Our argument regarding the stabilizing role of civil society and institutionalized parties draws on two different theoretical traditions in the study of democratic stability. Distributionist accounts present durable democracy as a self-enforcing equilibrium where the actors credibly threaten to punish potential defectors (e.g., Przeworski 1991; North et al. 2000; Acemoglu and Robinson 2006; Boix 2003). Institutionalists treat durability as an issue of crisis and reequilibrium, where democratic actors must coordinate the defense of the regime against anti-system extremists (Linz 1978; Capoccia 2005). Consistent with both strands of theory, diverse popular organizations such as political parties, organized interest associations, and social movements can be used to exert mutually enforcing pressure to conform to the democratic rules of the games or to restore democratic equilibria.
Institutionalized parties and active civil societies represent potential safeguards against anti-system activities such as anti-regime protest campaigns, the organization of anti-democratic movements, the rolling back of democratic rules and the distortion of free and fair election results by incumbents, or the organization of coups and putsches. The capability of democratic oppositions and organized citizens to credibly threaten sanctions against anti-system behavior should make democratic institutions more effective, and thus make democracy more durable. The channels available to parties and civil society for holding actors accountable can be both formal, for example via legislative or electoral activity, and informal, such as protest and resistance campaigns. Civil society organizations and political parties are thus essential to establishing what North, Summerhill, and Weingast call “credible bounds on the behavior of political officials” with regard to the democratic institutional political order (North et al. 2000, 24).
We expect institutionalized parties and an active civil society to intensify the accountability of elected leaders by both reinforcing the formal checks and balances, and imposing audience costs on would-be democratic defectors, thus creating additional informal channels of accountability. When attempts to defect from the democratic bargain are likely to be met with counter-mobilization, both within and outside the system, this should affect the calculus of would-be defectors and makes democratic institutions more durable. Those who would suspend legislatures, or launch coups, putsches, or revolutions will find their task much harder when the field of politics is populated by effective civil society organizations and political parties that are committed to democracy (for either intrinsic or strategic reasons). This is not the same as saying that all civil society organizations are democratic in nature or that a would-be dictator with a disciplined party cannot be a threat to democracy. Yet, on a systemic level, the on-average density of active citizens and institutionalized political organizations as a whole should matter. Where these are present, nascent autocrats are more likely to face counter-mobilization and resistance, and will find it harder to recruit support. The probability of such non-cooperation should not only affect their prospects of success but also play into their calculations about whether to attempt to subvert democracy in the first place.
While the literatures on civil society and political parties are quite extensive, much of it assumes that institutionalized party systems and active civil societies are beneficial for democracy, and simply use them as the dependent variable. Their development is seen as evidence of higher levels of democracy. The assumptions inherent in these claims have not been subjected to widespread rigorous testing and one of our contributions is to offer the most comprehensive test of these assumptions to date. We concentrate on civil society and parties as independent variables and examine whether more active civil societies and more institutionalized parties contribute to the survival of democracy.
In the sections that follow, we consider the ways in which active civil societies and institutionalized political parties reinforce the accountability mechanisms that make democracy a self-enforcing system. In so doing, we distinguish between the way they impact the various types of accountability identified in the literature (O’Donnell 1998). Vertical accountability refers to the way in which ordinary citizens, collectively constituted as the electorate, can impose constraints on the rulers when regular elections give the power to remove them from office. Horizontal accountability refers to the ways in which different centers of authority constrain one another’s actions. To this, we add the notion of social accountability, which is similar to vertical in that it connects citizens to rulers, though exercised informally via direct action (Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2006; Grimes 2013; Cornell and Grimes 2015; Hegre et al. 2019). These distinctions allow us to specify the pathways through which party and civil society actors can work to reinforce democracy.
Civil society is “an organizational layer of the polity that lies between the state and private life…composed of voluntary associations of people joined together in common purpose...” in pursuit of their interests and ideals (Coppedge et al. 2016a, 413). It is populated by groups of citizens organized to pursue common goals. Such civil society organizations (CSOs) include interest groups, labor unions, social movements, professional associations, welfare organizations, among others. They are distinguished from political society (organizations primarily focused on contesting and taking state power like parties) and organized private activity (e.g., spiritual or economic).Footnote 1
The resurgence of civil society as a concept in comparative politics was sparked when widespread citizen activism became a force for resistance (Arato 1993 , Stepan 1985) and democratization (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Przeworski 1991; Rueschemeyer et al. 1992) in a large number of late twentieth century dictatorships. After transition, civil society organizations not only act to promote the interests of their members but also retain their capacity to constrain power by popular engagement. And indeed, there is a growing literature which argues that the strength and character of the civil society that emerges in the struggle for democracy carries over into the operation of democracy in its ability to constrain state power (Rueschemeyer et al. 1992, Haggard and Kaufman 2016, Fishman 2017, Della Porta (2014), Brancati 2016). In terms of the self-enforcement of democracy, this means that an active civil society should be expected to be the mainstay of the social accountability of elites to citizens.Footnote 2
An active civil society not only creates social accountability but also makes vertical accountability more effective. Vertical accountability is predicated on regular elections and the threat they pose to incumbents who are ineffective or unresponsive to citizens. A number of observers have noted limitations to such theories of electoral accountability (Manin et al. 1999; Anderson 2007; Ashworth 2012) given the distal and periodic nature of elections. What keeps politicians accountable between elections, especially if incumbents or challengers are contemplating the overthrow of democracy? The ability of incumbents to avoid being held accountable between elections is demonstrated by the consistency with which electoral authoritarian leaders such as Putin, Mugabe, Chavez, Erdoğan, or Orbán have assailed civil society while consolidating their power (Esen and Gumuscu 2016, 1582, Corrales 2015, 38, Kornai 2015, 37, Bratton and Masunungure 2007, 21, Lipman 2016, 341).
