supporting democracy’s advance. The
pivotal question then is why this should harm the prospects of
democratization perceived as processes of structural change that are driven
by the merits of democratization’s own values? Anecdotal evidence certainly
points to political agents who successfully use “anti-assistance” to frame
arguments and political narratives. By this, the issue also relates to questions
concerning the external interests of autocratic regimes. If nothing else,
efforts of democracy promotion that are perceived as hypocritical will
strengthen the cause for a more rigours enforcement of sovereignty. This, in
turn, is arguably the biggest interest that states such as Russia or China are
keen to uphold in international relations; certainly ahead of attempts to
export their ‘vision’ of government through any form of autocracy
promotion. Finally, if similar efforts of democracy promotion in comparable
countries produce a variety of responses – popular backlashes and
acceptance – than outcomes of transitions vary independent of the causes.
Examining the processes and mechanisms of how democracy promotion
efforts are adapted and localized through agency in politics is then the
appropriate approach to explain these variations.
Illiberal democracies and hybrid regimes: One of the biggest challenges to
both democratization efforts and theory is the growing number of regimes
that exhibit several important requirements of democracy, such as a nominal
separation of power, yet remain, in the terminology of Freedom House,
partly free or not free societies at the core. Vivid examples of this are
institutionalized elections where government is both pre-determined
(Burnell, 2010: 4) and yet, crucially, provided with a veneer of legitimacy.
Moreover, unlike suggested by the image of transitions between autocracy
and democracy, many hybrid regimes have proven to be relatively stable
(Hadenius & Teorell, 2007).
Currently, very few analytical insights exist that would serve to differentiate
clearly between autocracies with a mere democratic facade, transitional and
still evolving democracies-to-be, or stable regimes of a truly hybrid nature.
The issue is further complicated by a lively debate on measurements and
criteria to classify democratization and (various) hybrid outcomes (Geddes,
2009: 280). This has resulted in a trend to develop ever more rarefied
categories for hybrid regimes between the two poles of democracy and
autocracy (e.g. Diamond, 2002). As an alternative, this article forwards
causal mechanisms as the key to understanding transition processes which
may culminate into hybrid regimes as unique outcomes in themselves.
The three issues discussed above do all feature prominently in contemporary
democratization research. A major reason they do so is in all these cases the
lack of knowledge concerning the transitional processes and mechanisms
linking causes to outcomes. Research in this field has thoroughly assessed
both the various causes, both internal and external, which favour
democratization and the varied outcomes of democratization efforts in
developing countries (e.g. Diamond, 1999). And yet, surprisingly little work
exists on what precisely happens inside the political and social systems of
democratizing states. This is a lacuna in democratization literature worthy of
further investigation.
Literature review
The democratization literature, starting with Lipset’s (1959) famous
argument of linking democratization to economic development, is rich with
research and theories on the causes, but surprisingly silent on the processes
of democratization. And despite 50 years of intense work, very little
knowledge about causes of democratization is uncontested.
Observation of the latter leads Geddes (2009) to point to the wealth of
explanations which appear specific to particular world regions or to
particular periods in time to emphasise the likely equifinality of
democratization and the multitude of potential causes. This indicates that
democratization literature’s uncertainty about causes is in no small part a
consequence of its neglect of processes. To better illustrate the need for
research emphasising agency-based mechanisms of democratization
processes, I thus revisit several mainstays of contemporary democratization
research and theory. To structure this review I categorize the literature by the
emphasis that is given to on one of three constitutive components of a
democratizing system: (i) the state itself, (ii) its institutions, or (iii) its
politics (see Sangmpam, 2007).
State-focussed theories of democratization: State-focussed or structural
approaches to democratization regard democracy as the political expression
of the broader social order of modern society (Bratton & Van de Walle,
1997). The state is regarded as “a set of relationships and interactions
among social classes and groups that is organized and regulated by political
power; as the nodal point of these relationships” (Sangmpam, 2007: 203).
As a consequence, democratization research in this tradition models the
character of these power relations between social classes – often in a
dichotomy of ruling elite and the others – as a dependent outcome of
aggregate structural forces. Geddes (2009) gives an excellent overview of
this literature and finds it grounded within International Political Economy
(IPE). As such, work in this tradition tends to explain democratization by
shifts in the distribution of power over capital and resources that are
dependent on changes in both international (e.g. mobility of capital) and
democratization theory through game-theoretic modelling, these approaches
suffer three notable shortcomings if applied to the three challenges that were
outlined above.
First, different assumptions lead to different outcomes. This is evident for
example in whether these studies model a state’s ruling elite as a-priori rich,
and thus concerned primarily with redistribution (Acemoglu & Robinson,
2001; Boix, 2003), or as income maximising, and thus primarily concerned
with access to revenues as perquisites of public office (North & Weingast,
1989). In the former, greater income equality makes democratization more
likely as the ruling rich need to fear redistribution less. In the latter, income
distribution is irrelevant as the maximization of income is the driving
interest regardless of the distribution of wealth (Geddes, 2009). Furthermore,
the equifinality of democratization implies that contradicting models like
these could both (fail to) apply in different countries, regions and scenarios.
As such, these theories provide few analytical insights to help explain the
broader ebb of democracy as observed by FH and others.
Second, these models offer no conceptual space for stable hybrid regimes.
The only possible equilibrium outcomes of these models are autocratic or
democratic regimes. Hybrids are seen solely as either transitional phases or
as simply disguises of de-facto autocratic regimes. These models therefore
struggle to explain the spread of stable, even reasonably legitimate hybrid
regimes, which are challenging democratization scholars and policy makers
Third, the structural variables these theories build on leave little space for
the international
autocracy). The only inferable insight is that foreign capital inflows, whether
in the form of aid or investments, might skew a balance in favour of ruling
elites if they decrease reliance on tax revenues and the added accountability
associated with them. However, if the structural factors of the global
economy such as captial mobility dominate the domestic, even potentially
autocracy-supporting effects of aid and capital transfers should be
temporary. Likewise, remittances might have a polar effect as capital inflows
benefiting, potentially, the non-elite. More importantly however, there
appears to be no way to differentiate the effect of capital inflows by the
origin’s intent. Whether tied to the promotion of democracy or of autocratic
models, the political intent of aid is thus negligible in the logic of IPEinspired models. Accordingly, these models are ill-suited to help explore or
explain either perceived “backlashes” against democratization efforts,
particularly if driven by political elites, or the potential effects of “autocracy
Institution-focussed theories of democratization: Theory with a focus on
the requisites and changes of institutions are a mainstay of democratization
literature since its inception. Lipset’s article argues decisively in favour of
structural societal changes (e.g. urbanization, education, industrialization,
etc…) and “a value system allowing the peaceful ‘play’ of power” (ibid.,
1959: 71) as necessary pre-conditions for a stable and dynamic democracy.
