Discovery Guides Areas


Violent Obstacles to Democratic Consolidation in Three Countries:
Guatemala, Colombia, and Algeria

(Released July 2005)

  by Chris Adcock  


Key Citations

Web Sites


Review Article

It is commonly held that democracy is unquestionably a worthwhile goal, warranting extensive study. Social scientists find much common ground with respect to the basic concepts surrounding democratic consolidation and easily recognize that many transitioning countries lack the characteristics to effectively consolidate democracy. However, beyond these shared assumptions, imprecision and confusion are the rules rather than the exception when it comes to serious discussion of democratic consolidation.

This overview highlights some of the major obstacles to democratic consolidation in three developing countries: Guatemala, Colombia, and Algeria. These case studies demonstrate significant theoretical and empirical problems that challenge a successful transition to a consolidated democracy, providing an overview of the complex problems faced by democratizing countries worldwide.

Defining Democratic Consolidation

At the very minimum, democracy requires the existence of free, fair, and recurring elections allowing the citizenry of a country to choose representative leaders. While elections are a fundamental prerequisite of democratic consolidation, the presence of a functioning electoral system does not automatically ensure the existence of true democracy or rule out the possibility of authoritarian structures and practices. To clarify the minimal requirements of democratic consolidation, leading political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell uses Robert Dahl's concept of "polyarchy," which outlines a useful set of guidelines for democratic consolidation. Polyarchy has six requirements in addition to free and fair elections: universal suffrage, the right to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, and freedom of association (O'Donnell 1996). These prerequisites should ensure that democracy functions at a minimal level: that is, competition occurs for public office, political participation is useful and inclusive, and civil rights and liberties are protected. These requirements should prevent a reversion to authoritarian rule, and ensure that the structures that allow for majoritarian rule also protect minority rights, thereby consolidating democracy (Diamond, 1998; cited in Albrecht and Schlumberger).

While Dahl's minimal prerequisites for democracy are generally agreed upon, it is the unique political and social phenomena inherent to every fledgling democracy that muddies terms and definitions, making generalization nearly impossible. The combination of variables affecting most transitioning democracies are varied and can include, but are not limited to, massive poverty, military guardianship, geographical problems, antidemocratic cultural and religious norms, absence of the rule of law, weak institutions, and civil war. In addition, fledgling democracies have different cultural, political, historical, and economic antecedents. Further complicating the discussion, even when phenomena are roughly the same, competing terms sometimes exist to describe them. For example, "guided democracy," "protected democracy," "tutelary democracy," "democradura" and "dictablanda" ("hard democracy" and "soft dictatorship," respectively) all describe a situation in which the military continues to exercise power in areas normally reserved for civilian branches of government, such as public policy formation and administration of criminal justice. This lack of precision led political scientists David Collier and Steven Levitsky to describe the study of democratic consolidation as "Democracy with Adjectives" (Collier and Levitsky, 1997).

In light of this imprecision, it is necessary for academics and policymakers alike to approach the study and promotion of democracy with nuance and sensitivity rather than attempting to use a "one size fits all" model of democratic consolidation. A generalized approach simply equating democracy with elections does not take into account the varied experiences of different countries and the other vital elements contributing to consolidated democracy. In order to be useful or meaningful, consolidated democracy must reflect the realities of the countries to which it applies.

Guatemala: Legal Failure And Military Autonomy

Fair and consistent application of the rule of law is vital for democracy to flourish. Essential to the rule of law is the idea of horizontal accountability, or the concept that the powers and branches within a democracy are kept in check by their counterparts. These legal checks and balances ensure that the interests of any government branches, with varying responsibilities toward the body politic, will not take precedence over any other branch and impose an unaccountable form of political leadership upon the citizenry or engage in corrupt practices. While government agencies and branches should be accountable to citizens in the form of elections, they must also be held accountable to each other (O'Donnell, 2004). In Guatemala, by contrast, the military has historically exercised authority that other branches of government have been unable or unwilling to keep in check, severely compromising the government's ability to remain legitimately accountable to the citizens.

A brief historical background is necessary to acquaint readers with a sense of the problems Guatemalans face in their transition to democracy. Guatemala spent almost all of the Cold War engulfed in civil war and under an authoritarian military dictatorship following the coup of 1954 to overthrow the democratically elected regime of Juan Jacobo Arbenz. Systematic repression of citizens' rights, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, disappearance, and murder under the name of fighting communism were the de facto policies of Guatemala's military dictatorship until the peace accords that began in 1991 were concluded in 1996 (Glebbeek, 2001).

Guatemala shares many of the features of other Central and South American countries that democratized in the wake of the Cold War. One of the most notable features of Guatemala's attempted democratic reform is continued military autonomy relative to the executive, legislative, and, particularly, the judicial branches of government. While Guatemala has achieved meaningful democratic reform in the area of free and fair elections, serious problems exist in subordinating the military to civilian authority (Ruhl, 2005).

