How Do Dictatorships Turn Into Democracies?

By Alec Medine

How Dictatorships Become Democracies? 

In our previous article “How Do Democracies Turn Into Dictatorships?”, we discussed how democracies lose their freedoms and become dictatorial regimes. Now we will talk about how democracies are born, exploring what factors are necessary to both create and preserve democracy in countries where it never previously existed. 

Despite the large number of democracies today, the political philosophy’s success in spreading across the globe has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to even the 1990s, authoritarian forms of government were the norm since time immemorial, whether they were monarchies, military dictatorships, or later, communist regimes. 

Democracy blossomed as a new type of government starting with the American Revolution. The sort of representative democracy crafted by the founders stood as a counterpoint to the traditional autocratic monarchy. Rather than placing all power in the hands of a single king with a supposedly divine mandate, proponents of this new type of government such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson advocated for empowering national citizens to elect representatives that would act on their behalf. Democracies tend to have strong safeguards to personal rights, ensuring that the government cannot unjustly punish or otherwise harm its citizens. 

Across the world, the number of democracies has steadily increased since the early-1800s. Polity IV Annual Time-Series, 1800–2015, Marshall, Gurr, & Jaggers 2016. Scores are summed over sovereign states with a population greater than 500,000, and range from –10 for a complete autocracy to 10 for a perfect democracy. 

Democracy gradually became more popular throughout the 19th century, but really only became a dominant force in the world following America’s entry into World War I, which President Woodrow Wilson famously justified to make “the world safe for democracy.” President Wilson envisioned the creation of a series of democratic nation-republics out of the autocratic empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, and Russia. However, the triumph of the democratic Entente powers of Britain, France, and the United States was short-lived. Europe, along with much of the rest of the world, soon plunged itself again into authoritarian forms of government especially exemplified by two newly ascendant forms of dictatorship: Fascism and Communism. 

After the end of World War II, the world became divided along the ideological lines of capitalist democracy, demonstrated by the United States, and state communism, led by the Soviet Union. During this period, the European powers decolonized much of Africa and Asia, creating new democracies out of former colonies. At the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the influence of Soviet communism waned across much of Eastern Europe, creating an opportunity for democracies to again develop across much of the region. 

Ways Dictatorships Become Democracies 

There are several ways in which dictatorships transition into democratic states. In the public imagination, the most vivid way is popular revolution, when a large portion of society mobilizes itself towards reforming or overthrowing the government. Sometimes these movements are successful without either side needing to resort to violence, but unfortunately, many revolutions  deteriorate into violence as well. 

Democratization does not always need to be driven by a mass movement of the population, however; it can often be guided by authoritarian elites themselves, provided the elites have substantial pressure or motivation to democratize. 

Popular Revolution

The classic method of democratization is the “popular revolution,” or the process where a mass movement of a country’s population pushes the government to reform itself or step down. Revolutions generally involve a large percentage of the nation’s population rallying around a small number of clear, direct goals aimed at reforming the current regime. 

Revolutions are normally characterized first by persistent protests in major cities, making them visually striking spectacles for observers. Such revolutions may be triggered by a variety of factors. One may be a sense of social desperation, aggravated by situations like a severe economic downturn, military defeat, or a major famine. Revolutions can also start after a public outrage, such as an unjustified extralegal action, or a major political scandal; in these types of cases, the outrage is so severe that it creates a rift in trust between the public and the government, motivating the populace to try and reform or overthrow it. 

Ideally, the revolution will be a “velvet revolution,” or a revolution whose demands are successfully met with neither side resorting to violence; Czechoslovakia’s revolution against communist rule in 1989 is the prototypical example of such a regime change. In this case, mass-demonstrations alone create sufficient pressure for  the government to relinquish power. Revolutions generally remain peaceful either when the government lacks the will to deploy armed forces to violently crush a popular social movement, or when the police or military morally refuse to carry out the government’s orders to attack the population. 

Unfortunately, violent revolutions are historically more common than nonviolent ones. In this case, either the forces of the government or the revolutionaries escalate the situation from peaceful demonstrations to the use of deadly force. Although it is still possible for the revolutionaries to instate a democracy at this point if the movement succeeds, violent revolutions are more likely to corrupt the objectives of the revolution; if a regime change is enacted after violence, there is a chance the new regime will be just as authoritarian, if not more so, than the previous government. 