Subsequent scholars have investigated elements of this argument. Regarding
social institutions for example, the correlation between education, especially
primary education, and democracy is well established (Geddes, 2009).
Flipping Lipset’s argument, research linking the rule of law to economic
growth (La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer, & Vishny, 1998) has proven to
be immensely influential among both academics and development
building/strengthening” lies at the heart of the good governance agendas of
donors and multilateral aid organisations and is formally inscribed in
international declarations like the 2005 Paris Declaration (OECD, 2005).
Even democracy as a concept is frequently defined through its requisite
institutions (e.g. multi-party elections, universal suffrage, civic rights,
etc…), which makes it natural to conceptualize democratization as the
functional emergence of these defining institutions. Reflecting on past
setbacks to democratizations, the main caveat again appears to be a neglect
of agency in the processes linking causes to democratizing outcomes.
Deviant cases like the Philippines, cited by Lipset in 1959 as evidence for
the strong links between favourable institutional trends such as widespread
education and democratisation, continue to defy the institutionalist rationale.
As elsewhere, the Philippines’ subsequent return to a non-democratic regime
is attributed mainly the agency of key political figures. However, if one
acknowledges the anti-democratic influence of actors such as Ferdinand
Marcos and his follower, or that of Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin as more
recent examples, than one accepts that political agency is a crucial factor in
shaping transition outcomes. This does not dismiss the role of either formal
or informal institutions or neglects that institutions do affect politics and
socio-economic outcomes. All the same, institutions do not ubiquitously
structure or determine politics and its outcomes as perceived by
institutionalists. Rather, and especially facing weak institutions, ”it is
politics that imposes its imprint on the institutions, behaviours and the state
format and determines them, even though the state is the intersecting point.”
(Sangmpam, 2007).
For Africa in particular, this finding is confirmed by research identifying
intra-elite competition above societal factors like education or participation
as the crucial precondition for successful democratization (Hadenius &
Teorell, 2007). Political contestation then is a pivotal stepping stone to
democracy as “regimes of this type are more amenable to incremental
improvements” (Lindberg, 2006). Politics are thereby identified as the likely
locus of mechanisms in a transition process.
Politics-focussed theories of democratization: Little politics-focussed
democratization theory exists. Despite this, the role of politics, and of
political elites as ‘agents of change’, has been raised by some studies and
incorporated into practice, notably by British DFID’s ‘Drivers of Change’
(DOC) approach. Curiously, and perhaps in part explained by aid-agencies
reluctance to touch ‘politics’, politics-related notions of democratization in
both academia and practice often construct a highly idealized notion of
political agency based on self-less and unbiased ‘political will’:
“’Political will’ is the commitment of a country’s rulers to undertake and see
through to implementation a particular policy course. […] There, political
will must be robust and sincere. That is, reform leaders must be committed
not only to undertake actions to achieve reform objectives, but also ‘to
sustain the costs of those actions over time’.” (Diamond, 2004, p. 278)
Such a notion of ‘political will’ among elites appears needlessly simplistic
and idealistic. Simplistic, because few scholars, let alone politicians, could
likely agree on a definite democratic ideal approachable by a distinct reform
path, which would be a prerequisite for even intrinsically motivated leaders
to agree on a set of actions. Idealistic, since such self-less agency is rare in
even mature democracies; too rare, most certainly, to constitute a satisfying
explanation for recent or historic transitions to democracy more broadly:
“The groups that dominate the transition are seldom interested in
democracy solely as an end in itself and may often shape the new structures
to enhance their own privileges.” (Pinkney, 2003)
This does not necessarily define political agency in the terms of a publicchoice model of utility-maximizing politicians, but simply highlights that the
ends of democracy promotion – the localization of democratic values into
norms-in-use – are usually mere means of norm-taking agents in the pursuit
of their own ends. Diamond’s definition of ‘political will’, though pointing
to the crucial role of agency, needlessly conflates the ambitions of
democracy promotion with the ambitions of the agents driving transition
processes. Indeed, such a congruence of aims is highly unlikely because
agency is inevitably grounded in context (Jackson, 2006) and thus concerned
with specific meanings-in-use instead of democratic transition more broadly.
Thus, agency in the formulation by Giddens, “refers not to the intentions
people have in doing things but to their capability of doing those things in
the first place […].” (1984: 9). All this, however, without diminishing the
pivotal importance of politics as a mechanism of democratization in a sense
that there is still “the pre-eminence of politics vis-à-vis institutions and the
state even though both affect politics in return” (Sangmpam, 2007: 220).
This article’s exploratory attempt to theorize on politics as a democratization
mechanism consequently emphasises the competitive nature of politics as
the driving element of the formative process, and not a political agent’s
individual specific intent.
To summarize therefore, both state-focussed and institution-focussed
conceptions of democratization emphasis structural factors and consequently
struggle to account for the observable multi-finality of transition processes
before similar causes and circumstances. Existing politics-focussed
approaches needlessly conflate political agency in democratizing states with
domestic political agency for democratization as an intrinsic interests of
agents. What is needed then is a conception of agency that is cognizant of
the instrumental role of politics in shaping democratization processes, yet
does not immediately categorize the variety of intrinsic, context-focussed
interests of political agents by the broader, and more abstract long-term
objective of nudging a polity towards successful transition towards
I thus proceed by developing exploratory hypotheses for politics as
procedural mechanism in transition states and illustrate these with a case
study on contesting political elites in Liberia, drawing evidence from a 2008
ruling of the Liberia’s Supreme Court (SCL, 2008). The case serves as a
“plausibility probe” (George & Bennett, 2005) for the hypotheses of this
Conceptualizing democratization mechanisms: the crucial
role of political agency
So far this article identified a need for an analytical concept to capture the
procedural mechanisms of democratization. Such a concept should
furthermore agree with the finding of a good number of political
philosophers that political institutions and the state are an effect of politics
as competition (Sangmpam, 2007: 205), and politics thus the likely cause-toeffect link that drives changes in institutions and the state (Held, 1983).
Thus, in a nutshell, a successful transition to democracy is itself driven by
the conduct of political contestation over norms and ideas which
subsequently shape the institutions of government and the state. This
iterative deepening of democratic institutions through the democratic
conduct of politics has been expressed, at its most concise, by Amartya Sen
noting: “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it
has to become fit through democracy.” (1999).
