Democratization, or democratisation, is the transition to a more democratic political regime, including substantive political changes moving in a democratic direction. It may be the transition from an authoritarian regime to a full democracy, a transition from an authoritarian political system to a semi-democracy or transition from a semi-authoritarian political system to a democratic political system.
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The outcome may be consolidated (as it was for example in the United Kingdom) or democratization may face frequent reversals (as happened in Chile). Different patterns of democratization are often used to explain other political phenomena, such as whether a country goes to a war or whether its economy grows.
Whether and to what extent democratization occurs has been attributed to various factors, including economic development, historical legacies, and civil society. Some accounts of democratization emphasize how elites drove democratization, whereas other accounts emphasize grassroots bottom-up processes.
There is considerable debate about the factors which affect or ultimately limit democratization. A great many things, including economics, culture, and history, have been cited as impacting on the process.
Economic development and modernization
Scholars such as Seymour Lipset, Carles Boix, Susan Stokes, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens argue that economic development increases the likelihood of democratization. According to Daniel Treisman, there is "a strong and consistent relationship between higher income and both democratization and democratic survival in the medium term (10–20 years), but not necessarily in shorter time windows." Robert Dahl argued that market economies provided favorable conditions for democratic institutions.
A higher GDP/capita correlates with democracy and some claim the wealthiest democracies have never been observed to fall into authoritarianism. The rise of Hitler and of the Nazis in Weimar Germany can be seen as an obvious counter-example, but although in early 1930s Germany was already an advanced economy, by that time, the country was also living in a state of economic crisis virtually since the first World War (in the 1910s), a crisis which was eventually worsened by the effects of the Great Depression. There is also the general observation that democracy was very rare before the industrial revolution. Empirical research thus led many to believe that economic development either increases chances for a transition to democracy (modernization theory), or helps newly established democracies consolidate. One study finds that economic development prompts democratization but only in the medium run (10–20 years). This is because development may entrench the incumbent leader but make it more difficult for him deliver the state to a son or trusted aide when he exits. However, the debate about whether democracy is a consequence of wealth, a cause of it, or both processes are unrelated, is far from conclusive. Another study suggests that economic development depends on the political stability of a country to promote democracy. Clark, Robert and Golder, in their reformulation of Albert Hirschman's model of Exit, Voice and Loyalty, explain how it is not the increase of wealth in a country per se which influences a democratization process, but rather the changes in the socio-economic structures that come together with the increase of wealth. They explain how these structure changes have been called out to be one of the main reasons several European countries became democratic. When their socioeconomic structures shifted because modernization made the agriculture sector more efficient, bigger investments of time and resources were used for the manufacture and service sectors. In England, for example, members of the gentry began investing more on commercial activities that allowed them to become economically more important for the state. This new kind of productive activities came with new economic power were assets became more difficult for the state to count and hence more difficult to tax. Because of this, predation was no longer possible and the state had to negotiate with the new economic elites to extract revenue. A sustainable bargain had to be reached because the state became more dependent of its citizens remaining loyal and, with this, citizens had now leverage to be taken into account in the decision making process for the country.
Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argue that while economic development makes democracies less likely to turn authoritarian, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that development causes democratization (turning an authoritarian state into a democracy). Eva Bellin argues that under certain circumstances, the bourgeoise and labor are more likely to favor democratization, but less so under other circumstances. Economic development can boost public support for authoritarian regimes in the short-to-medium term. Andrew Nathan argues that China is a problematic case for the thesis that economic development causes democratization. Michael Miller finds that development increases the likelihood of "democratization in regimes that are fragile and unstable, but makes this fragility less likely to begin with."
There is research to suggest that greater urbanization, through various pathways, contributes to democratization. A 2016 study found that preferential trade agreements "encourage the democratization of a country, in particular if the PTA partners are themselves democracies."
Liberalization in autocracies was more likely to succeed in countries that had the advantage of a better starting point concerning political institutions, GDP, and education. These more privileged countries could also carry out key reforms more rapidly, and were able to do so even in areas in which they had no initial advantage. This indicates the presence of a “Matthew effect” in political science: to countries that already have, more is given.