Thus, civil society is essential to checking prerogative state power and keeping politicians accountable to social constituencies, especially between elections. This is attested to by a large literature on how civil society provides alternative forms of representation that keep politicians responsive to citizens (i.e., Schmitter 1992; Diamond 1994; Chalmers et al. 1997; Houtzager and Lavalle 2010; Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2006). Among the mechanisms that may help to promote this are the public pressure exerted by protest and other forms of contentious politics (McAdam and Tarrow 2010; Ekiert and Kubik 1998), the organization of international support and media attention (Keck and Sikkink 1998), the development of citizen-based networks to monitor and oversee government agencies (Smulovitz and Peruzzotti 2000), the utilization of referenda and other popular initiatives for citizen legislation (Altman 2019), and direct intervention via citizen activism to pressure the bureaucracy, the courts, and politicians (Cornell and Grimes 2015).
The overwhelming positive assessment of civil society’s impact is countered by another line of research that argues highly mobilized civil societies represent an opportunity for anti-democratic actors to undermine democracy or even a means to take control of the state (Berman 1997; Riley 2010). Such accounts stress that a mobilized civil society, whose demands cannot be effectively channeled by the party system or other institutions, threaten democracy. This view is sharply contested in turn by Bermeo (2003), who asserts that polarization in the public space is often stoked by elites and then in turn used it as an excuse to overthrow democracy. Most of evidence for the negative argument is provided by process-tracing case studies. These accounts are convincing, but the sample is limited to cases of breakdown. In order to test for whether this evidence represents a general tendency or a set of exceptions, we not only test for the additive effects of our two main independent variables but whether they have an interactive effect. If these theories hold, we would expect that a mobilized civil society should be inimical to democratic stability where parties are weak.
The comprehensiveness of the V-Dem data allows us to test the deterrent effect of the social accountability provided by an active civil society. Again, civil society is expected to deter democratic defection not only by reducing the odds that an attempt at subversion will succeed but also by raising the potential costs of subversion. An active civil society therefore should affect the calculus of potential autocrats by diminishing their net payoff if they succeed and lowering their expected utility by increasing uncertainty about their prospects for success. Thus, an active civil society should also be expected to reduce the number of scenarios in which the overthrow of democracy looks like an attractive option.
Institutionalized parties have strong, stable bases of support, robust organizations, and labels that are distinct and valuable to both voters and candidates (Mainwaring and Scully 1995; Levitsky 1998; Bizzarro et al. 2017). By contrast, weakly institutionalized parties are often ephemeral, with poorly articulated platforms, weak organization, and lacking stable bases of support. In institutionalized party systems, most meaningful competition occurs between established political parties, with relatively stable patterns of inter-party competition (Mainwaring and Scully 1995, Sartori 1976; Mainwaring et al. 2018). The expectation we set out to test in this article is that a higher degree of institutionalization will enhance the prospects for regime survival by strengthening accountability mechanisms, not only vertically and socially as with civil society but also horizontally through party actors in the legislature.
A number of scholars have posited a link between party/party-system institutionalization and the quality, as well as the stability of democracy.Footnote 3 Party institutionalization is highlighted as a means for channeling the interests of social groups, promoting actors and attitudes supportive of democracy, and facilitating credible commitments (e.g., Mainwaring and Torcal 2006; Ufen 2008; Lewis 2006). Weak or collapsing democratic political parties open the door to anti-system outsiders who threaten democratic institutions (Linz 1994; Samuels and Shugart 2010; Carreras 2012; Mainwaring 2018; Self and Hicken 2018). Weak parties make it harder to hold politicians collectively accountable (Moser and Scheiner 2012; Kitschelt et al. 2010), and create greater uncertainty about actors’ preferences, time horizons, and commitment to democracy (Lupu and Riedl 2013; Levitsky 2018; Flores-Macías 2018; Hicken 2016). Finally, party systems with weak parties also produce less-experienced politicians, who, in turn, are “less likely to be unconditional supporters of democracy.” (Mainwaring 2018, p 72; see also Kenney 1998) In short, the failure the party system can have fatal consequences for the health and durability of democracy (Morgan 2011).
While we concur with the thrust of these studies, most assert or assume, rather than explicitly test, the relationship between institutionalized parties/party systems and a healthy democracy. As the first study, as far as we know, to systematically test the effect of party institutionalization on democratic survival (or any other democracy indicator) in a cross-national time series framework, our contribution is to verify the nature of the oft-asserted link between party institutionalization and durability.
