Do Civil Resistance Movements Advance Democratization?

See also Bartkowski’s follow-up post here: Why Do Some Movements Fail to Bring Positive Outcomes, and How Can This Be Changed?

Two recent books, Social Movements and Civil War and Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring: Triumphs and Disasters,1 examine the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and come to the conclusion that civil resistance movements can lead to rising violence, authoritarianism and failed democratization.

As Adam Roberts, one of the editors of Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring, observes:

“Civil resistance can play some part in larger tragedies. If it displaces a regime without providing for an effective succession, it can lead to power vacuums and ungoverned spaces, with disastrous results. It can even form part of the story of how wars begin—the case of Syria being a particularly worrying example.”

Yet the existing research on the short- and long-term impact of civil resistance, which is based on a large and representative sample of cases over a century, presents a different emphasis. While recognizing that civil wars can occur in the aftermath of civil resistance movements, quantitative research points to the fact that, more often than not, nonviolent movements are a positive force for democratization and can help build a less violent political order. There are at least eight published works (and an additional one is forthcoming) that emphasize the significant probability of positive outcomes of civil resistance.

Civil Resistance and Democracy:

1.   A study by Karatnycky and Ackerman (2005) used data from the organization Freedom House and analyzed 67 political transitions between 1972 and 2005. They found that transitions driven by nonviolent resistance were:

– more than four times as likely to bring about successful democratization than top-down transitions driven by powerholders; and

– more than three times as likely to consolidate democratic gains than transitions that experienced some opposition violence.

Furthermore, civil resistance-led transitions showed the highest increases in freedom scores, so that even in cases where a country did not fully democratize after a political transition, on average, civil resistance led to the largest increase in democratic gains relative to other kinds of transitions.

2.   Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) analyzed data from 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006, and demonstrated that:

– The probability of a democratic outcome five years after the end of a successful campaign was almost 10 times higher for nonviolent resistance movements (57%) than for violent movements (6%).

– Even in cases where nonviolent resistance movements failed to achieve their stated objectives, five years later a country nonetheless had a 35% chance of a democratic outcome. This points to the likelihood that there are dynamics inherent in civil resistance movements that can contribute to democratization, even if a movement fails to achieve its immediate goals. In contrast, there was only a 4% chance of such an outcome after a failed violent resistance movement.2

3.   Researchers Celestino and Gleditsch (2013) used the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) dataset created by Chenoweth and Stephan to study the impact of nonviolent campaigns on democratic transitions in autocracies, and concluded that “nonviolent protests substantially increase the likelihood of transitions to democracy.” They also found that “violent direct action is less effective in undermining autocracies overall, and makes transitions to new autocracies relatively more likely.”

4.   Bayer, Bethke and Lambach (2016) demonstrated that the post-conflict stability and durability of a democratic system increases significantly when nonviolent resistance is the main driver of a political transition. In countries where violent resistance campaigns led to political transitions, they found that a post-conflict democratic government had an average survival rate of five years. In comparison, governments that experienced transitions with no grassroots resistance at all had an average survival rate of nine years. But the survival rate for democratic governments that resulted from nonviolent resistance campaigns was the longest: 47 years. In other words, democracy survives longer and chances for a democratic backsliding decrease substantially if a political change is driven by nonviolent movements.

5.   Utilizing a sample of 101 regimes between 1945 and 2010, and sophisticated methodology to isolate other factors leading to democratization, Bethke and Pinckney (2016) recently found that the quality of democracy (primarily in the area of freedom of expression) was significantly improved as a result of transitions initiated through nonviolent resistance, relative to cases without nonviolent resistance.

6.   In a master’s thesis, now being turned into a doctoral dissertation supported by an ICNC research grant, Pinckney (2014) showed that mechanisms of political transition (such as negotiations and elections) that were propelled by nonviolent movements resulted in almost twice as high a future democracy rate than violent mechanisms of change such as coups or external military interventions.

Civil Resistance and Economic and Social Development:

7.   A study by Johnstad (2010) drew from Freedom House data and found that countries with nonviolent resistance campaigns were more likely to experience higher economic growth during an ensuing transition than in the case of top-down, powerholder-driven transitions.

8.   Adding to our understanding of socio-economic impacts, Stoddard (2013)examined life expectancy, as an indicator of the overall health and living conditions in the state, five and ten years after successful nonviolent and violent campaigns had ended. What she found is that all affected countries registered an initial decline in life expectancy, but within a decade, governments that were brought to power through nonviolent civil resistance were able to make positive changes and their populations caught up with and even overtook the world average life expectancy.

The findings of these eight studies confirm that, all in all, civil resistance movements advance democratization. History gives robust reasons for hope in this regard, and strong statements about a civil resistance movement’s potential “risk of degenerating into political violence on a massive scale” (Della Porta, 2017) need to be considered in light of what the rest of the data that looks at a large sample of cases tell us. We should also be cautious about overgeneralizing from the limited number of examples of the Arab Spring movements.

At the same time, it is true that civil resistance movements carry with them risks (e.g. the Iranian nonviolent revolution of 1979). In fact, Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) found that there was a 28 percent probability of nonviolent movements leading to civil wars within 10 years after the end of the movement. Although significant, this probability, notably, is much lower than the chance of civil war recurrence after violent insurgencies (see footnote 2).

A critical line of new research could be on how internal discipline, planning and strategizing, and institution-building undertaken by movements during the resistance phase can increase even further their chances of successful democratic transition later on, while minimizing their probability of leading to civil war in the future. In part two of this post, I will explore this question from the opposite side—looking at the dynamics of nonviolent movements that increase the probability of violence—and through this understanding, exploring how movements can be transformed to increase their likelihood of generating positive and peaceful change in the long term.


1 Supported by an ICNC grant.
2 Additional data presented in Chenoweth and Stephan’s book show that countries that were already democracies when a resistance campaign occurred were about 82% likely to remain a democracy after a successful nonviolent campaign. At the same time, a democracy that suffered a violent insurrection was less than 17% likely to remain a democracy after the end of the campaign. The probability that a country would relapse into civil war within 10 years after the end of conflict was found to be 42% after a violent campaign versus 28% of the time in the aftermath of a nonviolent campaign. Civilian-led campaigns that coexisted with armed groups that fought for the same democratic goals had a 49% chance of experiencing a recurrence of civil war within 10 years as compared with a 27% chance for nonviolent campaigns that did not co-exist with armed campaigns.

Featured image: May 2012 protest, Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis, Tunisia, where functional democracy has been established despite an overall gloomy aftermath of the Arab Spring. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

[Texto tomado de nonviolent-conflict.org]

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