Equality and inclusive institutions
Acemoglu and Robinson argued that the relationship between social equality and democratic transition is complicated: People have less incentive to revolt in an egalitarian society (for example, Singapore), so the likelihood of democratization is lower. In a highly unequal society (for example, South Africa under Apartheid), the redistribution of wealth and power in a democracy would be so harmful to elites that these would do everything to prevent democratization. Democratization is more likely to emerge somewhere in the middle, in the countries, whose elites offer concessions because (1) they consider the threat of a revolution credible and (2) the cost of the concessions is not too high. This expectation is in line with the empirical research showing that democracy is more stable in egalitarian societies.
It is claimed by some that certain cultures are simply more conducive to democratic values than others. This view is likely to be ethnocentric. Typically, it is Western culture which is cited as "best suited" to democracy, with other cultures portrayed as containing values which make democracy difficult or undesirable. This argument is sometimes used by undemocratic regimes to justify their failure to implement democratic reforms. Today, however, there are many non-Western democracies. Examples include: India, Japan, Indonesia, Namibia, Botswana, Taiwan, and South Korea. Research finds that "Western-educated leaders significantly and substantively improve a country's democratization prospects".
Steven Fish and Robert J. Barro have linked Islam to undemocratic outcomes. However, Michael Ross argues that the lack of democracies in some parts of the Muslim world has more to do with the adverse effects of the resource curse than Islam. Lisa Blaydes and Eric Chaney have linked the democratic divergence between the West and the Middle-East to the reliance on mamluks (slave soldiers) by Muslim rulers whereas European rulers had to rely on local elites for military forces, thus giving those elites bargaining power to push for representative government.
Robert Dahl argued in On Democracy that countries with a "democratic political culture" were more prone for democratization and democratic survival. He also argued that cultural homogeneity and smallness contribute to democratic survival. Other scholars have however challenged the notion that small states and homogeneity strengthen democracy.
Social capital and civil society
Robert Putnam argues that certain characteristics make societies more likely to have cultures of civic engagement that lead to more participatory democracies. Putnam argues that communities with denser horizontal networks of civic association are able to better build the "norms of trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement" that lead to democratization and well-functioning participatory democracies. Putnam contrasts communities with dense horizontal networks to communities with vertical networks and patron-client relations, and asserts that the latter are unlikely to build the culture of civic engagement necessary for democratization.
Sheri Berman has rebutted Putnam's theory that civil society contributes to democratization, writing that in the case of the Weimar Republic, civil society facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. Subsequent empirical research has lent support for Berman's argument. Yale University political scientist Daniel Mattingly argues civil society in China helps the authoritarian regime in China to cement control.
Scholars have argued that processes of democratization may be elite-driven or driven by the authoritarian incumbents as a way for those elites to retain power amid popular demands for representative government. If the costs of repression are higher than the costs of giving away power, authoritarians may opt for democratization and inclusive institutions. According to a 2020 study, authoritarian-led democratization is more likely to lead to lasting democracy in cases when the party strength of the authoritarian incumbent is high. However, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo argue that democratizing rules implemented by outgoing authoritarians may distort democracy in favor of the outgoing authoritarian regime and its supporters, resulting in "bad" institutions that are hard to get rid of. According to Michael K. Miller, elite-driven democratization is particularly likely in the wake of major violent shocks (either domestic or international) which provide openings to opposition actors to the authoritarian regime.
According to a study by political scientist Daniel Treisman, influential theories of democratization posit that autocrats "deliberately choose to share or surrender power. They do so to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, incentivize governments to provide public goods, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence." His study shows that in many cases, "democratization occurred not because incumbent elites chose it but because, in trying to prevent it, they made mistakes that weakened their hold on power. Common mistakes include: calling elections or starting military conflicts, only to lose them; ignoring popular unrest and being overthrown; initiating limited reforms that get out of hand; and selecting a covert democrat as leader. These mistakes reflect well-known cognitive biases such as overconfidence and the illusion of control."
Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik dispute that elite-driven democratization produce liberal democracy. They argue that low levels of inequality and weak identity cleavages are necessary for liberal democracy to emerge. A 2020 study by several political scientists from German universities found that democratization through bottom-up peaceful protests led to higher levels of democracy and democratic stability than democratization prompted by elites.
The three dictatorship types, monarchy, civilian and military have different approaches to democratization as a result of their individual goals. Monarchic and civilian dictatorships seek to remain in power indefinitely through hereditary rule in the case of monarchs or through oppression in the case of civilian dictators. A military dictatorship seizes power to act as a caretaker government to replace what they consider a flawed civilian government. Military dictatorships are more likely to transition to democracy because at the onset, they are meant to be stop-gap solutions while a new acceptable government forms.
Waves of democracy
A wave of democracy refers to a major surge of democracy in history. According to Seva Gunitsky, these waves are caused by "abrupt shifts in the distribution of power among leading states create unique and powerful incentives for sweeping domestic reforms." Seva Gunitsky has referred to 13 waves from the 18th century to the Arab Spring (2011-2012).
Samuel P. Huntington defined three waves of democratization that have taken place in history. The first one brought democracy to Western Europe and Northern America in the 19th century. It was followed by a rise of dictatorships during the Interwar period. The second wave began after World War II, but lost steam between 1962 and the mid-1970s. The latest wave began in 1974 and is still ongoing. Democratization of Latin America and the former Eastern Bloc is part of this third wave.
An example of a region which passed through all the three waves of democratization is the Middle East. During the 15th century it was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, "when the empire finally collapsed [...] towards the end of the First World War, the Western armies finally moved in and occupied the region". This was an act of both European expansion and state-building in order to democratize the region. However, what Posusney and Angrist argue is that, "the ethnic divisions [...] are [those that are] complicating the U.S. effort to democratize Iraq". This raises interesting questions about the role of combined foreign and domestic factors in the process of democratization. In addition, Edward Said labels as 'orientalist' the predominantly Western perception of "intrinsic incompatibility between democratic values and Islam". Moreover, he states that "the Middle East and North Africa lack the prerequisites of democratization".
Class alliances and cleavages
In his influential Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Harvard University political scientist Barrington Moore Jr. argues that the distribution of power among classes – the peasantry, the bourgeoise and the landed aristocracy – and the nature of alliances between classes determined whether democratic, authoritarian or communist revolutions occurred. A 2020 study linked democratization to the mechanization of agriculture: as landed elites became less reliant on the repression of agricultural workers, they became less hostile to democracy.
According to New York University political scientist David Stasavage, representative government is "more likely to occur when a society is divided across multiple political cleavages." A 2021 study found that constitutions that emerge through pluralism (reflecting distinct segments of society) are more likely to induce liberal democracy (at least, in the short term).
Rulers' need for taxation
Robert Bates and Donald Lien, as well as David Stasavage, have argued that rulers' need for taxes gave asset-owning elites the bargaining power to demand a say on public policy, thus giving rise to democratic institutions. Montesquieu argued that the mobility of commerce meant that rulers had to bargain with merchants in order to tax them, otherwise they would lead the country or hide their commercial activities. Stasavage argues that the small size and backwardness of European states, as well as the weakness of European rulers, after the fall of the Roman Empire meant that European rulers had to obtain consent from their population to Govern effectively.
Promotion, and foreign influence and intervention
The European Union has contributed to the spread of democracy, in particular by encouraging democratic reforms in aspiring member states. Thomas Risse wrote in 2009, "there is a consensus in the literature on Eastern Europe that the EU membership perspective had a huge anchoring effects for the new democracies."
Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have argued that close ties to the West increased the likelihood of democratization after the end of the Cold War, whereas states with weak ties to the West adopted competitive authoritarian regimes.
Democracies have often been imposed by military intervention, for example in Japan and Germany after World War II. In other cases, decolonization sometimes facilitated the establishment of democracies that were soon replaced by authoritarian regimes. For example, Syria, after gaining independence from French mandatory control at the beginning of the Cold War, failed to consolidate its democracy, so it eventually collapsed and was replaced by a Ba'athist dictatorship.
