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Author examines democratic transitions

| Thursday, March 31, 2016

Abraham Lowenthal, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California, delivered a lecture on democratic transitions Wednesday afternoon. The lecture was sponsored by the Kellogg Institute of International Studies and focused on the book Lowenthal published with Sergio Bitar titled “Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders.”

“We know full well that ours is not a book of rigorous comparative politics with quantifiable and comparable data … we focused must of our attention on political leaders at the apex of government parties or political movements,” he said. “[This book is a] different form of comparative politics but it produces something that may or may not be political science, but it certainly gives us access to political wisdom which may be harder to achieve than political science.”

Lowenthal said that he and Bitar interviewed 12 former presidents and one former prime minister while gathering information for the book. Lowenthal said he only studied cases of democratic transitions where countries had no reversals back toward authoritarian regimes after switching to democracy.

“Democratic governments are not perfect and complete anywhere,” Lowenthal said. “However, as democratic transitions are occurring the proposition is that people who are involved in making that happen ought to be able to learn from cases where [democratization] has succeeded.”

According to Lowenthal, he and Bitar more than over three hours interviewing these politicians in order to understand the contributions made toward the democratic progress.

“We had a strategic objective of learning as much as we could in a finite amount of time, of how these leaders understood the process of transition from authoritarian rule to democratic government,” he said. “[We want to learn] key principles from the experiences of leaders who played diverse, but key roles, in achieving democracy across the globe.”

Lowenthal said he and Bitar focused on past events in order to learn what works and what did not work for countries in transition to democratic societies.

“We learned that there is no central casting model for a successful democratic transition leader,” he said. “One of the contributions of our books, looking at the interviews, is that it reminds us that the transitions were not quick, they had their ups and downs, zig-zags and reversals, but [these leaders ultimately] did change the politics in their countries.”

According to Lowenthal, one of the most important issues that new democratic leaders face is revising an old constitution or drafting a new constitution for the country. Lowenthal said that the constitutional drafting process in itself must be inclusive and it must promote inclusivity across the country.

“Democracy is not an imported commodity. It has to be grown locally,” he said.

Lowenthal said that he studied how to mobilize international support for a country in the midst of a democratic transition without discrediting local agencies. However, when an international actor comes into a country without being invited, and forces a system of democracy in place, that can hinder the country’s chances for lasting democracy.

“We learned obviously that there is no easy recipe, no clean and clear model, no handbook for best practices that you can apply everywhere,” he said. “However, we did come to realize in the process of transition from authoritarian to democracy, the very process poses recurring issue that occur in all these cases. The role of leadership is really understanding those challenges and confronting them. Most of our interviews were focused on these recurring challenges. We engaged in dynamic conversations with these leaders to learn as much as we could.”

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