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Democratic Transitions

Conversations with World Leaders

National leaders who played key roles in transitions to democratic governance reveal how these were accomplished in Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and Spain. Commissioned by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), these interviews shed fascinating light on how repressive regimes were ended and democracy took hold.

In probing conversations with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos, John Kufuor, Jerry Rawlings, B. J. Habibie, Ernesto Zedillo, Fidel V. Ramos, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, F. W. de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, and Felipe González, editors Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal focused on each leader’s principal challenges and goals as well as their strategies to end authoritarian rule and construct democratic governance. Context-setting introductions by country experts highlight each nation’s unique experience as well as recurrent challenges all transitions faced. A chapter by Georgina Waylen analyzes the role of women leaders, often underestimated. A foreword by Tunisia’s former president, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, underlines the book’s relevance in North Africa, West Asia, and beyond.

The editors’ conclusion distills lessons about how democratic transitions have been and can be carried out in a changing world, emphasizing the importance of political leadership. This unique book should be valuable for political leaders, civil society activists, journalists, scholars, and all who want to support democratic transitions.

About the Authors

Sergio Bitar, president of Chile’s Foundation for Democracy, is a political leader and public intellectual. Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor emeritus of the University of Southern California, was the founding director of the Inter-American Dialogue and the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.


What makes countries become successful democracies? There is much theoretical literature on the topic, but this book is different and special. It answers the question through interviews with the key players in some of the most important transitions to democracy in recent decades. The result is a fascinating empirical exploration of a vital issue, rich with detail and insights.

- Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Democratic Transitions accomplishes a remarkable feat, providing a readable and engaging history of the Third Wave of democratization for general readers and students, while filling in countless important details that specialists will appreciate. The lessons the editors draw from the unique individuals they interviewed provide critical guidelines for future political leaders and for those who want to help build democracies.

- Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University

No one is more qualified to provide lessons about how dictatorships have been ended, and democracies constructed in their place, than the political leaders who have actually shaped successful transitions over the past 3 decades. This timely and valuable book shares the experiences, reflections and political learning of 13 such leaders from around the world. It is a 'must read' for anyone who wants to understand the complex processes of democratic transitions or to participate in them effectively.

- Moises Naim, Distinguished Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Contributing Editor, Atlantic  and El Pais

Timely and ambitious, this unique hybrid project combines practical insights for struggling proponents of democratization with important original research geared toward promoting inclusive democratic governance.

- Philip Oxhorn, McGill University

The pragmatic wisdom and unique outlook of the experienced political leaders interviewed in Democratic Transitions are critical to the global dialogue on building open, democratic, and sustainable societies. The lessons of their failures and successes can help others to overcome tenacious global challenges, and support democratic transitions of political power.

- Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and founder and chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation for better global governance

This book provides impressive insights on how political leaders helped their countries navigate from dictatorships toward democracy. A must-read for future transitions.

- Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile

Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal have done a great job in eliciting from leaders who played crucial roles in the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in different continents the practical lessons to be drawn from their experience. They emphasize not ‘great men’ or charismatic leaders, but rather the importance of teamwork, inclusivity, coalition-building, and patient persuasion rather than a peremptory maximalism. The leaders and authors are at one in seeing a willingness to compromise, far from being an abandonment of principle, as fundamental to the construction of genuine democracy.

- Archie Brown, author of The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age


Democratic Transitions is a balanced, thoughtful, empirically-based volume that adds an important dimension to our understanding of both the theoretical and the policy issues surrounding the spread of democracy abroad. It is a major addition to the literature on post-authoritarian transitions and on the "how-to" of consolidating democracy after dictatorship. In an era of undue pessimism about the fate of democracy worldwide, it is a timely reminder of how democratic transitions can be made to work.

- Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs

... In evoking all of these collective distilled experiences from some of the world most successful politicians from recent decades, Bitar and Lowenthal also convey their passion for democracy forcefully, and they enable the college freshman and the scholar to understand better the events and processes that have shaped the world for the better in which we live.

- ReVista

9781421417608 : democratic-transitions-bitar-lowenthal
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Other Titles by Abraham F. Lowenthal

Scholars, Policymakers, and International Affairs

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Transitions from Authoritarian Rule

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The Dominican Intervention

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