Robert Dahl argued in On Democracy that foreign interventions contributed to democratic failures, citing Soviet interventions in Central and Eastern Europe and U.S. interventions in Latin America. However, the delegitimization of empires contributed to the emergence of democracy as former colonies gained independence and implemented democracy.
Mancur Olson theorizes that the process of democratization occurs when elites are unable to reconstitute an autocracy. Olson suggests that this occurs when constituencies or identity groups are mixed within a geographic region. He asserts that this mixed geographic constituencies requires elites to for democratic and representative institutions to control the region, and to limit the power of competing elite groups.
It has long been theorized that education promotes stable and democratic societies. Research shows that education leads to greater political tolerance, increases the likelihood of political participation and reduces inequality. One study finds "that increases in levels of education improve levels of democracy and that the democratizing effect of education is more intense in poor countries".
It is commonly claimed that democracy and democratization were important drivers of the expansion of primary education around the world. However, new evidence from historical education trends challenges this assertion. An analysis of historical student enrollment rates for 109 countries from 1820 to 2010 finds no support for the claim that democratization increased access to primary education around the world. It is true that transitions to democracy often coincided with an acceleration in the expansion of primary education, but the same acceleration was observed in countries that remained non-democratic
Research shows that oil wealth lowers levels of democracy and strengthens autocratic rule. According to Michael Ross, petroleum is the sole resource that has "been consistently correlated with less democracy and worse institutions" and is the "key variable in the vast majority of the studies" identifying some type of resource curse effect. A 2014 meta-analysis confirms the negative impact of oil wealth on democratization.
University of California, Berkeley political scientist Thad Dunning proposes a plausible explanation for Ecuador's return to democracy that contradicts the conventional wisdom that natural resource rents encourage authoritarian governments. Dunning proposes that there are situations where natural resource rents, such as those acquired through oil, reduce the risk of distributive or social policies to the elite because the state has other sources of revenue to finance this kind of policies that is not the elite wealth or income. And in countries plagued with high inequality, which was the case of Ecuador in the 1970s, the result would be a higher likelihood of democratization. In 1972, the military coup had overthrown the government in large part because of the fears of elites that redistribution would take place. That same year oil became an increasing financial source for the country. Although the rents were used to finance the military, the eventual second oil boom of 1979 ran parallel to the country's re-democratization. Ecuador's re-democratization can then be attributed, as argued by Dunning, to the large increase of oil rents, which enabled not only a surge in public spending but placated the fears of redistribution that had grappled the elite circles. The exploitation of Ecuador's resource rent enabled the government to implement price and wage policies that benefited citizens at no cost to the elite and allowed for a smooth transition and growth of democratic institutions.
Protests and threat of civil conflict
Research indicates that democracy protests are associated with democratization. A 2016 study found that about a quarter of all cases of democracy protests between 1989 and 2011 lead to democratization.
Research suggests that the threat of civil conflict encourages regimes to make democratic concessions. A 2016 study found that drought-induced riots in Sub-Saharan Africa lead regimes, fearing conflict, to make democratic concessions.
Death or ouster of dictator
One analysis found that "Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential. ... of the 79 dictators who have died in office (1946-2014)... in the vast majority (92%) of cases, the regime persists after the autocrat's death."
Jeffrey Herbst, in his paper "War and the State in Africa" (1990), explains how democratization in European states was achieved through political development fostered by war-making and these "lessons from the case of Europe show that war is an important cause of state formation that is missing in Africa today." Herbst writes that war and the threat of invasion by neighbors caused European state to more efficiently collect revenue, forced leaders to improve administrative capabilities, and fostered state unification and a sense of national identity (a common, powerful association between the state and its citizens). Herbst writes that in Africa and elsewhere in the non-European world "states are developing in a fundamentally new environment" because they mostly "gained Independence without having to resort to combat and have not faced a security threat since independence." Herbst notes that the strongest non-European states, South Korea and Taiwan, are "largely 'warfare' states that have been molded, in part, by the near constant threat of external aggression."
