The following is a guest post by 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.” 


Protesters in Burkina Faso began their clashes with security forces last week after the country’s long-serving president, Blaise Compaoré, tried to change the constitution so that he could serve yet another term in office in his 27-year rule. Once the Parliamentary building went up in smoke, Compaoré stepped down Thursday, and left the country for neighboring Cote d’Ivoire in an armed convoy.

The military then stepped into the void, and after claiming a transitional government would be established, the army chief of staff, Gen. Honoré Traoré declared himself president, followed by Lt. Col Isaac Zida, the second-in-command of the presidential security regiment.

The protests continued to rage, this time against the apparent military take-over. The United Nations, the African Union, the U.S., and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) all spoke out against the military seizure, despite potentially jeopardizing the strategically important American and French drone bases in the country. On Sunday, military representatives met with key opposition leaders, and on Monday announced it would put in place a ‘transitional body’.

The future path to elections and democratic stability is highly uncertain: a power vacuum at the center makes this transitional stage particularly volatile. What is the possibility for Burkina Faso to emerge from this upheaval more enduringly democratic?

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.

In Benin, in 1990, long-serving President Mathieu Kérékou ended his 17-year tenure following political protest and the formation of a transitional government. Though Kérékou contested in the founding elections, he and his ruling Parti de la révolution populaire du Bénin were stripped of power to influence the new rules for party contestation prior to the elections and Constitutional debates, and he was completely defeated at the polls to an independent candidate Nicéphore Soglo. Since that time, each of Benin’s newly elected presidents have run as independent candidates, and the electoral volatility is among the highest in the world. New parties present at each election and constantly change from positions in opposition to join the government coalition and back again in light of parliamentary battles for position or access to state resources. While this would theoretically make holding the governing party accountable more challenging for voters, the continuing cycle of new parties and candidates has allowed them to choose among a highly competitive and representative playing field.

The flip side of this argument is that initial stages of democratic openings that are highly controlled by authoritarian incumbents offer an opportunity for the long-serving ruling party to write the new rules of the game and thereby shape the relevant opposition. Where authoritarian incumbents have strong social support, they can tightly control the democratic transition process, which leads to highly institutionalized, organized, and nationally-coherent competitive party systems in the new democratic system.

In Ghana, for example, ruling autocrat J.J. Rawlings and his party, the Provisional National Defence Council, were able to limit opposition parties’ formation until just weeks before the founding multiparty elections, and established high barriers to new party registration. And yet, this formed the basis of ongoing alternation of power between two well-institutionalized parties over subsequent decades.

African transition processes demonstrate that it is possible for well-organized, deeply-entrenched authoritarian parties to be the building blocks for stable democratic competition. The crux of the transition is not the undoing of this party, but rather the transformation of the system around it – creating new institutional guarantees that allow for competing parties to form and citizens to participate and freely and fully express their preferences. This means that the military in Burkina Faso must step down and allow for a participatory transitional body to craft a new system.

The implication of this argument is significant for foreign policy and democracy promotion. Strong and enduring political parties have deep historical roots in the preceding authoritarian regimes, and newly constructed parties form according to a completely different process, and result in an alternative form of representation, competition and organization. Though democracy assistance programs often focus on building strong political parties, a more contextually relevant approach would instead support the electoral process and political rights during the transition period and subsequent elections to ensure a secure and open political landscape. Democracy is bounded uncertainty: it is possible to let uncertainty thrive within the bounds of order and rights.