This is exactly what happened in one of the world’s first democratic revolutions: the French Revolution (1789-1799). The revolution initially started to reduce the French King’s power and to instate an elected legislature to govern the country after a massive famine in 1788. Soon after the revolution began, a faction of radicals (called “Jacobins”) led by Maximillien Robespierre took control, instituting a dictatorship and launching a bloody wave of executions against anyone suspected of opposing the revolution in a period known as “The Terror.” In 1794, after two years of brutal rule, a group of conservatives and moderate liberals rallied to overthrow Robespierre and the Jacobins in a coup known as the Thermidorian Reaction. Soon after, in 1799, the French general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the French Republic, proclaiming himself as its dictator; by 1805, Napoleon restored France to a monarchy when he crowned himself as Emperor of the French. For the next ten years, Napoleon waged bloody wars across Europe before he was defeated and the old monarchy restored; in the end, there was little to show for the years of bloodshed.

An execution by guillotine during the French Revolution: a common spectacle during the Jacobins’ “Reign of Terror.” Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica

Revolutions can easily backfire in many ways, especially if they become violent. If the government forcefully crushes the revolution, it might become even more repressive than it was prior to the revolution in order to prevent future uprisings. For example, after the forces of the Austrian Empire crushed the 1848 Revolutions in Vienna, Prague, Italy, and Hungary, the newly-appointed Emperor Franz-Josef instituted a period of “neo-absolutism.” During this time, Franz-Josef doubled-down on the unilateral powers of his crown rather than recognizing the need for democratic reform in his empire. 

In the worst cases, the old regime may enact a “White Terror,” or a violent and vengeful political purging of revolutionaries real and imagined, such as what happened after the Thermidorian Reaction in France in 1794 or during the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1923. 

Czechoslovakia and the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989

The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 is one of the most profound examples of a peaceful revolution that led to democratic change. 

At the end of World War II, the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Allied powers. As the Cold War period began and the Soviet Union sought to expand its political influence over Eastern and Central Europe, the Soviets installed communist regimes across much of this region, including in Czechoslovakia. Under these regimes, like other Soviet communist states, personal freedoms were severely curtailed and the government controlled almost every aspect of society. 

The origins of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia lay 20 years earlier, during the events of the “Prague Spring” of 1968. At that time, the Czechoslovak government sought to move away from the authoritarian Soviet model of communism by introducing a number of political and economic reforms that would have granted the Czechoslovak people more rights and freedoms alongside modest democratization. The Soviet government, however, feared that these reforms were pulling Czechoslovakia out of the Soviet Union’s communist sphere of influence. In response, the Soviets and their allies in the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, which then triggered massive protests in Prague against the occupation and in support of the government’s reforms. The protests were crushed and the Soviets installed a new government which reverted back to the hardline style of Soviet communism.

Protestors in the Czechoslovak capital during the Prague Spring of 1968 waving their national flag in defiance of Soviet troops.Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica

In 1989, Soviet weakness presented the Czechoslovak people with another opportunity to liberate themselves from communist rule. At this point, the Soviet Union’s power was waning globally as the country came under increasing economic, political, and social distress. By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was losing many of its Eastern European client states as they began to democratize and liberalize away from communism. Poland’s communist regime had already collapsed in 1988 under the pressure of massive strikes and protests, and the Berlin Wall was smashed to pieces by excited demonstrators, effectively ending the existence of East Germany.

In this atmosphere, the Czechoslovak people again began to demonstrate, calling for the creation of a capitalist and democratic state. On November 17th, after riot police beat several protesting students attempting to leave a protest against the regime, massive demonstrations erupted across Prague. Faced with massive discontent, the communist government of Czechoslovakia agreed to step down, paving the way for free elections. The fall of communist Czechoslovakia has since been hailed as the “Velvet Revolution,” standing as a quintessential case study of nonviolent democratization. Although Czechoslovakia soon divided itself in 1993, the two successor states of Czechia and Slovakia have both remained successful, well-adjusted democracies in the heart of Europe. 

Countless protestors gather at Wenceslas Square in Prague as part of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Photograph: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images.

Elite-driven Democratization

At times, a regime may choose to democratize even without the pressure of mass-protests or a revolution. Under these circumstances, the government voluntarily reforms itself to become more democratically inclusive and accountable until it can be considered a fully-functional and successful democratic state. 