Peace and security
Wars may contribute to the state building that precedes a transition to democracy, but war is also a serious obstacle to democratization. While adherents of the democratic peace theory believe that democracy comes before peace, historical evidence shows the opposite. In almost all cases, peace has come before democracy. Some scholars have argued that there is little support for the hypothesis that democracy causes peace, but strong evidence for the opposite hypothesis that peace leads to democracy.
Christian Welzel's human empowerment theory posits that existential security leads to emancipative cultural values and support for a democratic political organization. This is in agreement with theories based on evolutionary psychology. The so-called regality theory finds that people develop a psychological preference for a strong leader and an authoritarian form of government in situations of war or perceived collective danger. On the other hand, people will support egalitarian values and a preference for democracy in situations of peace and safety. The consequence of this is that a society will develop in the direction of autocracy and an authoritarian government when people perceive collective danger, while the development in the democratic direction requires collective safety.
Contingency and negotiations
Scholars, such as Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Dankwart A. Rustow have argued against the notion that there are structural "big" causes of democratization. These scholars instead emphasize how the democratization process occurs in a flukey manner which depends on the unique characteristics and circumstances of the elites who ultimately oversee the shift from authoritarianism to democracy.
In Great Britain, there was renewed interest in Magna Carta in the 17th century. The Parliament of England enacted the Petition of Right in 1628 which established certain liberties for subjects. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was fought between the King and an oligarchic but elected Parliament, during which the idea of a political party took form with groups debating rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. Subsequently, the Protectorate (1653–59) and the English Restoration (1660) restored more autocratic rule although Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679, which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 established a strong Parliament that passed the Bill of Rights 1689, which codified certain rights and liberties for individuals. It set out the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, rules for freedom of speech in Parliament and limited the power of the monarch, ensuring that, unlike much of the rest of Europe, royal absolutism would not prevail. Only with the Representation of the People Act 1884 did a majority of the males get the vote.
The American Revolution (1775–1783) created the United States. The new Constitution established a relatively strong federal national government that included an executive, a national judiciary, and a bicameral Congress that represented states in the Senate and the population in the House of Representatives. In many fields, it was a success ideologically in the sense that a relatively true republic was established that never had a single dictator, but voting rights were initially restricted to white male property owners (about 6% of the population). Slavery was not abolished in the southern states until the constitutional Amendments of the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the Civil Rights given to African-Americans were only achieved in the 1960s.
The French Revolution (1789) briefly allowed a wide franchise. The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars lasted for more than twenty years. The French Directory was more oligarchic. The First French Empire and the Bourbon Restoration restored more autocratic rule. The Second French Republic had universal male suffrage but was followed by the Second French Empire. The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) resulted in the French Third Republic.
Germany established its first democracy in 1919 with the creation of the Weimar Republic, a parliamentary republic created following the German Empire's defeat in World War I. The Weimar Republic lasted only 14 years before it collapsed and was replaced by Nazi dictatorship. Historians continue to debate the reasons why the Weimar Republic's attempt at democratization failed. After Germany was militarily defeated in World War II, democracy was reestablished in West Germany during the U.S.-led occupation which undertook the denazification of society.
The Kingdom of Italy, after the unification of Italy in 1861, was a constitutional monarchy with the King having considerable powers. Italian fascism created a dictatorship after the World War I. World War II resulted in the Italian Republic.
In Japan, limited democratic reforms were introduced during the Meiji period (when the industrial modernization of Japan began), the Taishō period (1912–1926), and the early Shōwa period. Despite pro-democracy movements such as the Freedom and People's Rights Movement (1870s and 1880s) and some proto-democratic institutions, Japanese society remained constrained by a highly conservative society and bureaucracy. Historian Kent E. Calder notes that writers that "Meiji leadership embraced constitutional government with some pluralist features for essentially tactical reasons" and that pre-World war II Japanese society was dominated by a "loose coalition" of "landed rural elites, big business, and the military" that was adverse to pluralism and reformism. While the Imperial Diet survived the impacts of Japanese militarism, the Great Depression, and the Pacific War, other pluralistic institutions, such as political parties, did not. After World War II, during the Allied occupation, Japan adopted a much more vigorous, pluralistic democracy.