Inversely, the lack of democratic political contestation over extended periods
is in turn associated with a deterioration of democratic institutions as it
“gives rise to rampant corruption, and the associated politicization and
dysfunction of what should be independent “referee” institutions – the
judiciary, electoral commissions, prosecutorial services, and ombudsman
agencies, among others” (Dizard & Walker, 2010: 9). Whereas countries,
which have stagnated in an authoritarian system that moulded all institutions
to the preservation of power of a singular faction may likely only experience
change through more singular events that break drastically with the
established order, as perhaps seen recently in Tunisia or Egypt, it is the
countries of the “the vulnerable middle”, as Freedom House calls them,
where the actions and conduct agents in politics can set the transition
processes on different pathways.
To better account for these institutional imprints through the (lack of)
democratic conduct of political contestation, I forward below a first,
preliminary outline for an analytical concept by drawing on studies by
constructivists and institutionalists who stand outside democratization
literature, yet concern themselves with the transposition of values and
norms. I thereby expand upon the common definitions of democracy (as
opposed to democratization) as a specific requisite set of institutions that
organize the relationships and interactions in a society, or, in other words,
the state as defined by Sangmpam (2007). Rather, democratization is
conceived as an evolutionary change of these institutions towards
democracy. This change is, I argue, driven in turn by a specific causal
mechanism located within politics that is the contestation of agents making
use of normative values (hence: “norm-takers”) as they compete over power.
It is this formative mechanism of political contestations by which values,
including, but not exclusively democratic ones, as privately held beliefs,
become “localized” (Acharya, 2004) as norms in the institutional
architecture of a state. As such, norms differ from values primarily by being
“intersubjectively shared, collectively legitimated and/or institutionalized”
(Park & Vetterlein, 2010). Political contestation on the other hand is
forwarded over alternative mechanisms in the literature, such as coercion,
learning or emulation (Simmons, Dobbins & Garret, 2008), to adequately
capture the comparative struggle of competing value systems within
democratizing political systems. A better understanding of the localization of
democratic values through political contestation ultimately serves to sheds
new light on the challenges to democratization introduced earlier.
I proceed by investigating three questions on the causal mechanism of
democratization as hypothesized above. First, why is politics the locus of
democratization mechanisms? Second, why is contestation in politics crucial
to transforming values into localized norms? And finally, how does agencydriven localization of values animate the multi-final evolutionary processes
of institutional change?
Why politics is the locus of democratization mechanisms
Democracy rests on institutions. These institutions, both informal and
formal, are structures infused with values and thereby given meaning
(Selznick, 1959). Many hybrid regimes are replete with examples of
ostensibly democratic structures that exercise vastly different and valuedependent influences over actions and outcomes.
Because of this, transition processes have direct and tangible consequences
for both domestic political actors and organizations as they reconfigure the
allocation of political power and, by implication, all the influence and
perquisites that flow from it. Accordingly, promoting new values concerning
political institutions is in equal measures an advocacy for a realignment of
the rules and a transformation of the composition of the players in the
processes of public decision making. As a consequence, such processes tend
to be hard fought among domestic stakeholders who stand to gain or lose
from transition outcomes. This is true, even if individual “norm-takers”
adopt new values due to coercion, persuasion or emulation. Furthermore,
values, including democratic ones, are not definite prescriptions. They can
be interpreted. And they can acquire specific character only in the
application to a specific context (Wiener, 2009). For these reasons,
contestation is the likely outcome to any advocacy of democratic values and
the crucible of their successful localization.
Politics, where contestations over power and societal structures take place
thus occupies a formative position over the state and its institutions. On
evidence from the developing world Sangmpam observes that politics as
such do not require formal institutions. In contrast, institutions and the state
can hardly occur without politics generating and sustaining them (ibid.,
2007, p. 204).
Politics can and do occur in the absence of formal institutions and the
outcomes of politics generate and shape the institutions of a state, which in
turn exercise path dependent constraints on future politics. This essentially is
Putnam’s previously quoted note that “… at birth of new polities, leaders
mold institutions, whereas afterwards institutions mold leaders.” (ibid.,
1993). So far as democratization studies are concerned with processes of
transition from which new polities emerge, it is the formative aspect of
politics vis-à-vis institution that demands a closer investigation.
How political contestation is transforming values into
localized norms
Democratization studies, like development studies in general, have long
agonized over concepts of ‘ownership’ and, as noted above, ‘political will’.
Behind these ideas lies the insight that convictions, beliefs and values need
to be grounded with the respective actors in developing countries to promote
change successfully. Constructivist literature on the diffusion of values and
norms has developed a sophisticated set of concepts on mechanisms that
translate, or “localize” norms and values to a specific group, people or
polity. These include mechanisms such as persuasion, socialization or
processes of learning (see Checkel, 1998) and agent strategies such as
framing or grafting of ideas to make them viable in a specific context (see
Acharya, 2004). These are valuable concepts as they attribute a more central
role to agency in the adoption of values into norms. The emphasis here is
nevertheless given to the contestation of values, including democratic ones,
with competing, often pre-existing value systems and normative structures
as a central mechanism. This focus on contestation allows the localization of
values to be analysed with respect to competing values and norms. For
democratization studies this is crucial, as democratic values must not be
analysed as “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the
universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human
government” (Fukuyama, 1992). Instead, they are but one contender among
alternatives. In a democratic transition then, a polity does not move up
“vertically” vis-à-vis inferior, often unconsidered alternatives as transhistorical projection like Fukuyama’s would have it, but rather moves
“horizontally” on a plane vis-à-vis different, if perhaps less desirable
alternatives. If democratic values are adopted by norm-taking agents to be
used in competition over power, where they compete over power, then the
successes of agents who make use of democratic values is what ultimately
transmutes the respective democratic values into localized norms.
Accordingly, the credibility of ideologies competing with democratic values
then depends on their use in legitimizing political positions and actions
domestically. In contrast, the majority of existing research on autocratic
challenges to democratization has, in the tradition of Fukuyama (1992), been
pre-occupied with measuring the credibility of alternatives to liberal
democracy by the yardstick of Cold War’s socialism; i.e. their global
proliferation or their comprehensiveness as a valid blueprints for entire
societal systems (see Ottaway, 2010). Neither, however, is necessary for a
credible ideological challenge within the politics of a democratizing state.
Even in the years of the Cold War, the global ideological struggle has as
often as not been used as a narrative within domestic politics that was
employed to justify positions in more specific, national or even local
political struggles. Closer observation reveals a great variety of capitalisms
(and socialisms) even before 1989. This indicates that global ideological
positions are localized to each polity. Indeed, within liberal democracies
today, politicians rely on constructing (perhaps more artificial) ideological
cleavages to justify their position in political struggles over specific issues
and – crucially – political power.