This often happens when there is a sudden change in national leadership, with the new leader unilaterally leading a transition towards democracy. In this process, the leader uses their authoritarian powers to gradually instate reforms while steadily relinquishing their own power as part of the transition. 

What motivates self-democratization? One reason may be mounting popular pressure. This pressure is expressed by protests or vocalized dissatisfaction towards the political regime, even if the discontent is not widespread enough to constitute a full-fledged revolutionary movement. Elites may choose to head off the possibility of a revolution early by preemptively reforming the state towards democracy. Indeed, according to the political scientist Florian Grosser, the democratic revolutionary tradition is based on the idea that gradual political reform, rather than violent revolution, is the more effective method for creating a more democratic government and society. 

Another possibility is diplomatic: there can be substantial incentives (or pressures) to democratize in order to improve relations with the hegemonic powers of the world, such as the United States. Building close ties with democratic world powers can yield lucrative economic agreements or military protection. On the other hand, countries like the United States have justified military interventions with the pretext of building democracy abroad. Self-democratization can be an effective means of remaining within the democratic powers’ good graces. 

For their part, the United States and other democracies have also extensively utilized public diplomacy to help promote democracy across the world since the end of World War I. The U.S. government in particular has used America’s image as an affluent and free country to invite other countries to become democratic. The RDI “Democracy Examined” contributor Teddy Tawil, for example, writes in a previous article about how the United States fostered democracy in the developing world through agricultural aid; in this initiative, the United States provided drought-resistant food crops and modern agricultural techniques to young nations like India, thereby helping them become strong, stable democracies in the example of the United States.

One of the most prominent cases of altruistic democratic diplomacy was the Marshall Plan enacted by the United States after World War II; by providing food and other necessary goods to the war-shattered nations of Europe, the American government sought to showcase democracy as an alternative to fascism or socialism that was far more conducive to prosperity. The Plan was hugely successful in fostering democracy in Western Europe, and was pivotal in helping West Germany, Italy, and Austria democratize away from their recent fascist past. To this day, the Marshall Plan remains one of America’s most celebrated acts of diplomatic altruism. 

Finally, democratization may be motivated by the desire to boost the level of national economic development. For example, democracies tend to perform better economically compared to authoritarian regimes; indeed, authoritarian policies such as economic cronyism tend to drag authoritarian economies down. The democratization of the government and the economy, on the other hand, acts as a check on parasitic economic behaviors by kleptocratic elites; democracy allows for more flexible economic reforms and more economic fairness, thus opening the way for more growth opportunities. Economic disasters often provide the necessary shock to dislodge despotic and corrupt governments, creating widespread political dissatisfaction among the national citizenry and a desire for political reforms such as democratization. Keen elites, seeking to economically modernize and integrate with the global market while satisfying growing discontent among the public, may trade some of their power for a chance to economically improve the country. Additionally, democracies may come about after economic growth; this growth elevates a number of formerly working-class citizens to elite positions, who use their influence to advocate for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power. The democratization of both Spain and Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s were accompanied by both rapid economic development prior to democratization, which were then followed by economic reforms. 

Spaniards in Toledo wait in line to vote in the 1977 elections, Spain’s first free elections since 1936. Spain voluntarily democratized under the leadership of King Juan Carlos, ending the Francoist dictatorship which had reigned since 1939. Credit: Wikipedia.


Taiwan’s political experiences in the late-1980s and early-1990s present a remarkable case example of elite-driven democratization from a brutal military regime to a successful, prosperous democracy in East Asia. 

In 1949, the leader of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek, and his Kuomintang (KMT) government lost the Chinese Civil War against the communist forces of Mao Zedong, and were promptly forced to flee to the island of Taiwan off the coast of China. For almost the next 30 years, Chiang Kai-shek governed Taiwan with an iron fist as its dictator, banning all opposition parties and imprisoning anyone suspected of being a political opponent. The KMT also suppressed the language and culture of the native Taiwanese, while promoting the supposed superiority of the Han Chinese. 

A woodcut depiction of the February 28th Massacre in 1947, where government forces of the Republic of China killed thousands of civilians suspected of collusion with the Chinese communists on the island of Taiwan. Credit: Wikipedia.

