Polarity, Polarization and Democracy in the Middle East

Polarity, Polarization and Democracy in the Middle East


Studies that examine systemic determinants of democracy mainly focus on factors such as systemic conflict, strength of global community, international organizations and the impact of democratic neighbours. This paper logically extends the systemic approach by considering the impact of polarity and polarization on democratization in the Middle East. It is argued that systemic uncertainty raised by polarity and polarization is likely to impact authoritarian elite behaviour leading to their concession to share political power. After clarification of the concepts of polarity and polarization, the article specifies main assumptions and the causal mechanism through which polarity and polarization might impact democracy in the Middle East.

 I. Introduction

One of the major debates among International Relations scholars has been the possible effects of polarity and polarization on international stability. While some argue that bipolar power structure stabilize the system, others support the view that a multipolar structure increases chances of stability (Waltz, 1979; Mearsheimer, 1990; Deutsch and Singer, 1964). After the end of the Cold War, the world was in a “unipolar moment” where the U.S. was the dominant power (Krauthammer, 1990). However, this unipolar order is moving toward a multipolar one with the rise of other powers such as China, India, Russia or Japan.

Another simultaneous event accompanying this power polarity is democratization. On the international scale, there are increasing incentives for democratization as well as domestic pressures toward new transitions to democracy in different parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and recently the Middle East. However, it is still not certain whether these pressures will end up with more democratic governments or whether they will be hijacked by another authoritarian regime replacing the alternative authoritarian regime.

Since the discussions on the future of Arab Spring are very new, we still need to wait and see the path and form of the new regimes. However, these simultaneous movements in the system toward polarization and democratization are interesting. Is a polarized world order more conducive to democratic transitions? If there is any link what could be the possible causal mechanisms?

II. Definition and Determinants of Democracy

1. Definition of Democracy

In this study definition of democracy is based on Polity IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2004) where the operational indicator of democracy and autocracy is derived from coding of the competitiveness of political participation, the openness and competitiveness of executive recruitment and constraints on the chief executive. Polity IV code autocracy score from zero to one, one representing the most authoritarian, and zero representing the least authoritarian. Since democracy score for Middle East countries are almost always zero, this study will use autocracy scores for Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, democratization will be defined as any movement from autocracy score of one to zero.

2. Determinants of Democracy

Determinants of democracy can be grouped under two categories: internal and systemic factors. Internal factors are rooted in a country’s domestic structure which may include domestic economic, structural, institutional, or cultural variables whereas systemic factors are mainly international or global determinants which may include a country’s neighbors, conflict in the system, or international organizations.

2.1. Internal Determinants

In both democratic transitions and consolidation literature, economic development as determinants of democracies has been the subject of debate both theoretically and empirically. Some researchers and theorists argue that economic development and growth are the main factors that help establish and maintain a democratic regime. According to this school of thought, higher levels of economic well-being lead to more widespread literacy, education and urbanization, a larger middle class, and the development of values and attitudes supportive of democracy such as toleration, respect and civil communication (Barro, 1999; Dahl, 1971; Huntington, 1991; Lipset, 1959).

Modernization theory was supported by other additional measures of development such as levels of education (Almond and Verba, 1963; Diamond, 1992), industrialization (More, 1966; Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens, 1992), and economic performance (Przeworski and Limongi, 1997). Later more nuanced contributions were added to the “wealth” literature looking into the relationship between a country’s natural resources and democracy (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003; Ross 2001). According to this literature, a “resource curse” led to stabilizing effects on dictatorships and hence reduced the probability of democratization. Therefore it is found that not only “quantity” but the “quality” of wealth was important. Unlike economic development, there is much theoretical and empirical controversy about the effects of economic inequality on democratization and/or democratic survival. One branch of scholars support the idea that inequality harms democracy (Boix, 2003; Reenock, 2007). Another branch of scholars however, do not believe that inequality is a necessary and sufficient condition for democratic break down (Bermeo, 2009; Bollen and Jackman 1985).

