Third Wave Democracy

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In political science, Third Wave Democracy, also known as Democracy's Third Wave, refers to the third major surge of democracy in history. The term was coined by Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University in his article published in the Journal of Democracy and further expounded in his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century.


Huntington describes global democratization as coming in three waves, the first beginning in the early 19th century and the third being a current event.[1]

The First Wave[edit]

The first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was granted to the majority of white males in the United States ("Jacksonian democracy"). At its peak, the first wave saw 29 democracies in the world. This continued until 1922, when Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy. The ebb of the first wave lasted from 1922 until 1942, during which the number of democracies in the world dropped to a mere 12.[1]

The Second Wave[edit]

The second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II, and crested nearly 20 years later in 1962 with 36 recognised democracies in the world. The second wave ebbed as well at this point, and the total number dropped to 30 democracies between 1962 and the mid-1970s. But the "flat line" would not last for long, as the third wave was about to surge in a way no one had ever seen.[1]

Scholars have noted that the appearance of "waves" of democracy largely disappears when women's suffrage is taken into account; moreover, some countries change their positions quite dramatically: Switzerland, which is typically included as part of the first wave, did not grant women the right to vote until 1971.[2]

The Third Wave[edit]

The Third wave began in 1974 (Carnation Revolution, Portugal) and included the historic democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries (Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan) from 1986 to 1988, Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 1989. Exact tallies of the number of democracies vary depending on the criteria used for assessment, but by some measures there are well over 100 democracies in the world today[when?], a marked increase in just a few decades.[citation needed] Many of these newer democracies are not fully "consolidated," however, meaning that while they have electoral institutions in place, political democracy remains fragile. Reasons for this fragility include economic instability, continued elite dominance of politics, ongoing military interference in civilian affairs, and others.[3]

Countries undergoing or having undergone a transition to democracy during a wave are subject to backsliding. Political scientists and theorists believe that the third wave has crested and will soon begin to ebb, just as its predecessors did in the first and second waves.[4] Indeed, in the period immediately following the onset of the "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, some backsliding was evident. How significant or lasting that erosion is remains a subject of debate.

The Fourth Wave[edit]

Experts have associated the collapse of several dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, phenomenon known as Arab Spring, with the events which followed the fall of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The similarity between the two phenomena inspired hope for a fourth wave of democratization. However, a few months after the apparent beginning of the transition, most of the Arab political openings closed, causing an inevitable pull-back. One of the most alarming cases was that of Egypt, where the government, controlled by the military, did not facilitate the democratic transition in any way. On the contrary, it strove to silence the protests by arresting peaceful protesters and by “trying them in military tribunals.” A concrete example is provided by the story of Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger convicted to be imprisoned for three years for “insulting the military establishment.” The main causes of the regression and crisis in all the affected countries are attributed to corruption, unemployment, social injustice, and autocratic political systems.

Despite the apparently unsolvable situation, the UN, under the administration of Ban Ki-Moon, tried to work as a mediator between the governments and the protesters. Moreover, according to Larry Diamond, the engagement of the United States of America in the democratic transition of the Arab world was fundamental. He attributed to the country the role of mentor and example for the newborn democracies.[5]

Digital media played a much longer term role in creating favorable conditions for uprisings, helped to publicize key igniting events, and then facilitated those uprisings and their diffusion; but digital media did not do this alone or as suddenly as some observers have claimed. The story of the Arab Spring, according to Howard and Hussain, began over a decade ago as Internet access and mobile phones began to diffuse rapidly through North Africa and the Middle East. The citizens that could afford internet access, the wealthy and powerful mostly, played a huge role in the Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain uprisings. Over time, online criticisms of regimes became more public and common, setting the stage for the Arab Spring. Digital media also allowed women and other minorities to enter these political discussions, and, ultimately, the ensuing protests and revolutions as well.[6]

As of 2016, some see the Arab Spring situation is still in progress, while others see the situation as Arab Winter.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "What Is Democracy? - Democracy's Third Wave". U.S. State Department. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  2. ^ Paxton, Pamela. (2000). “Women's Suffrage in the Measurement of Democracy: Problems of Operationalization.” Studies in Comparative International Development 35(3): 92-111
  3. ^ Diamond, Larry. (1996). “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7(3).
  4. ^ Zagorski, Paul W. (2003). "Democratic Breakdown in Paraguay and Venezuela: The Shape of Things to Come for Latin America?". Armed Forces & Society. 30 (1): 87–116. doi:10.1177/0095327X0303000104. 
  5. ^ "A Fourth Wave or False Start?". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2016-03-04. 
  6. ^ Howard, Phillip N. (2013). "Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring" (PDF). OUP.