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Nonviolent Resistance Creates Strong Democracies

Nonviolent Resistance Creates Strong Democracies

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bayer, M., Bethke, F. S., & Lambach, D. (2016). The Democratic Dividend of Nonviolent Resistance. Journal of Peace Research.

Talking Points

  • Democratic regimes that experience nonviolent resistance during the government transition phase survive substantially longer than regimes without nonviolent resistance.
  • Nonviolent resistance during the transition process reduces the chance of democratic breakdown by more than 50%.
  • On average, democratic regimes with nonviolent resistance campaigns during government transitions survive over nine times longer than those with violent resistance during transition.


Peace Science has proven the advantage of nonviolence over violence in deposing dictators or oppressive governments. However, a change in government leadership is only the first step to democratization, next comes a transitional period where negotiating issues of power, new leadership, and democratic principles can become a tipping point that often causes a slide back into autocratic rule. Past research has given a snapshot of showing the advantage of nonviolent protest in creating democracies.  This study goes further in suggesting a long-term advantage, starting from the original nonviolent resistance and extending to the importance of nonviolence throughout the government transition and into a successful democracy. There are three typical ways democracies can break down after a successful regime change.

There are three typical ways democracies can break down after a successful regime change.

  1. Executive coup, where democratically elected officials extend their rule via unconstitutional means and begin to govern autocratically (autocratic backslide).
  2. Coup d’état, where members of the government’s armed forces overthrow the elected government.
  3. Popular rebellion, where the elected government is toppled by their constituents.

Part of the reason nonviolent movements can be successful in ensuring the survival of democratic transitions is their organizational culture. Nonviolent movements are more conducive to power-sharing and cooperation.  This culture carries over from the resistance movement into the formation and philosophy of the new government, thereby creating an environment favorable to a successful democracy. Nonviolent movements also provide an example to the greater public on how to effectively engage their government. If a state has experienced the success of nonviolent protest, then they are likely to continue to implement nonviolent tactics in the future when voicing grievances to their government, thus increasing the opportunity for a nonviolent, collaborative solution and a longer-lasting democratic regime. Finally, nonviolent campaigns are successful largely due to their participation rates compared to any form of violent protest. Because of the high turnout, as well as their ability to attract participants from different areas of society, nonviolent protests create a foundation for an inclusive and involved democracy.

To determine the importance of nonviolent resistance to democratic survival, the authors looked at 112 democratic regimes that succeeded autocratic regimes from 1955-2006 and compared the survival duration of the democracies with the presence of nonviolent and violent resistance during the regime change. Their findings showed nonviolent resistance reduces the hazard of democratic breakdown by more than 50%.  When autocratic regimes are defeated because of nonviolent campaigns, the new regime has a much better chance of survival as a democracy compared to a regime change without a nonviolent movement. On average, regimes with violent resistance campaigns involved in the transition process had the median survival rate of only five years, much lower than when transition periods included nonviolent campaigns, with a median survival rate was 47 years.

This research adds to the growing knowledge on the importance of nonviolence in all stages of and areas of society. Nonviolent resistance campaigns not only increase the likelihood of political systems transitioning to democracy, but also the longevity of the democracy once it is in place.

Contemporary Relevance

While nonviolent campaigns do not guarantee lasting democratic rule, the nature of nonviolent campaigns make democracies more likely to succeed. Current and popular examples of challenges faced by nonviolent resistance are the various countries involved in the 2011 Arab Spring. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt remained nonviolent throughout the original resistance and government transition, whereas Libya and Syria’s nonviolent movements eventually gave way to violence that have led to the deaths of thousands and the failure to obtain their goal of democratic governance. While Tunisia still stands as a success story for democratic transition, the case of Egypt shows that nonviolent uprisings can also fail to consolidate the gains for a democratic transition. The difference, however, compared to Syria and Libya shows that once violence is added into the equation, the success factors for nonviolence are undermined.  Nonviolent methods need to be further examined and supported as the sole method for regime change.

Practical Implications

The findings of this research provide further evidence of the power of nonviolence and its importance to those seeking to confront their governments. Nonviolent resistance campaigns not only increase the likelihood of political systems transitioning to democracy, but also the longevity of the democracy once it is in place. With this new information, campaign organizers can reassure their participants that the culture and practices they are creating in their nonviolent movement will directly contribute to the strength and longevity of the goals they are trying to reach. Civil society organizations working in countries in a transition phase should prioritize supporting nonviolent actors and practices at the grassroots level.

Continued Reading

Four trends that could put the Democratic Peace at risk by Philip B.K. Potter. (

Improving Democracy by Johan Galtung. (

After the Coup: Nonviolent Strategic Actions for Brazilians by Robert. J. Burrowes. (

Keywords: democratization, nonviolent resistance, social movements

The following analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest.


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