Aside from economic factors non-economic factors such as cultural or religious traits (Almond and Verba, 1963; Inglehart and Welzel, 2006; Huntington, 1996), ethnic or religious fractionalization (Alesina, Baquir and Easterly, 1999; Lijphart, 1999), historical experiences (Lipset and Lakin, 2004), legal structures (Djankov et al., 2003), institutional structures (North, 1990; Linz, 1990; Cheibub and Limongi, 2002; Hadenius and Teorell, 2007; Feng, 2005) are found to impact democratic transitions and democratic consolidation. It is also argued that previous experiences with democracy increase the chances of democratization (Hadenius and Teorell, 2007). In addition, political instability reflected in anti-government demonstrations, revolutions, civil wars and government crisis are more likely to result in democracy (Hegre, 2012). Among all the models that have been used in the literature, GDP has proven to be the most robust internal determinant of democratic transitions and/or democratic survival (Gassebner, Lamla and Vreeland, 2012; Hegre, 2012).

2.2. Systemic Determinants

Other than internal causes that mainly result from a country’s domestic structure, international and systemic factors have been the focus of attention. It is argued that in an international environment of strong democratic states, strong states can shield fledgling democracies from invasion and annexation. They can protect democratic institutions and leaders from local coup attempts (Kadera, Crescenzi & Shannon, 2003). According to Gleditsch and Ward (2006), the relations with external democratic countries work in two stages. First stage is to undermine the authoritarian government as seen in the German Democratic Republic (GDR); second stage is promoting the creation of democratic institutions after the fall of a dictator as in the case of Paraguay. Neighbour states or transnational actors can support democratic regimes by actions that strengthen domestic actors who are in favour of democracy and weaken those who favour autocratic regimes (Deutch, 2006; Gledisch & Ward, 2006; Solingen, 1998). It is also argued that involvement in international organizations help democratization and democratic consolidation. According to this argument, IOs help democratic consolidation and democratization through creating credible guarantees to key democratic groups as well as altering elites’ belief systems through socialization process (Pevehouse, 2002a, 2002b).

There is also research on the relationship between conflict and democracy. Thompson (1996) suggests that in regions where states are preparing for war, the political composition will most likely be autocratic, as elites attempt to mobilize national resources toward survival and expansion. When necessity for survival strategies fades in the absence of war, we see the emergence of more liberal political regimes. Thompson (1996) argues that the dynamic between democracy and war is one of state-making and war-making, where power-concentration is intertwined with war and power de-concentration is linked to political liberalization. On the other hand, some research support an endogenous relationship where conflict and democracy are mutually affecting each other (Crescenzi and Enterline, 1999; Reuveny and Li, 2003; Kadera, Crescenzi and Shannon, 2003). However, in most of these findings, the relationship between conflict and democracy is found to vary over time and space (Gleditsch & Hegre, 1997; Crescenzi and Enterline, 1999; Kadera, Crescenzi and Shannon, 2003). That is, democracy might have a markedly different effect on incidence of war during the 19th century compared to its effect in the post-World War II period – and vice versa. Spatial and temporal variations in democracy-conflict relationship necessitate looking for alternative explanations on the relationship between international system and democracy.

III. Polarity, Polarization and Democracy

1.What is Polarity and Polarization?

The system level analysis of international politics often used the terms “polarity” to determine its effects on the international relations. However, there has been confusion on the definition of “polarity” due to the ambiguity of the concept. The essence of this confusion has involved the question of whether the polarity of the international system is determined by the number of major states or by the number of distinct clusters of states emerging from the configuration of alliances (Geller and Singer, 1998). For example, what should we call a system with six major states that have coalesced into two opposing alliances?

Geller and Singer (1998) provide a useful terminology which has been commonly accepted. According to this terminology, the polarity of the international system is determined by the number of major actors. Unipolar is defined as systems which have one dominant state, bipolar is defined as systems in which there are two major states of approximately equal capabilities, and multipolar is defined as systems which have three or more major states of approximately equal capabilities. In this definition, “poles” are “states”, not “alliances” or “blocs” of states.

Alliance configuration has often been discussed in terms of the polarization of the international system (Geller and Singer, 1998). Therefore, as Kegley and Raymond (1994:54-55) argue, “Polarity pertains to the distribution of power (the number of major states) and polarization refers to the propensity of countries to cluster in alliance”. Therefore, a system with multiple major states which form two separate blocs is multipolar and highly polarized.