We place the discussion of party institutionalization and democracy within a survival framework and emphasize how institutionalized parties enhance democratic accountability. First, parties are intrinsic to the electoral process and their ability to displace incumbents when citizens are dissatisfied is central to classic theories of vertical accountability. Second, parties are the dominant actors in legislatures and thus their delegations, both in governing coalitions and legislative oppositions, are central to the operation of institutional checks and balances, i.e., providing horizontal accountability. In these institutional roles, they are also in a position to serve as an early warning alarm in response to potential breaches of the democratic bargain by the executive. Finally, to the extent parties mount extra-governmental campaigns of support and protest among their adherents, they can also play a role in providing the kind of social accountability underscored in our discussion of civil society.
Aspiring dictators (whether incumbents, anti-system movements, or the military) facing institutionalized parties are more likely to face organized opposition if they seek to overturn democratic institutions, compared to those in systems with weak parties. The leaders of institutionalized parties, with their reliable bases of support, robust organizational capacity, and longer time horizons can be expected to have the capacity and incentives to overcome collective action problems in response to attempts by their opponents to defect from the democratic bargain. Thus, similarly to a strong, mobilized civil society, party institutionalization should both increase the costs of democratic defection and reduce its prospects for success. This should help deter attempts to overthrow democracy by decreasing its expected utility.
Concrete Illustration: Slovakia
The defense of democracy by civil society actors and political parties in Slovakia serves to illustrate how the concerted effort of both can restrain the power of an aspiring dictator. Following the break-up of Czecho-Slovakia in 1993, its politics were dominated by Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar (1993–1994, 1994–1998) and his party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Mečiar’s imperious style resembled that of contemporary rightwing populists. He was a Euroskeptic with a hardline authoritarian style and an exclusionary ethno-national notion of who constituted “the people.” During this time period, Slovakia, like many fledgling democracies, had a fairly low level of civil society engagement and a new party system that was just beginning to institutionalize.
The expert consensus is that Mečiar constituted a serious threat to undo democracy (Deegan-Krause and Haughton 2009; Deegan-Krause 2006; O’Dwyer 2006, and Leff 1996). Levitsky and Way (2010, 91) go so far as to categorize the country as competitive authoritarian, though in the data we use, Slovakia does not experience a breakdown. Mečiar used the state-controlled mass media in a blatantly partisan fashion. Independent media were harassed via bogus libel suits and the revocation of licenses for arbitrary reasons (Levitsky and Way 2010, 93). The security services were used to harass opponents via kidnapping, physical intimidation, and wiretapping (Bunce and Wolchik 2011, 62; Deegan-Krause 2006; Leff 1996). Mečiar ignored the results of a referendum on the direct election of the president and defied a Constitutional Court finding ordering him to comply (Haughton 2003, 276–277, 287–288). He illegally began to exercise the powers of the presidency when the parliament deadlocked over replacing the outgoing incumbent, Michal Kováč, in 1998.
Ultimately, Mečiar was removed from power by the concerted effort of his opponents, both in the party system and civil society. The dominant force in derailing Mečiar was concerted effort by the parties in opposition. Beginning in 1997, the Christian-democratic and liberal parties of the center-right (the Christian Democrats, the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Union), all of whom were more civil libertarian, pro-market, and pro-EU than Mečiar, adopted a coalition strategy for the upcoming 1998 elections and eventually persuaded the Social-Democrats and the Greens to join (Bunce and Wolchik 2011, 64–65). Despite an underdeveloped civil society, new efforts were launched to oust Mečiar and were broadly supported by a range of existing civil society organizations, such as youth movements, trade unions, and independent think tanks. Three coalitions of CSOs mobilized and played a major role in supporting the parties in the electoral process. The first of these, OK ‘98 (Civic Campaign), did extensive voting education and mobilized first time voters, especially young people. MEMO ‘98 (Media Monitoring) extensively monitored the pro-Mečiar official state media and publicized distortions in the coverage of elections. OKO ‘98 (Civic Eye) provided an extensive voluntary network of poll watchers to ensure that the Mečiar forces did not falsify the voting returns (Bunce and Wolchik 2011, 690, Potocki 2011).
Mečiar’s party and its allies saw their share of the vote and seats drop in the parliamentary election of 1998 (Nohlen and Stöver 2010, 1747). The coalition of forces opposed to him, split across four different parties and party coalitions, won almost 60% of the vote and 80 of the 150 seats in the parliament and were thus able to form a new government under Mikuláš Dzurinda. Despite being a democracy at risk, with a low level of civil society participation compared to many of the democracies in our dataset and a moderate level of party institutionalization, a closer consideration of Mečiar’s defeat shows that coordinated action by the opposition parties, combined with an increase in civil society mobilization, derailed his attempt to undermine democracy from a paramount executive position in the system. The defeat of Mečiar demonstrates how concerted efforts by political parties and civil society organizations can resist and defeat leaders who try and use their powers of office to undermine the constraints placed on them by democracy.