Moreover, norm-taking agents may even argue in a different value-system in
separate political contestations as long as they frame arguments
convincingly. As specific issues are contested, rather than ideology, actors
are not bound to argue coherently within a single consistent value
How agency-driven value localization drives multi-final
transition processes
A longstanding debate revolves around asking whether democratization is
evolutionary or revolutionary change. Popular perceptions of new
democracies emerging from unique political shake-ups, including the colour
revolutions in the Russian periphery, contagious regional shifts towards
democracy in Latin America in the 1980s (Hagopian & Mainwaring, 2005),
or, to a lesser extent, the often futile attempts to democratize post-conflict
and fragile states through elections under an international trusteeship, have
associated democratization with incisive and revolutionary types of change.
In contrast, institutionalist research made significant contributions that
mitigate this link between revolutionary change and democratic transition.
These studies argue convincingly in favour of more gradual, path dependent
changes that both precede and succeed the more visible and seemingly
discontinuous outward signs of transition (Kiser & Kane, 2001).
Summarizing research on historic democratizations, Campbell notes that “…
in contrast to many theories that suggested that democratic revolutions
trigger a sudden shift from patrimonial to bureaucratic state institutions,
[…] the process was, upon closer inspection more evolutionary than
revolutionary.” (2004, p. 40).
Furthermore, more evolutionary notions of democratization are clearly
behind international efforts to promote democracy as far as they make use of
concessionary and, usually, consensual provision of technical and financial
support through aid programmes. Those programmes plainly build on the
assumption of a continuous progress in state structures towards democracy
that international efforts can support. They therefore agree with the
institutionalist emphasis on evolutionary change.
Yet, analysing democratization through the lens of evolutionary institutional
change often means the crucial role of agency is sidelined. In the
institutionalist literature, evolutionary change is seen to follow structural
conditions with actors operating within the appropriate logics of these
structures. Unlike concepts of revolutionary change however, theories on the
evolution of institutions often discard, or fail to account for agency. In
transition processes agency nevertheless clearly matter.
As noted above, illustrations of a global ‘democracy recession’ with drawing
on cases such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela or Thailand commonly see
causation in the agency of prominent individuals like, for example, Vladimir
Putin or Hugo Chavez. Their choice of authoritarian intervention is seen to
override, even reverses the more structural processes of democratization. As
a consequence, democratization literature is marked by a curious asymmetry
between agency-less democratization and agency-driven roll-backs. The
shortcoming of democratization theory to bridge structural conditions and
human choices thus constitutes a notable lacuna (Burnell & Youngs, 2010)
A solution to this, as well as a crucial step towards reconciling
democratization processes with political agency is achieved by moving away
from analysing greater, aggregate value systems such as democracy and
towards research on specifics, localized values’ “meaning-in-use” (Wiener,
2009) within a polity. In other words, there is a need for democratization
research to disaggregate complex value systems such as ‘democracy’ into
the constitutive parts adopted by norm-taking agents in specific political
struggles at often minute details of policy making. Facing a dispute over
power, agents rarely champion ‘democracy’ as a whole, but rather advocate a
specific value or principal they would like to see localized as a norm-in-use
to their own benefit. Individually, every localized norm is then part of an
overarching process of shifting institutions. And over time, the aggregation
of values as localized norms-in-use through the mechanism of politics come
to shape a countries distinct trajectory in transition and the unique outcomes
that will constitute its polity.
Conceptualizing democratization, or more precisely transition, as an
evolutionary culmination of localized norms-in-use has several advantages.
Evolutionary change, as a process, becomes multi-directional, reversible and
open to hybridization. The outcomes become of this process in turn become
more dependent on the relative assertiveness of the ideals in the political
contestations of a transition state.
The following case study aims to give insight into how specific, opposing
values are contested in the politics of a democratizing country, in this case
the Republic of Liberia. The article then concludes with asking how these
insights speak to the three challenges to democratization theory.
Case Study: the changing Accountability Institutions in Liberia.
As exposition and as an exploratory case for the theoretical considerations so
far I investigate a recent dispute, or a political contestation, from Liberia. As
a country that has recently emerged from decades of intermitted civil war
and bloodshed, Liberia has risen rapidly in democracy-rankings from the
very bottom it occupied under both the brutal regime of Charles Taylor and
succeeding Taylor in 2003, to become a middling, partly-free Democracy in
West Africa. In 2003 and 2006 the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI)
ranked Liberia at 115 (of 115) and 114 respectively. Yet, after Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf took office as president in 2006, Liberia climbed ranks quickly to 98
in 2008 and 79 (of now 128) in 2010. Today, Freedom House ranks Liberia
among the 32 “Countries at the Crossroads” between successful
democratization or more authoritarian forms of government. Before a
gloomy assessment of democratization in the world, they classify Liberia as
one of a few countries that “have made progress in some areas of
democratic governance” (Dizard & Walker, 2010). Nevertheless, Liberia
still depends on UN peacekeepers to provide security and continues to suffer
from endemic corruption, infrequent ethnic tensions, and personality centred
party politics without stable democratic structures or procedures (BTI,
2009). Facing presidential elections again in 2011, Liberia is thus truly at a
crossroad. The country could conceivable push for more comprehensive
democratization. Yet, failing this, it may equally likely be bogged down in
transitional limbo: a flawed, partly-free democracy pervaded by neopatrimonial and ethnic power structures, as well as pervasive corruption
(The Economist, 2010). Moreover, Liberia provides an illustrative case in
this study because its contemporary transition proceeds across starkly
opposing values systems. Political agents in Liberia draw on these value
systems in the pursuit of their aims. In simplification for the sake of the
arguments clarity, I dichotomize these value systems as (a) liberal
democracy and (b) a neo-patrimonial structuring of power.
The first, liberal democracy, is advocated mainly by two groups in Liberia.
The first is the international community, which launched one of the biggest
intervention programmes of Sub-Sahara Africa in the Governance Economic
Management Assistance Program (GEMAP). The GEMAP gives foreign
experts extensive authority in Liberia’s economic policies and makes strong
efforts to promote principles of good governance and democracy such as
transparency and a meritocratic bureaucracy. A notable exception to
GEMAP’s mandate however, especially with concern to the case examined
here, is the judiciary, where it was decided after many consultations to not
bring foreign judges into Liberian Courts. A donor-financed Judicial
Training Institute was launched only in June 2008.