2.Polarization and System Uncertainty

Alliance configuration or polarization is viewed as a factor that affects uncertainty and conflict in the system (Hower and Zinnes, 1989, Maoz, 2006). In the literature, there is extensive research on whether uncertainty created by multipolarity and polarization are causes of conflict. Opposing theoretical schools have developed regarding the war effects of system polarity and polarization. Some analysts argue that unipolar systems should be the least war-prone because they are more certain. As the system becomes multipolar the likelihood of conflict due to opportunism and miscalculation increases (Wallerstein, 1984; Thompson, 1988, Waltz, 1979). More recent scholars believe that multipolarity increases the chances of peace as there are more opportunities for cooperation (Schweller, 2011, Engelhardt, 2014).

The main point of this debate for the purpose of this article is that, the war effects of polarity and alliance rely on their roles in either enhancing or reducing uncertainty: unipolarity and firm alliances may reduce the level of uncertainty for decision makers, but whether this decreases the probability of war by reducing misperception or increases the probability of war by simplifying aggressor’s calculations remains indeterminate (Geller and Singer, 1998; Moul, 1993; Maoz, 2006). The common theme among all scholars of international politics is that multipolarity and polarization increase uncertainty.

 IV. Polarization, Uncertainty and Democracy

As argued above, impact of conflict on democracy as well as the impact of polarity and polarization on conflict tends to give mixed results. Despite much research on the impact of polarity and polarization on conflict and the impact of conflict on democracy, direct impact of polarity and polarization on democratic survival seems to be neglected. This paper suggests an alternative way of looking at the effects of systemic factors on democracy by suggesting that uncertainty caused by polarity and polarization might be a better explanatory factor.

Empirical research on the impact of systemic polarity and polarization on democratic transitions and consolidation is limited and the theoretical explanations are varied. According to structural realism, under bipolarity, domestic political systems tend to converge toward the models provided by the leading powers (Vayrynen, 1995). Structural realists argue that in multipolar systems, the impact of systemic political and military factors is more indeterminate, and the international economy as well as various domestic forces has more influence on political systems (Vayrynen, 1995). Therefore, multipolar systems are more flexible and contain more interaction opportunities. Following this argument, it can be concluded that multipolar systems might be more conducive to democratic institutions because of the availability of interaction opportunities in the system.

On the other hand, Vayrynen (1995) argues that under multipolar systems, dominant powers might be less interested in materially supporting democracy and the policies of democracy promotion might be ineffectual since a multipolar system permits more political experimentation and uncertainty. As a result, in multipolar systems, ideologies and institutions can vary considerably (Kegley & Raymond, 1994). Following this argument, it can be concluded that multipolar systems might be more conducive to both democratic and authoritarian institutions.

In order to establish a clear causal mechanism on the possible impacts of polarity and polarization on democracy, I start with some assumptions which are commonly accepted by scholars of international relations. The first assumption to start with is the systemic impact of polarity and polarization:

Assumption 1: Multipolarity and polarization increases uncertainty in the system.

The common agreement among scholars of international relations is that multipolarity and polarization creates more uncertainty in the system. According to Geller and Singer (1998), systems in which capabilities are highly concentrated in the hands of very few nations are more certain and the uncertainty levels will rise when capabilities are more equally distributed and not concentrated. Second, uncertainty will rise when the distribution of capability concentration is changing toward higher or lower concentration (Geller and Singer, 1998). Therefore, uncertainty increases during times of power transitions. Third, uncertainty will rise when there is an increase at the rate at which relative capabilities are moving (Geller and Singer, 1998). In addition, multipolarized systems are more uncertain because of increase in the number of alliance groups.

Assumption 2: Democratization is a result of conscious decision of authoritarian elites in response to the opposition forces that demand democracy.

Rustow (1970) argued persuasively that democracy is the fruit of “choice” and “conscious decision” on the part of political elites. This perception seems widely shared, for current democracy literature is full of tactical insights on how elites might be induced to choose democracy over alternative political systems (Anderson, 1999). I anchor my explanation of democratic emergence and democratic break down in a theoretical framework based on previous scholars of democracy such as Rustow (1970), Linz and Stephan (1978) and O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986).

