Democratization by Elections in Southeast Asia?

One of the most important recent theories of democratization is known as democratization by elections—the idea that elections themselves can bring about democratic change in electoral authoritarian regimes. Surprisingly, this literature almost entirely ignores Southeast Asia, even though Southeast Asia has lots of authoritarian regimes holding lots of elections. Lee Morgenbesser and I have written a paper that remedies this. Here is the abstract.

The theory of democratization by elections (Lindberg 2009) holds that elections—even when flawed—can have an independent causal effect on democratic transitions. Despite the recent growth of this literature, questions remain about the global scope of the argument and its structural preconditions. We argue that both strong states and effective neopatrimonial practices can undermine the democratizing power of elections. We use Southeast Asia to probe the applicability of this theoretical argument to an important but critically understudied world region, and to illustrate the mechanisms through which state strength and patronage limit the ability of elections to bring democratic change. Our argument has implications both for Southeast Asian democratization and for existing scholarship from other world regions.

The full paper is here (PDF). As should be clear, we think that democratization by elections as a theoretical construct has legs, but that the current literature ignores Southeast Asian cases at its own peril.