Paralleling the international efforts, the Sirleaf administration has
purposefully included many skilled technocrats, including from the Liberian
Diaspora (BTI, 2009; Dunn, 2010), and initially been be remarkably
tenacious in its commitment to fight corruption and promote democratic
reforms. Despite some recently emerging critizism of the Sirleaf
administration concerning transparency (see Dunn, 2010), both groups can
be seen as active constituents for Liberia’s democratization. And both are, to
different degrees, also of transnational origin and as such (President Sirleaf’s
long domestic political career nonwithstanding) comparatively new
additions to the Liberian polity. The prominent stake placed by the
international community into the democratization of Liberia, whether
directly through programmes like the GEMAP, or indirectly through the
international estimation of the Sirleaf administration’s efforts, therefore also
makes Libera an exemplary case for an African state transitioning to
democracy before concerted international efforts to actively promote
Yet, as is typical for transition countries, democratic ideals and their
advocacy do not engage an empty space devoid of politically relevant norms
and values. Rather, democratic ideals in Liberia contrast, and compete with,
more established power structures based on embedded alternative value
systems. One prominent value system prominent in Liberia’s politics can, in
this article’s simplified dichotomy, be classified as neo-patrimonial. This
refers to structures build around pyramidal patron-client relationships, which
historically were a key to the rule of Americo-Liberian settlers and important
for ensuring loyalty in the regime of William Tolbert in the 1970s. After
Samuel Doe’s 1980 coup d’état ended Americo-Liberian rule, neopatrimonial structures remained in place and even gained in relative
importance vis-à-vis the states’ formal institutions as those were eroded to
near dissolution during the decades of ethnic and civil war. The perseverance
of neo-patrimonial structures even beyond the regime of Taylor has shown
them to be well embedded in the institutions of the Liberian state:
“Like previous Liberian governments, the NTGL was in practice a highly
competitive patrimonial environment where various elites were locked into
struggles over state resources, often, but not exclusively, built on ethnic
affiliation and exclusionary practices that shaped politics and the control of
state institutions as a zero-sum game.” (Boas, 2009: 1334)
As a consequence of these embedded structures, practices and – crucially –
norms of such a patrimonial environment, corruption of “both the endemic
variety resulting from decades of autocratic rule and civil war, and the
specific issue of corruption among public officials today” (Dunn, 2010: 3)
poses arguably the most serious current obstacle to Liberia’s democratic
transition and its development more broadly. Freedom House (Dunn, 2010),
in ranking different aspects of transition from 0 (weakest) to 7 (strongest),
sees anticorruption and transparency with a score of 2.81 as the clearly
weakest part of Liberia’s governance behind accountability and public voice
(4.45), civil liberties (4.18) and the rule of law (3.36).
Liberia’s General Auditing Commission (GAC) is an illustrative institution
to investigate before this background. Established by a 2005 amendment to
the Executive Law of 1972, the GAC has in its work repeatedly revealed the
existence of significant corrupt activities in public office. The Auditor
General (AG), who heads the commission, now reports to the legislature
rather than the executive, though the GAC prepares three quarterly reports
and an annual Uniform Accounting Report for the president, the legislature
and the public. Not surprisingly therefore, especially given “the gusto with
which Auditor General John S. Morlu approached his job” (Dunn, 2010:
14), conflicts between the GAC and other branches of government have
been frequent, even as international and public support has by and large been
firmly on the side of the GAC. Serving as illustration for the argument of
this article, political contestation on the basis of separate value systems is
starkly revealed in a case heard by the Supreme Court of Liberia (SCL) on
Liberia’s AG vs. the House of Senate of the National Legislature of the
Republic of Liberia (the Senate). This incident is thus investigated here in
further detail as a case study of political contestation as democratization
The particular dispute heard by the SCL, while ostensibly concerned with
the GA’s authority for dismissing public sector employees from the GAC,
quickly became a value-laden struggle between authorities exercised along
either informal lines of patronage vs. the demarcations to personal power set
by the formal independence of governmental bodies. I proceed, first, with a
brief chronology of the dispute as it unfolded in 2007. Second, I reflect on
how its outcome led to the localization of specific democratic values as
effective norm-in-use in Liberia.
The dispute investigated in this case was triggered by the GA’s dismissal of
about seventy GAC employees as part of a restructuring programme initiated
to meet international standards for Supreme Audit Institution (SAI). These
standards, including the principle of apolitical institutional independence,
are written down in comparatively unambiguous terms in the 1977 Lima and
Mexico Declarations1 of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit
Institutions (INTOSAI) and are applied by SAIs throughout the world in a
surprisingly uniform manner. As such, they are used here as reasonably
uncontested representation for a subordinate principle of democratic
This particular dispute crossed formal institutional boundaries when the
dismissed GAC employees turned to political patrons for support in a move
that is perhaps not unexpected in a system where public sector employment
constitutes a significant social and economic asset and that is commonly
awarded on the basis of patron-client relationships. By their action, Liberia’s
Senate became involved explicitly on behalf of dismissed GAC employees
when it addressed the AG in August 2007 to announce a formal
investigation into his restructuring of the GAC. Specifically, the Senate
issued the following two orders:
“1. That pending the outcome of the investigation of complaints, you place
a hold on all actions of dismissal or attempted dismissal by your office.
That you further re-instate all affected employees by the dismissal of
downsizing endeavour of your office.” (LSC, 2008)
Refusing to comply, the AG initially responded to the Senate’s stay orders
by trying to build a consensus. Failing with this strategy, he moved towards
a more confrontational, value-based argumentation as the dispute continued.
Initially, the AG wrote an extensive letter to the Senate on September 3 rd
which outlined the AG’s mandate and mission, the rationale behind his
decisions, and enclosed further details on his reform plans. This first letter
however made no references to international INTOSAI principles of SAI
independence from political interference. Instead, the AG’s aim appears to
be building support for his decisions in the Senate by (a) stressing the exante transparency of the GAC restructuring as it appeared in the GAC’s
budget submitted annually to both chambers of Liberia’s parliament, (b)
noting his efforts to ease the dismissal for employees through compensations
(e.g. “I fought hard to obtain a good package…”, LSC, 2008) and (c)
emphasising his personal ties and the implicit backing for his reform among
Liberia’s higher political authorities, including the president.
Nonetheless, the AG’s efforts to accommodate the Senate were curtly
rebuffed and the AG himself received a subpoena order. Following this, the
AG changed strategy.
In September 2007 the AG turned to the public with a series of widely read
newspaper articles and interviews, increasingly stressing the GAC’s formal
independence from the legislative branch of government. Predictably
perhaps, the situation soon escalated and the Senate enacted direct measures
against the person of the AG. These included (a) holding him “in legislative
contempt for misinforming the international press”, (b) issuing fine to be
paid to the Senate within 24 hours and (c) threatening “to pass a ‘vote of no
confidence’ on your confirmation as Auditor General of the Republic of
Liberia” (LSC, 2008).
