POLITICAL TRANSITIONS REVISITED / Vol. 86, No. 1 (Spring 2019)
Updated: May 11
Arien Mack, Journal Editor
Since 1988, Social Research has published 20 issues that have explored political transitions occurring in various countries and regions in the world. The series began with two issues examining Central and East Europe on the cusp of the dramatic changes that led to and accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. In this most recent examination of political transitions, we asked our authors to examine political trends in countries that we looked at earlier in the series, the current trends appear to be towards increased inequality, repression, and a diminution in respect for human rights rather than towards increasing freedoms.
The paper examines gender and social change following the 2011 Egyptian uprising. I analyze the revival of state-sponsored feminism and elucidate its mixed outcomes through the lens of political opportunity approach. Under the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, state feminism is intimately linked to what I describe as al-Sisi syndrome. The president intervenes on behalf of women’s groups, ostensibly championing their rights, but sanctions the work of independent feminists. I examine how state feminism as a political opportunity structure is a flickering friend. It creates unique opportunities but also challenges for the women's movement and gender equality in Egypt.
South Africa’s higher education system over the last few years faced its most serious crisis since the post-1994 transition due to student actions centered on demand for free education and, more substantially, for free, decolonized, quality education. This provides opportunities to reflect on the state of change of the university system since 1994 and to understand the impact of a national state in crisis on the university system. The emergence of a legitimacy gap due largely to a disjuncture with its publics is one of the key challenges facing the higher education system.
An informal civil society formed of official and unofficial NGOs developed during Hu Jintao’s tenure (2002–12). Xi Jinping’s access to power has signaled a deep change: the new leader has reinforced the Party’s leadership in all fields, and dealt a decisive blow to interest groups and political factions. Through institutional reforms and a cult of his personality, he has consolidated his position, and imposed strict limitations on civil society. Repression of dissenting opinions, restoration of ideological control and strongman politics, growing restrictions on the public sphere, and emphasis on “patriotism” show that China is heading towards a neo-totalitarianism.
The authors show how Slovakia has coped with challenges after the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the separation of Czechoslovakia in 1993. In the 1998 elections, a coalition of pro-democratic forces, with substantial contributions of civic actors, reversed authoritarian tendencies. After reforms, Slovakia was admitted to NATO and the EU in 2004. Since 2006, various forms of populism have evolved into the political mainstream. Corruption, cronyism, and lack of equality are chronic sources of public dissatisfaction. Today, Slovakia is experiencing a turbulent period of public protests and controversies; with the emergence of a new political generation, the battle over liberal democracy continues.
For the past dozen years China’s professed transition toward the rule of law has witnessed more setbacks than progress. The extent to which the exercise of governmental power should be subject to domestic and international legal restraints continues to be a matter of enormous importance. The world is increasingly anxious about how a rising China respects the “rule of law” at home and abroad. This essay focuses on China’s domestic legal situation. An increasingly oppressive Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, China denies foreign scholars, and even its own people, the opportunities for knowledge and analysis that American freedoms offer observers of the United States
South Africa’s democracy, once hailed as a role model, is widely believed to have disappointed, falling prey to the patronage politics of former president Jacob Zuma. The article argues that democracy has exceeded expectations—democratic institutions were strong enough to defeat Zuma. It criticizes the widely held view that the new democracy is a radical break with the past that has been betrayed by patronage politics. The core weakness of democratic South Africa is not that racial minority rule has been replaced by a flawed majority government—it is that, in many ways, it has not been replaced at all.
The failure of democratic “transition” in Russia usually has been explained in terms of institutions and elites. A growing body of work, however, is beginning to focus on phenomena that lie deeper in the social equation—factors including personality, emotion, and the evidently careful calculations that inform the expression and/or falsification of preferences—in an attempt to explain why societies turn away from democratic politics. In that vein, a bottom-up view of how power is lived and experienced in Russia suggests that citizens have learned to privilege their “arms-length” relationships, potentially at the expense of more encompassing goals and values.