One of the most problematic manifestations of military autonomy is continued impunity for past and present human rights abusers in the Guatemalan military (Sieder 2003). A key element in reconciling Guatemala's long-running civil war is punishing military officers responsible for committing human rights abuses during that period, as well as those continuing to exercise extra-legal authority over Guatemala's civilian population. This impunity is caused by a corrupt and weakened judiciary under the threat of retaliation from military and criminal networks who avoid punishment by bribing, threatening, or committing acts of violence against judges, other members of the legal community, and human rights workers (Amnesty International, 2003).

The Guatemalan peace accords of 1996 and the institution of elections were not in themselves sufficient to bring the military under civilian control and wipe out Guatemala's authoritarian legacy. Human rights abusing military officers continue to fill the ranks of the military, and the Guatemalan legal apparatus has been unable to successfully establish a system based upon rule of law. Additionally, a climate of chaos and instability has led to continued use of the military, widely seen as the most effective means to bring stability to the Guatemalan countryside, to prosecute common criminals (Garst, 1998).

Ineffective application of the rule of law and continued military autonomy pose great threats to the realization of consolidated democracy in Guatemala for the near future. The military retains inertia from its Cold War period of control over many aspects of Guatemalan political and social life, and its capabilities for violence seriously undermine any attempts to end military authoritarianism and bring the rule of law to Guatemala (Ruhl, 2005). The effect of this military autonomy is the use of violence and coercion to silence any challenges to the Guatemalan political and social order. This state-sponsored military violence negates the progress made by elections in that it curtails universal suffrage, freedom of expression and association, and equality before the eyes of the law—all necessary requirements for democracy to exist (O'Donnell 1996).

Colombia: A Failed State?

Unlike Guatemala and much of Latin America, Colombia did not experience formal military dictatorship during its entire Cold War experience. In fact, throughout most of its history, Colombia has enjoyed a democratic government in the institutional and electoral respects. However, beyond its smoothly running elections, Colombia is in fact a divided and often violent society plagued by civil war.

One of the principal reasons for Colombian violence is a mountainous geography that has resulted in a dispersed, fragmented society where large sectors of the citizenry have little contact with the Colombian state apparatus. This geographical contingency is part of what spawned Colombia's largest insurgent organization, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was originally formed as a rural self-defense organization but grew into a communist insurgency in 1966 with the goal of overthrowing the Colombian state. Geography also aided the formation of the Ejercito de Liberaci˛n NacionÓl or National Liberation Army (ELN), which was inspired by the Cuban revolution (Molano, 2000).

Additionally, Colombia's current violence has its roots in a period from 1946 to 1957 known simply as La Violencia, when the assassination of a popular Liberal Party candidate sparked chaos throughout the countryside between members of the rival Conservative and Liberal parties, resulting in an estimated 200,000 deaths. To end the violence, the parties constructed the "National Front" power sharing arrangement, which shared political power and alternated presidential terms between the parties. While this helped to quell partisan violence, it was exclusionary and did not address many of the needs of the rural population, giving the FARC and ELN a sense of legitimacy (Mason, 2003).

The result of this lack of state power throughout Colombia has been a civil war lasting over three decades that, while having its roots in the Cold War, has continued despite the end of bipolar competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. This continuation has been fueled by the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. As a response to the FARC's expanding influence, illegal paramilitary self-defense organizations, sometimes in collaboration with the Colombian military and often fueled by drug profits, have shot up throughout Colombia to protect the interests of wealthy landowners and ranchers. Unfortunately, Colombian citizens often suffer at the hands of these illegal organizations as they vie for power, land, and political influence (Ortiz, 2002; Romero, 2002).

The interplay between Colombia's long-standing democratic institutions and its historic inability to gain control over isolated regions dominated by guerrillas and paramilitary groups leads to either cynical or optimistic assessments of Colombia's chances for democratic consolidation. President ├lvaro Uribe, elected in 2002, enjoys a popular mandate based upon a platform of militarily defeating Colombia's guerrilla groups after the failed attempts at peace negotiations by his predecessor, Andres Pastrana. Uribe's promise to strengthen the security apparatus while promoting democracy rang true to a majority of Colombians and ensured the backing of the United States through massive military funding (Mason, 2003). Additionally, some analysts have speculated that Colombia's geographic dislocation could in fact be advantageous should security be restored, since it ensures an absence of centralized authority—a key tenet of liberal democracy for some theorists (Mason, 2005; Posada-Carbo, 2004).