Ultimately, the AG turned to Liberia’s SC with a fourteen-point petition filed
on September 19th 2007. The petition pleaded against the Senate’s
“interfering in executive and judicial matters and functions” and in favour of
measures “to restrain and prohibit the illegal and unconstitutional charges
brought against the petitioner”. It furthermore requested Liberia’s SC to reaffirm the status of the “General Auditing Commission as an independent
and autonomous agency” in spite of the GAC’s duty to report to the Liberian
legislature (LSC, 2008). The Senate, it should be noted, responded harshly
by confronting Liberia’s SC itself by arguing that “The judiciary, the third
branch of Government, is not vested with authority to compel or prohibit the
Legislature in the performance of its legislative duties, which duties are
purely political in nature and only answerable to the people who elected
them” (LSC, 2008). By these actions, the clash over the GAC’s downsizing
quickly escalated to a dispute over the authorities of government branches in
a division of powers. The SC’s final decision ruled in favour of the AG, both
confirming the institutional independence of the GAC from interference and
explicitly criticising the Senate’s support of dismissed GAC employees:
“Quite frankly, the aggrieved employees were ill-advised and misdirected
and the respondent [i.e. the Senate] did not provide proper guidance. There
is a procedure under the Civil Service Act where the aggrieved employees
could have filed a complaint… .“ (LSC, 2008).
A salient feature in the SC’s reasoning for their decision is the extensive use
of global principles and foreign precedents; most importantly extensive
guidance drawn from a ruling of the US Supreme Court against a member of
the US House of Representatives in the widely cited case of Marshall v.
Gordon, 243 U.S. 521 (1917)2. While not uncommon in transition countries
with little records on specific jurisdiction, the explicit use of a US precedent
emphasises the exogenous origin of many of the values formalized by this
decision. The outcome of this dispute subsequently strengthened both the
AG as a public figure in Liberia’s politics (The Inquirer, 2008) and the GAC
as an independent oversight institution.
To conclude then, what does this episode tell about the localization of
democratic values into norms-in-use in transition countries? As an
exploratory case it supports the earlier made hypotheses in three regards.
First, it clearly portrays the contestation of different values and their relative
merit in the discourse of domestic politics in Liberia. The bolstering and
support sought out by, and given to, the GAC’s laid off employees follows
along established client-patron relationships, but runs across the formal
boundaries of institutions and the government’s constitutional separation of
powers. The actions of these former GAC employees, who also ignored
established formal procedures for filing complaints, are therefore best
explained as following from a neo-patrimonial logic of operating within
Liberia’s public sector. The fact that the Senate defended its perceived
authority in this over the GAC and AG in both court and in the public press
is an indication for the embedded institutionalized power and routine this
logic exercises in Liberia’s day-to-day politics. Thus, while no politician or
public servant in Liberia today would openly promote neo-patrimonial
values over those of a liberal democracy if asked, the political contestation
over norms-in-use in specific instances like this reveal that the validity of
democratic principles and values must still be assessed relative to the
domestic alternatives, and not by its broader global remit.
Second, there is decidedly little evidence for any intrinsic ‘political will’
among the actors to promote democratic values as such. Confronted with the
Senate, Liberia’s GA first attempted to reconcile the dispute through
reasoning and accommodation. He only moved towards a heavily value-
based framing of the dispute as an assault on the political independence of
the GAC as Liberia’s SAI when the situation escalated. Likewise, there is no
indication that the GA, as an individual, is any more (or less)
‘democratically inclined’ than his opponents in the Senate. He did not
advocate principles of SAI independence out of any self-less motivation to
promote democratic governance in Liberia, but as a reaction to a challenge
to his policy and political authority. Therefore, the incident rather agrees
with Pinkney’s (2003) observation that democratization outcomes are not
ends in themselves, but shaped by groups that seek to defend or enhance
their own position. The crucial element is the value-infused political
contestation itself and not the personal or political dispositions of the AG or
the Senate.
And third, despite the likely not entirely self-less motives of the agents
involved, the final outcome still is the recognition of Liberia’s GAC as a
more independent SAI in both formal jurisdiction and the actual interinstitutional relations of Liberian politics. As such, Liberia’s formally and
informally more independent governmental oversight, a common ambition
and conditionality of donors and aid programmes, must be regarded as one
small, but distinct step towards democratic governance. Thus in short, the
political contestation over power has, in this case, proven to be instrumental
to the democratization process, even if the agents involved in the political
contestation were not intrinsically concerned with democratization.
Nevertheless, three caveats apply to these conclusions. First, Liberia’s SC
and its final ruling arguably present an inherently biased view and the SC’s
decision may furthermore not hold in Liberia’s future politics. Second, as an
entirely intra-governmental dispute among Liberia’s political elite, the
described stand-off, irrespective of its outcomes or the values that were
contested, is certainly not representative for democratization as a more
widespread societal transformation. Finally, this dispute may not be
representative of a broad struggle among democratic and neo-patrimonial
value systems; and SAI independence in particular may not be representative
of the former. I will address each of these caveats in turn.
First, to draw, as this article did, on documents of Liberia’s SC, any
observation is likely biased against outcomes that would favour a neopatrimonial value system. In other words, it is difficult to conceive a
counterfactual in a similar decision as any reasonably functional judiciary is
virtually by definition already part of a more democratic governance
structure. Despite this, it remains reasonable to draw on this case study for
two reasons. One, the outcomes here are of far less interest than the actual
dispute which preceding them. From the available sources, it is easy to
conceive hypothetical counterfactuals where neo-patrimonial forces had
prevailed before the case ever went before the SC, and would thus have
placed Liberia’s GAC more firmly under the Senate’s informal authority.
Moreover, the SC’s need to draw extensively on foreign precedent to argue
its decision starkly highlights the strong domestic foundations of neopatrimonial structures within Liberia’s politics and society.
Second, the dispute between different members of Liberia’s political elite
surely falls short of a broad based, inclusive and participatory democratic
discourse. However, as Lindberg (2006) noted, it is precisely these
contestations that make a regime amenable to incremental improvements,
whereas broad-based, participatory systems lacking in open political
contestation are much less likely to proceed towards more robust
democratization (see Hadenius & Teorell, 2007). The intra-elite dispute cited
here is not a case of democratic transition, but a case of the microfoundations of incremental changes in value-systems through the
localization of individual values via contestation. The findings of
quantitative studies such as the one by Hadenius & Teorell (2007), in
conjecture, point to a close relation of these mechanisms of political
contestations with democratization.
