Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (eds.) Transitions From Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives (1986).


ODonnell and Schmitter expose several important facts concerning transitions from authoritarian rule:

One is the role of the hard- and soft-liners within a government, and how the interplay between them is an important factor in creating openings for transition, specifically the authors found that no transition is embarked on without some kind of internal division within the regime itself (19).  They expand on this point by exploring various other ways in which a regime can be opened (reaction to coup threats, bourgeoisie rejection of the regime, a defused military), all of which point to a new relationship between the regime and important internal and external actors (hard- vs. soft-liners)



This is a theme on which ODonnell and Schmitter apply readily to the role of coups (vis-à-vis the fear of them), the role of the bourgeoisie (vis-à-vis their reliance on the regime) and the role of the military (vis-à-vis their original grip on power) – in all cases, what is important is that there is a change to the original relationship, and that change creates a rift within the regime which allows for authoritarianism to be cracked.  In a way, in each of these cases, ODonnell and Schmitter are speaking of the point where a back-and-forth dialogue turns into a dialectic.


Another point that ODonnell and Schmitter make clear is the role of pacts in leading to a viable democratic situation, specifically pacts (while inherently anti-democratic) often work to create rifts and eventually provide the opportunity for democratic transition.  ODonnell and Schmitter see these pacts as relating to specific “moments” in the process – economic, military and political – each pact acting to mitigate the transitionary effects on groups of powerful actors.  However, the pacts themselves act more to solidify transitionary efforts and over time tend to create the very situation that the powerful groups are trying to avoid.



A third point that the authors focus on is the resurgence of civil society – coming as a result of the initial fissures in the authoritarian regime.  ODonnell and Schmitter note that the re-emergence of civil society creates an interesting situation in which the soft-liners lose any opportunity to perpetuate their rule (through mass popular support for outside figures) and the hard-liners are faced with a deterrent to a coup (52), thus popular upsurges facilitates a deeper transition than would have occurred without popular support.



A final major point which is addressed is the importance of the founding elections and, relatedly, the importance of the electorates reception of the incoming regime.  Furthermore, ODonnell and Schmitter stress the importance of the production and maintenance of contingent consent – or the ability for all parties, winners and losers, to agree to the rules of the game and maintain them.



It is difficult to pin down what ODonnell and Schmitters method was, given that this is the final volume of a four volume set – in this volume they are employing summary.



The most important insight that I derived from ODonnell and Schmitter is the fact that the transitions are invariably started from within, and that when they occur they behave in a dialectic fashion.  Simply put, authoritarianism seems to give way when the relationships that sustain the system transition from a back-and-forth conversation to a dialectic dialogue.  Once a rift is opened up between two (or more) important power groups or factors, their actions, reactions and counter-actions create new environments and relationships, within which democracy may feasibly be implanted.



My major problem is the lack of a coherent theory that arises from the otherwise important and illuminating research.  It is all well and good to conclude that transitions are like a game of multi-dimension, multi-player chess.  But anyone who has observed such a game in so much detail should be able to identify patterns not only about the game that is being played, but also about how it is played and the various players.  Perhaps this is what will come next.  To put it simply, there is a lot of explanation and attempts to dig into the phenomenon, but the authors do not posit any generalizable theory, and to not do so suggests implicitly that there is no way to approach the question of authoritarian transition except for through thick description, and only then after the fact.


Also, ODonnell and Schmitter note that \”if it becomes credible that voters will be relatively free in their choice\” (57) in the founding election, then changes occur rapidly.  This seems to be a crucial part in the analysis, but it is not clear what constitutes or contributes to this believability.  While it may be important that power relations are in place, and that authoritarian regimes are properly opened to facilitate elections, it seems that an extraordinarily important factor would be the perception of the population vis-à-vis the idea of democracy – this is not discussed.