In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek finally died; three years later, his son Chiang Ching-kuo succeeded his father as the President of the Republic of China in Taiwan. By this point, Taiwan’s position on the world stage had fallen; it had lost its United Nations recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, the United States was building political and economic ties to the communist Chinese government on the mainland; this was particularly worrying because the United States was the only power defending Taiwan from the possibility of being invaded by the People’s Republic. 


Chiang Ching-kuo faced significant external and internal pressures. Taiwan’s international significance was in a precipitous decline; even its closest protector, the United States, was turning away from the island regime. The old guard of KMT exiles from the postwar years were retiring and passing away. At the same time, opposition to KMT rule was developing rapidly, with independent political leaders growing in popularity and starting to promote Taiwanese culture over the KMT-backed Han Chinese culture. 

Faced with these seemingly intractable problems, Chiang Ching-Kuo began to democratize Taiwan through several gradual but important steps. In 1986, Chiang and the KMT opened up political discussions with the unofficial opposition, thereby legitimizing a political alternative to the KMT. The next year, Chiang and his government lifted martial law which had been in effect since 1949. In 1988, Chiang retired and handed power over to Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese, who continued to oversee democratization. After major protests in 1990, Lee declared new parliamentary elections in 1991—previously, the parliament had been occupied by the same KMT officials since the 1940s. 

A rally of the 519 Green Movement, a protest movement in the 1980s demanding the end of martial law in Taiwan. Credit: Tsai Ing-wen and the New Southbound Policy Portal.

The democratic transition was fully completed in 1996 when Lee Teng-hui won in Taiwan’s first competitive presidential election. Although the KMT remained the dominant party in the Taiwanese parliament, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to lead a minority government until 2008. In 2016, Taiwan’s first female candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) won the election. In the same year, the DPP became Taiwan’s majority party in parliament, and have governed Taiwan since then. Political commentators now see Taiwan as a strong democracy standing in the face of Chinese communist authoritarianism. The island nation has recently received high praise for its effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic; experts attribute Taiwan’s adept management in large part to the country’s strong democratic traditions and practices, including governmental transparency regarding the virus. 

How to Build Democracy in an Authoritarian Country

Building democracy as a citizen in an authoritarian regime can appear to be an insurmountable challenge. Dictators will often do anything to keep hold of their power. So how can citizens play a part in transitioning their country from democracy to dictatorship?

Mass socio-political movements are a key driving force behind most democratic transitions. These movements involve a large portion of the national population rallying around one or a few concrete, central goals of the movement; according to the political scientist Erica Chenoweth, only 3.5% of the population needs to participate in a mass-movement to force the government to reform. 

The goals of the protest movement form demands, which are then clearly communicated to the elites in power; during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, for example, the demands were to end the communist regime, democratize, and reform Czechoslovakia into a capitalist economic system. As one of RDI’s own contributors, Ned Garvey, noted in a previous article of “Democracy Examined,” collective hope for positive political change can also play an important role in guiding and sustaining mass-movements as well. 

Furthermore, it is important that these mass-movements remain non-violent; the journalist Max Fisher argues that protest movements are 50% more likely to fail if they turn violent. Violence tends to corrupt the goals of the movement by raising the stakes, thereby inviting radicals to steer the movement towards potentially undemocratic ends. Violence also alienates participants who are unwilling to take the risk of an armed rebellion. Finally, violent movements invite the state to behave in a vengeful way against the movement and its supporters: armed opposition justifies the state’s violent reaction against the movement.

Protestors wave Tunisian flags during the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, at the start of the Arab Spring. This revolution was one of the most recent successful examples of a nonviolent revolution which brought about a new democratic regime. Credit: The Middle East Institute.

Instead, democratization movements should focus on non-violent methods, including public protests and labor strikes. These actions put pressure on the state to listen to the demands of protestors and to act accordingly. Furthermore, non-violent action is also more likely to gain the support of both national citizens and foreign states, putting even more pressure on the regime to acquiesce to the demands of the movement.

Finally, once democracy is achieved, it must be maintained. Although there are now more democracies in the world than ever before, the persistent threat of regression into authoritarianism remains. National citizens must not take their democracy for granted: they must maintain the same political drive and energy that helped turn their countries democratic in order to keep their countries democratic. 

Title Image: A boy in Spain celebrating Spain’s first democratic elections in 1977. Credit:

Aaro Berhane

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