According to a study by Freedom House, in 67 countries where dictatorships have fallen since 1972, nonviolent civic resistance was a strong influence over 70 percent of the time. In these transitions, changes were catalyzed not through foreign invasion, and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms, but overwhelmingly by democratic civil society organizations utilizing nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests.
One influential survey in democratization is that of Freedom House, which arose during the Cold War. Freedom House, today an institution and a think tank, produces one of the most comprehensive "freedom measures" nationally and internationally and by extension a measure of democratization. Freedom House categorizes all countries of the world according to a seven-point value system with over 200 questions on the survey and multiple survey representatives in various parts of every nation. The total raw points of every country places the country in one of three categories: Free, Partly Free, or not Free.
One study simultaneously examining the relationship between market economy (measured with one Index of Economic Freedom), economic development (measured with GDP/capita), and political freedom (measured with the Freedom House index) found that high economic freedom increases GDP/capita and a high GDP/capita increases economic freedom. A high GDP/capita also increases political freedom but political freedom did not increase GDP/capita. There was no direct relationship either way between economic freedom and political freedom if keeping GDP/capita constant.
Francis Fukuyama wrote another classic in democratization studies entitled The End of History and the Last Man which spoke of the rise of liberal democracy as the final form of human government. However it has been argued that the expansion of liberal economic reforms has had mixed effects on democratization. In many ways, it is argued, democratic institutions have been constrained or "disciplined" in order to satisfy international capital markets or to facilitate the global flow of trade.
According to Clark, Golder, and Golder, an application of Albert O. Hirschman's exit, voice, and loyalty model is that if individuals have plausible exit options, then a government may be more likely to democratize. James C. Scott argues that governments may find it difficult to claim a sovereignty over a population when that population is in motion. Scott additionally asserts that exit may not solely include physical exit from the territory of a coercive state, but can include a number of adaptive responses to coercion that make it more difficult for states to claim sovereignty over a population. These responses can include planting crops that are more difficult for states to count, or tending livestock that are more mobile. In fact, the entire political arrangement of a state is a result of individuals adapting to the environment, and making a choice as to whether or not to stay in a territory. If people are free to move, then the exit, voice, and loyalty model predicts that a state will have to be of that population representative, and appease the populous in order to prevent them from leaving. If individuals have plausible exit options then they are better able to constrain a government's arbitrary behaviour through threat of exit. For instance, Alex Tabarrok argues that the reverse of this occurred in Ferguson, Missouri; those who could left the township, but ultimately the local government abused its power as people could not exit in part due to a string of excessive fines which forced them to stay.
In other contexts
Although democratization is most often thought of in the context of national or regional politics, the term can also be applied to:
The concept of democratization can also be applied in corporations where the traditional power structure was top-down direction and the boss-knows-best (even a "Pointy-Haired Boss"); This is quite different from consultation, empowerment (of lower levels) and a diffusion of decision making (power) throughout the firm, as advocated by workplace democracy movements.
The loose anarchistic structure of the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet itself have inspired some groups to call for more democratization of how domain names are held, upheld, and lost. They note that the Domain Name System under ICANN is the least democratic and most centralized part of the Internet, using a simple model of first-come-first-served to the names of things. Ralph Nader called this "corporatization of the dictionary."
The democratization of knowledge is the spread of ability to create and legitimise knowledge among common people, in contrast to knowledge being controlled by elite groups.
Design, products and services
The term democratization of innovation is defined by Eric von Hippel as the process by which "users of products and services—both firms and individual consumers--are increasingly able to innovate for themselves"—rather than rely on "the manufacturer-centric innovation development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years." Innovation may be democratized with respect to both physical goods and to non-physical goods, like software.
- Abolition of monarchy
- Citizens' assembly
- Color revolution
- Criticism of monarchy
- Democracy activists
- Democratic backsliding
- Democratic peace theory
- Direct democracy
- Good governance
- History of Parliamentarism
- Nonviolent revolution
- Participatory democracy
- Transitional justice
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The dictionary definition of democratization at Wiktionary