The specifics of the approaches on the emergence and survival of democracy differ in important respects, yet they converge on a number of points. First, democratization represents an increase in political equality and it is power relations between different segments of society that most importantly determine whether democracy can emerge, stabilize, and then maintain itself even in the face of adverse conditions (Rueshmeyer et al., 1992). Second, the key actors in the transition process are political elites, whether in the government or opposition (Haggard and Kaufman, 1997). Third, actors behave strategically; their actions are influenced by expectations concerning the behaviour of allies and rivals (Haggard and Kaufman, 1997). Finally, democratization is the outcome of explicit or implicit negotiation; new institutions are “bargains among self-interested politicians” (Haggard and Kaufman, 1997). The particular social composition of the contending forces, both leaders and followers, and the specific nature of the issues will vary widely from one country to the next and in the same country from period to period but the capacity of the state to extract adequate resources and the ability of social groups to resist arbitrary and capricious government constitute important conditions for both the adoption and the consolidation of democratic regimes (Anderson, 1999).

Acemoglu and Robinson (2003) also explain the emergence of democracy from the cost-benefit calculation of specific groups in a society. Acemoglu and Robinson (2003) argue that when the cost of repression is high, the elites choose to tolerate the demands of masses in favour of democracy. According to Acemoglu and Robinson (2003), relatively effective threat of revolution from the citizens is important for democratization.

Similar to emergence of democracies, break down is also understood as a consequence of different power relations in society. According to Linz (1978), the prolonged inability “of a regime to find solutions to the basic problems facing any political system” in a way that is “perceived as more satisfactory than unsatisfactory by aware citizens” may lead to a loss of legitimacy for democracies (Linz, 1978: 21). When legitimacy begins to erode, a cyclical pattern of destructive politics often emerges with democracy entering a crisis phase where antidemocratic political forces pose extreme solutions to the nagging problems that democracy has been unable to address. If not effectively checked, such actors may overturn democracy and establish dictatorship.

How does Uncertainty Caused by System Polarization Affect Democratization?

As Acemoglu and Robinson (2003) argue, in crisis situations, the collective action problem is easier to solve, opponents to the regime are easier to coordinate, and revolutions are easier and less costly to carry out. Therefore, crisis situations are favourable for new democracies to emerge. Similarly, in times of uncertainty in the system, elites have more than one paradigm to solve which makes the collective organization easier and thus revolutions less costly.

In a similar theoretical framework, Weingast (1997) argues that transition to stable democracy requires the construction of a coordination device that specifies the limits on the state. By allowing citizens to react to violations in concert, such a device makes limits on political officials self-enforcing. According to Weingast, two means of constructing limits are elite pacts and the writing of a constitution. Weingast, however, continues to note that a society cannot establish a coordination device at just any time. When the state and its supporters benefit from transgressions against other citizens, this pattern is a stable equilibrium. Breaking this equilibrium is difficult and requires something exogenous to the model (Weingast, 1997). As Weingast (1997) argues, a crisis such as economic changes may destroy the status-quo.

In this article it is suggested that, uncertainty caused by polarization might produce a similar crisis-like environment for elites and citizens. Systemic uncertainty might cause transitions to democracy because the cost of repressing democratic demands in uncertain systemic setting is higher for authoritarian elites. Uncertainty in the system produced by polarization is more likely to increase elites’ willingness to concede masses demands in order to gain their people’s support. Elites will want to have support of masses even more in times of uncertainty in the system and will be more likely to give in to the demands of the people through democratic policies. In addition, uncertain systemic setting will help destroy the Weingast’s equilibrium creating a viable environment for citizens to establish a new coordination device. A good example that illustrates this hypothesis is post 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Fall of Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of Yugoslavia all contributed to the formation of new power and alliance balances and shift of powers in the international system. The new democracies in Eastern Europe emerged mainly in times of uncertainty in the system.

In Poland, the change came originally from the labour-based social movement Solidarity, founded in 1980. However, “the transition did not get underway until 1989 when the incumbent elites relaxed earlier repressive policies and started roundtable negotiations with Solidarity” (Munck and Leff, 1997). “While the impetus behind the decision to negotiate was to legitimate the Communist economic program in a time of economic crisis, not to introduce the democratic changes sought by Solidarity, this step represented a departure from the monopoly of political power” (Munck and Leff, 1997). According to Munck and Leff (1997), “in Poland, uncertainty about the scope of the change that Gorbachev was willing to tolerate the opposition, gave the political Communists the advantage that attended the lasting remaining threat of Soviet intervention”.