From the perspective of a social historian, the conviction that the destruction of Polish Jewry happened to “them” and not to “us”—or, to put it in other words, the externalization of the Holocaust—requires as an underpinning a very peculiar mental framing of historical phenomena. Thirty years after the country regained its full sovereignty, a major part of its past, disowned for six decades, is being reappropriated and returned by scholars to where it belongs—in the mainstream of twentieth-century Polish history.
The story of Hungary can also serve as a warning for other nation-states on the European continent, as the years from 1989 to 1991 were a time of liberation for all the people of Eastern Europe who suffered from totalitarian political systems and ideological indoctrination. As the Bible teaches and Hannah Arendt warns, liberation is not yet liberty. The institutions of liberty have to be constituted, and people need to learn how to make them work while breathing spirit into them. Tyrannies always collapse, but whether Hungarians can escape with enough means for a new start remains to be seen.
Two hundred fifty years after the reluctant admission of Jews to New Amsterdam, we can examine the history of Jews in the United States and the story of the New School, and realize that they are not quite independent of each other. Jan Gross’s work presses us to understand when and why things work out in decent ways, and to look directly at the radical evil—questioning how some people seemingly like us can slaughter residents they know by face and by name—and not pretend that the ordinary always dominates or that the ordinary is always beneficial.
For 30 years, it was generally accepted that the globalizing world was entering a new, universal stage of democratization. Russia was meant to become a showcase of transition from an authoritarian system to a market-based democracy. However, almost from the beginning, Russia’s path deviated from the preset course and later drifted farther away from it. A combination of its unique geopolitical position, the sense of military-political “great power-ness,” a national focus on the primacy of sovereignty, and the socioideological crisis in the West rendered irrelevant the question of Russia’s “transitology.” Its imminent transformation will proceed in its own way.
Looking for a systemic explanation of the mixed results of democratization, we offer a path dependence argument for the post-communist region. In our view, the sociological structures of pre-communist and communist eras survived the regime changes, preventing substantive democratization and perverting the formal institutions placed upon post-communist societies in several countries. We sketch these structures in an ideal typical fashion and explain how they differed in the three historical regions of the Soviet empire before and after regime change. A comparative overview of the current state of democracy in Poland, Romania, and Hungary is also provided.
During the past 30 years, Polish society has undergone several transformations—from communism to liberal-democracy, from traditional to post-modern society, and from democratic political system to the populist form of governance. Using data from the European Values Study, Part I shows changes in attitudes and values of Polish society reflecting those processes. In Part II, the support for populist ideology is analyzed in terms of two models discussed by Inglehart and Norris and the third model proposed by the author. Part III estimates the present support for populist ideology in Polish society and its implications for future developments.
The essay explores paradoxes that link the beginning of Polish democracy in 1989 to its troubling reversal three decades later, and examines the sociocultural and political factors underlying it. The dismantling of democracy was initiated almost immediately after the parliamentary elections of 2016 by a political camp suspicious of independent institutions and actors, starting with the complete silencing of the parliamentary opposition, followed by a government takeover of public media, then a frontal attack on the independent judiciary, subjugating it to the executive, and imposing restrictions on public gatherings. The society’s response to this shrinking of its freedom is considered.
Egypt’s 2011 uprising opened spaces for free expression, association, and assembly that were closed for decades. People felt free to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Media outlets critiqued the government with unprecedented vigor. President al-Sisi’s government has reversed these gains with a ferocious and comprehensive political repression against Islamist and secular opponents alike that includes mass killings by security forces, rampant torture, “disappearances,” and extrajudicial executions. Military and civilian courts conduct sham trials and convict without evidence; the human rights groups that remain active adopted low profiles and operate at a fraction of their former capacity.
After four decades of rule, the Islamic Republic of Iran faces challenges in pursuing its utopian ideals and delivering on the revolutionary promises of clerically dominated political Islam from two rival ideologies, Islamic democracy promoted by Islamic reformists and secular constitutionalism advanced by secular modernists. This essay describes each social group’s main understanding of the current regime and each of the groups’ ideal utopian vision and identifies internal contradictions within each vision. I conclude by speculating about a fourth alternative in which all three visions seek a compromise based on acknowledgment of their internal weaknesses.