International Order & Conflict

Does a Demographic Transition Promote a Democratic Transition?

On January 25, 2007, the Southwest Asia/Gulf program hosted demographer Richard Cincotta of the National Intelligence Council’s Long-Range Analysis Unit to discuss the correlation between demographics, focusing on the “youth bulge” hypothesis, and democratic progress and sustainability, particularly in the Middle East. The event featured Shaha Riza of the Foundation for the Future as a discussant and Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center, as the moderator.

Cincotta’s work seeks to elucidate the interplay between demographic trends and political liberalization. What role, if any, does a large young population play in advocating and advancing political change? Based on research on mostly Southeast and East Asian countries that have successfully undergone a process of democratization, Cincotta identified countries in the Middle East that have population structures that are or will become favorable for the movement towards full democracy. He argued that states with high birth rates and subsequent “youth bulges” experience an overwhelming and unattainable demand for social services and employment opportunities. These factors then facilitate self-organization, especially among young men, and increase the potential for civil strife and conflict within the society. As a result, governments and elites are less able and less inclined to make democratic reforms. Conversely, states that possess low birth rates and more stable population structures are better positioned for the movement towards and sustainability of full democracy. Cincotta posited that this theory could be one tool used to explore the causality of democratic success and failure – past, present and future.

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