Third, democracy is surely constituted of more momentous ideals than SAI
independence. However, the precise observation that even subsidiary and
technical principals are contested vigorously in political disputes serves here
as evidence of the inevitable contestation of democratic values in transition
states. The implied shifts of power and the intense contestation associated
with a subsidiary principle like SAI independence, in many ways, only help
underline the more universal contestation that necessarily comes with the
localization of new values as part of any socio-political transition process.
Challenges to democratization theory and practice revisited
The case study presented above, even with all due caveats, firmly supports
democratization. Further research is certainly in order to gather more robust
evidence, and one aim of this article is precisely to animate further studies
on the causal mechanisms of democratization. And towards this end, three
observations in support of this outline of democratization’s mechanisms are
forwarded here.
First, the contestation of values in politics is a pivotal aspect of
democratization processes. Democratization can be understood as the
localization of a distinct set of values into institutional norms. Any
localization of values thereby changes established power structures and will
inevitably be contested. Though alternate mechanisms such as coercion,
persuasion or emulation may be relevant at the analytical level of
individuals, the contestation to any agent’s advocacy of values is still the
outcome on a systemic level. The Liberian case shows how even subsidiary
values and practices of democratic governance run up against the established
power-relationships within a given polity. Successful democratization
therefore depends on the outcome of value-infused contestations over power;
or “politics” in the definition of Sangmpam (2007). In turn, political
contestation thus affirms a specific value’s meaning-in-use as a localized
norm. Democratization processes can accordingly be conceived as aggregate
of successful localizations of democratic values through political
Second, ‘political will’, in the sense of an agents identification with
democratization as an intrinsic goal in itself, is irrelevant to an agencydriven conception of democratization. The focus on political contestation as
principal mechanism of democratization makes agency a central element for
transforming values into norms-in use. Broad and general value systems, by
comparison, hold little normative influence by themselves. To be localized
in a transition state, values need to be championed in a definite meaning-inuse and in a specific time and place. Agency therefore is the pivotal link
between a more general value system and the particular norm; between the
timeless principle and the temporal application of any value (see Scott,
2001). The motivations of agents, whether altruistic or self-serving, are
nevertheless secondary as a successful localization of values through politics
does not depend on them.
Third, democratization is not only an agency-driven, but also evolutionary
process of incremental norm-accumulation. Even as popular upheavals
against autocracy, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, can provide precious
opportunities for countries to move out of political stagnation, it would be
imprudent to assume that popular protests and regime change in countries
ruled by autocrats for many decades could miraculously culminate into a
liberal democracy fully formed. Democratization does not occur in a
uniform, sudden and aggregate shift of values. Democracy is only embedded
in the political structures, practices and institutions of a polity to the extent
that individual democratic values are localized within a very specific
meaning-in-use relating to a definite domestic issues and context. As a
consequence, the shape of a state and its institutions at a given time are thus
a representation of past contestations which have shaped the exercise of
power and authority, the collective understandings of reasonable behaviour,
and the dominant interpretations of formal and written rules. And even as
political contestations may localize international democratic norms, is the
subsequent polity modelled according to an idealized blueprint of
Finally, the both leading and concluding question of this article is what
insights these case study observations offer for the three challenges to
democracy promotion introduced earlier?
Autocracy-promotion: Observations from the Liberian case study on politics
as the locus of democratization processes contribute to this particular
discussion in two ways. Both recommend a more explicit emphasis on
domestic politics within transition states, rather than global political shifts,
for future democratization research. First, competing value systems are
given a different relative weight in the political contestations of transition
states then in a more global perspective. A fair amount of contemporary
democratization literature abstracts too readily from domestic politics to
study democratization through global structural determinants instead. Nearly
20 years after Fukuyama’s end of history hypotheses (1992), research on
autocratic challenges to democratization still retains a tendency to measure
the credibility of any ideological alternatives by the yardstick of the Cold
War’s socialism; i.e. its global proliferation and its comprehensiveness as
blueprint for an entire societal system (Ottaway, 2010). This is misleading,
because values are localized into norms through domestic political
contestation, and because these contestations arise over a given value’s
specific meaning-in-use. Consequently, the credibility of any ‘autocratic
challenge’ needs to be judged by its domestic clout for challenging
democratization in the specific issues that are contested. Here, literature on
policy diffusion takes note of the considerable variations in the spread of
more definite principles and policies associated with the spread of markets
and democracy across the world precisely because of their varying appeal to
specific actors and situations (Simmons, Dobbin, & Garrett, 2008). If more
authoritarian values are indeed imported and localized by political agents in
transition politics, they too will follow likely a diverse pattern of norm
diffusing for the same reasons.
Second, the simple reference to a unique development trajectory of a
‘successful autocracy’, a role for example frequently attributed to China,
may in itself be a relevant challenge to democratization if it empowers
domestic alternatives in politics. Rather than adopting a particular autocratic
model of governance, say a Chinese or Russian ‘model’, already the ability
to challenge universalistic notions of democracy as an inevitable
complement to economic development and societal progress is in itself a
relevant factor in transition politics. It makes a powerful “discursive
weapon” (Blyth, 2007) to be used by factions or individuals in value-based
The inference for future research than is to pursue this differential between a
value system’s global remit and its domestic impact in shaping specific
political discourses. If the exploratory observations made here hold, the
“attraction” of either democracy or autocratic models of governance need
not correlate with any structural factors – say the amount of FDI or the depth
of trade relations – as is often the argument made by citing Chinese
investments in African countries (Alden, 2007). Instead, their impact on
transition states will need to be assessed by the use that domestic agents
make of them.
Ambivalent effects of democracy promotion: Carothers notes that
“Backlash against democracy aid often starts with the accusation that the
outside actors have a partisan agenda.” (2010, p. 69). Beyond the
obstruction of international efforts, analysis of democratization mechanisms
suggests to consider these as political narratives in transition countries as
much as positions in foreign relations.
In this view, “anti-assistance”, as described by Burnell (2006), can discredit
democratic values in domestic political contestations. To the extent that
political agents champion values for more immediate, tangible political, their
success depends on the political credibility of the values they choose to
adopt. If efforts to promote democracy are widely perceived in a critical,
even negative light, fewer political agents will rely on them to make their
case and fewer of those who do succeed. Consequently, if the promotion of
democracy is perceived (or framed) as an intrusion upon national
sovereignty and a guise for hidden agendas, the credibility of democratic
values as discursive weapons in politics is diminished. Carothers (2010)
vividly describes the paradigmatic case of Russia and its periphery where, in
no small part by Putin himself, democracy promotion efforts were framed to
pursue malign and divisive agendas. Building one’s case on foreign norms
and values before such a narrative ceases to be a viable political strategy.