Similarly, in Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary the Communist political leadership started the process of liberalization only after the pressure of popular mobilization left no alternative during times of uncertainty in the international system (Welsh, 1994). The reform wing of the Communist elite had been building bridges to the more responsive currents in the political and cultural opposition for several years prior to 1989, in search of a political liberalization formula for “socialist pluralism” that would validate effective economic reform (Welsh, 1994). However, the solid changes could only be realized after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In all these cases, authoritarian elites were not certain whether Soviet Union would back their repression of the opposition. The year 1989 marked the dissolution of Soviet Union and uncertainty in the system created a fertile environment for collective political mobility while at the same time leaving governments no other choice but to cooperate with political opposition.

V. Polarization and Democratization in the Middle East

How does polarity and polarization contribute to democratic process in the Middle East? Below for the purpose of illustration I select two cases and explain how systemic factors might have impacted democratic process in these selected Middle Eastern countries.

The following graph shows Turkey’s autocracy score ranging from 0 to 1 from POLITY IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2004). For the purposes of illustration I normalized autocracy score dividing it by 100 to have a number consistent with alliance polarization data. Alliance Polarization data is obtained from Maoz (2006) dataset. The autocracy score of Turkey therefore, is represented with a number between zero and one, one being most authoritarian. As the number approaches to zero, this means Turkey is democratizing. Alliance polarization also ranges from zero to one, one being the least polarized system and zero the most polarized system.


Figure 1: Autocracy Scores and Alliance Polarization, Turkey (1968-1974)

The above graph shows alliance polarization in the world system and Turkish autocracy score. As we clearly see from the graph, there is a sharp rise in Alliance Polarization toward a less polarized system starting from 1969 escalating until 1972. In Turkey, the end of 1960s were times of increasing political violence and instability. During this unstable political environment military stepped in. Even though it is difficult to make direct causal links between any systemic factor and domestic politics, Turkish 1971 military intervention is a good example that shows how domestic politics follow or react to systemic features. As argued in the theory section, in Turkish example, military elite gave its place to civil rule paralleled with the polarization in the system. As the international system become more uncertain, democratic parties started to emerge whereas when the system was more stable, civil disturbances ended with military coup d’état.


Figure 2: Autocracy Scores and Alliance Polarization, Iran (1937-1945)

The above graph shows pre WWII period where there are considerable polarization. There is a visible uncertainty in the system as evidenced by data from alliance polarization. Historically, pre- WWII period coincides with a clear tension between Britain / USSR and Germany both of which wanted to control Iran. In Iran, this uncertainty in the system coincides with shift of rule from Reza Shah to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi which was relatively more democratic.Mohammad Reza came to power during World War II after an Anglo-Soviet invasion forced the abdication of his father Reza Shah.  Even though he was not democratically elected, he used uncertainty in the system to restore a democratic rule. As ruler, he introduced a series of economic, social and political reforms with the stated intention of transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing industries and granting women suffrage. Especially, granting women the right to vote could be an important factor in the decrease of Iran’s autocracy score.

VI. Conclusion

This article suggests that concentrating power in diffuse hands and polarization might in fact be good for democratic transitions and democratic survival. It is true that today we are living in uncertain times especially in terms of power and alliance configurations. The Eurozone crisis, the rise of China, U.S intervention in the Middle East, all caused power and alliance shifts. There are multiple alliances and multiple power shifts occurring at the same time, especially in the Middle East. If the system continues to move toward a multipolar and polarized order, this might help transitions to democracy as it will help destroy the equilibrium and help citizens find a coordination device to break authoritarian regimes.

As emphasized in the theory section, democracy is the fruit of choice and conscious decision on the part of political elites. There are many internal factors such as development, economic growth and a country’s past experience with democratization which are crucial in determining the future of regime types. However, the systemic features in which elites operate, from power concentrations to alliance configurations do clearly shape their calculations and strategic preferences as they bargain over the adoption of democratic institutions and procedures.

Dr. Selin E. Güner, School of Behavioral and Social Sciences, St. Edwards University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Güner S. E. (January, 2015), “Polarity, Polarization and Democracy in the Middle East”, Vol. IV, Issue 1, pp.6-22, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7708)


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