Unfortunately, however, a quick peace and the establishment of truly democratic rule in Colombia seems quite unlikely. Unlike the conflict in Guatemala, where the end of the Cold War provided an impetus for ideological foes to negotiate for peace, the end of the Cold War has seen a sharp rise in the Colombian conflict due to rising profits associated with drug revenues. The FARC has seen membership rise dramatically, as have rival paramilitary groups. This rise in violence and size of the civil conflict led to what political scientist Nazih Richani describes as a "Political Economy of Violence" in which the principal actors benefit from protracted conflict and continued drug profits more than they would from peaceful negotiation (Richani, 1997). Peace and democracy, seen from this light, are lofty goals for Colombia.

The obstacles to democratic consolidation in Colombia are more numerous and complex than those in Guatemala. While in Guatemala the main problem lies in subordinating the military to civilian authority, in Colombia armed groups that have repeatedly disregarded the law and settled disputes through violence rather than deliberation are more numerous than in Guatemala. These violent actors are either opposed to the state, as in the case of the FARC and the ELN, or they are connected to it, as in the case of military-paramilitary collaboration. A key antecedent to democratic consolidation in Colombia is a commitment to nonviolence on the part of all these groups.

Algeria: The Relationship Between Islam and Democracy

In addition to a legacy of military and authoritarian rule religious fundamentalism can threaten democratic consolidation, as in the case of Algeria where Islamic fundamentalism is known as Islamism. Islamists see Islam as more than a religion and wish to establish a political system based upon fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law. Traditionally, Islamist political groups have been willing to use violence to achieve their goals, and in the case of Algeria this has been manifested in the form of terrorism against the Algerian state and its citizens. (Takeyh, 2001).

The rise of Islamism in Algeria correlates with the decline of the authoritarian socialist system set up after Algeria successfully decolonized from France in 1962 following a war of national liberation. Algeria initially achieved some economic success as a socialist country, buoyed by its large oil reserves and despite corruption in the revolutionary government party, the National Liberation Front (FLN). When oil reserves began to decline in the 1980s, however, the wealth and generous social services that made the corruption tolerable also declined. The end of oil wealth stalled the Algerian socialist developmental program and called attention to the FLN's nepotistic, undemocratic structures (Abdelaziz, 2004). In October of 1988 a series of strikes and walkouts by students and workers culminated in widespread rioting.

Although Islamism as a political ideology had challenged the revolutionary government since decolonization, the economic difficulties of the mid to late 1980s coincided with the large scale rise of Islamism, as many middle-class educated youth found themselves jobless and without prospects. Islamism offered a governmental alternative that was more authentic culturally than imported, Western ideologies such as socialism, which had failed. The riots of October 1988 marked the end of Algeria's one party rule, as the government formally liberalized in 1989, allowing for competition between political parties. This political opening was exploited by Islamists, who quickly formed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). When the FIS dominated the parliamentary elections of 1991, the government suspended the elections. Violence quickly gave way to a civil war that lasted throughout the 1990s, leaving an estimated 100,000 Algerians dead. Unfortunately, Algeria was effectively caught between two antidemocratic forces; on one hand was an authoritarian revolutionary government unwilling to submit to democratic rule, and on the other hand a religious fundamentalist movement, with neither side hesitant about using violence to achieve its aims.

Although Islam in itself is not a fundamentally antidemocratic religion, the Islamist movement in Algeria appears to have had varied levels of tolerance for democratic pluralism. The participation of the FIS in the 1991 election showed at the very least a tacit acceptance of electoral democracy. On the other hand, Islamists claimed to rule from divine authority and were at times totally intolerant of those who did not recognize this authority, and intolerant of any secular form of education, entertainment or political representation (Berman, 2003).

Interpretations of Islamism vary, however. The separation of the socio-political and religious spheres—"separation of church and state"—is largely a western creation, and not necessarily compatible in countries with a large Islamic population. Islam includes legal, social and political codes that Islamists are trying to reinstate, often against corrupt, authoritarian regimes—particularly in Algeria, where the military government is viewed as a continuation of French colonialism (Slisli, 2000).

As Algeria moves away from civil war following a 2000 cease-fire and amnesty, oil revenues once again are up and there appears to be space for a legitimate political opening. The cease-fire had the desired effect of dramatically lessening the violence in Algeria. Only the future can tell if Algeria is truly on the way to democratic consolidation (Sandhu, 2001).


Although limited in its scope this essay has demonstrated some of the varied and difficult challenges face by countries as they endeavor to consolidate their young democratic governments. The many challenges faced by countries in the midst of a transition to legitimate democratic governments are numerous and specific to each individual case and to cast out generalization is to ignore the inherent characteristics and unique challenges of every individual country.

The common thread between Guatemala, Colombia, and Algeria is either the breakdown or the nonexistence of peaceful modes of political contestation. This has led to the use of violence rather than compromise and deliberation in settling disputes and forming policy. Violence is the surest way to disrupt democratization, and to refute it is the first step toward democratic consolidation, which should include widespread acceptance of the democratic process and the rule of law.

© Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved, CSA