Thus, the ‘ownership’ of reform, in the parlance of democracy promotion,
among its key agents for democratic values falters if they can be sidelined in
politics as straw men for inscrutable foreign interests: Conversely, the
recognition of the pivotal role of political agents in localizing democratic
values, without an instrumental view of ‘political will’, highlights the need
to emphasise the credibility of democratic values in the specific contestation
of politics transition states. This means, that the advocacy of a certain
norms-in-use is always intrinsically a political position, even if it may not
appear as such from the vantage points of foreign experts. Yet, it is precisely
this political aspect of norm localization that is neglected, or purposefully
downplayed by aid agencies whose mandate and self-perception is build
around their work, including democratization and good governance reforms,
as politically unbiased promotion of technocratic principles. Foreigners
should not become involved in politics of transition countries for obvious
reasons, not least because the details of domestic politics are likely
inscrutable to outsiders. Nevertheless, explicit recognition of the political
nature of value localization should help sensitize democracy promotion for
the political dynamics that agents for democratization are exposed to.
Drawing perhaps some insights from the literature on policy diffusion
among western states, further democratization research would be well placed
to explore questions of which democratic principles are attractive to
domestic agents and readily adapted over principles which could be
perceived as invasive, confrontational and at risk of causing a backlash of
‘anti-democratization’ politics. If the observations in this article are any
guide, further insights on the elusive ‘ownership’ of reforms would be the
gain. Not because agents are better persuaded to democratization’s broader
benefits, but because the broader benefits of democracy are more readily
achieved if the motives of the key agents of change become better
understood, giving democracy more leverage in transition politics.
Illiberal democracies and hybrid regimes: The most pertinent insight
offered by the Liberia case study speaks to the multifinality of transition
processes. As incremental accumulations of localized norms-in-use, the
evolutionary processes of transition are far from unilinear and open to any
number of different outcomes, including politically stable hybrid regimes.
The dispute cited in the Liberian case was resolved by the LSC in favour of
SAI independence with explicit reference to independent government
oversight as an important global principle of democratic governance. An
alternate outcome would have likely weakened Liberia’s GAC, placing it
more firmly under informal authority of the Senate in contradiction of a
formally independent SAI. Nevertheless, Liberia’s open-ended transition
process moves on whether Liberia’s GAC lives up to international standards
or adheres more to the logic of informal power across formal government
bodies. The dispute, rather than the final outcome, thus highlights that
globally accepted standards and principles depend on being localized
through political disputes over how these principles need to be applied in a
specific context. Thus, if a transition process is an incremental accumulation
of localized norms-in-use, it is necessarily a multi-final process as every
value-based contestation may end with any number of different outcomes:
favouring democratic principles, a more autocratic logic, or compromises
which span different value-systems in novel ways. Hybrid regimes are
consequently organic outcomes of such transition processes. Indeed, Hybrid
regimes must be the expected outcome in transition countries where multiple
values systems exercise sufficient credibility among political actors.
As a consequence therefore, an analytical perspective which gives more
explicit emphasis to the unique pathways of transition that hybrid regimes
travel upon, as already indicated by the study Hadonius & Teorell (2007),
rather than to the final desired state these states may or may not be heading
towards, would consequently allow for future democratization research to
build insight on the complex processes of regime transformation. These
insights, in turn, would help sensitize actual interventions to promote
democracy in transition countries to the necessarily unique transition
trajectory of a given policy. And it would do so through a conceptual
understanding of democratization mechanisms which drive a multitude of
outcomes, rather than an ever more minute list of democracy “with
adjectives” (Collier & Levitsky, 1996) that tries to square the potentially
infinite variety of observed transition outcomes with an always imperfectly
defined ideal of democracy as hoped-for final result.
7. Conclusion
Contemporary democratization literature emphasizes structural change at the
expense of agency in transition politics. By abstracting from value-infused
contestations, which inevitably follows the localization of new values,
democratization theory struggles to account for political factors in transition
processes. These notably are the attraction of alternative, often authoritarian
models to specific political issues, the potential backlashes and ambivalent
effects of democracy promotion efforts, and the nature of hybrid regimes
rooted in the compromises and contradictory political outcomes that are
intrinsic to the causal mechanisms that localize values into norms-in-use and
By focussing on the agency-driven mechanisms of democratization, rather
than on the causes, on the conditions, or on the origins of particular values
and principles, this article reflected on these challenges to democratization
theory, which are all frequently cited in the studies aiming to understand the
four-year long roll-back of democratic practices and values identified by
Freedom House (2010). By locating the causal mechanisms in the political
contestations of politics, three notable insights were revealed. First,
democratic values and principles are localized into norms-in-use through
agency in specific disputes over meaning and power. Rather than contrasting
the appeal of broad and comprehensive value-systems, proponents of
democratization need to be more conscious of the relative merit of promoted
values in specific circumstances. Second, agents making use of democratic
values in transition politics are not necessarily driven by an intrinsic, selfless political will to promote democracy for its own sake. More probable,
they pursue more definite, personal goals. In doing so, they draw on valuebased arguments as instrumental means towards these ends, rather than as
ends in themselves as implied by concepts of ‘political will’. Accounting for
the comparative and instrumental domestic credibility of democratic
principles would therefore go a long way towards sensitizing democracy
promotion to the political dynamics that drive value localization, including
the potential for backlashes against democracy promotion and the
Moreover, perceiving democratization as an incremental accumulation of
localized norms-in-use also challenges the common concept of transition as
a shift along a bipolar scale from autocracy to democracy. Transition
processes are more multi-dimensional. The shaping of institutions through
political outcomes creates unique transition trajectories with a variety of
outcomes, including hybrid forms of governments that institutionalize
political compromises and a bricolage of different value systems into
governance. Understanding hybrid regimes is then less a question of how
governments measure up to democratic ideals, but of how well democratic
ideals serve agents in transition countries in the contestations of politics.
All three points re-visited in this article indicate that further understanding of
democratization, rather than individual or country-wide benefits of
democracy achieved, would be the gain of further research on the “normtaking” agents that drive changes against opposition in political disputes.
And in doing so, a greater emphasis should be given to the lynchpin points
of separation which defy the determinism and inevitability of outcomes to
structural forces. It is at these points, that agency matters in the sense that
individuals could, in the words of Giddens (1984, p. 9) “at any phase in a
given sequence of conduct, have acted differently” and the results we
observe would therefore have been different.
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