A leader’s role in ensuring stable democracy is enormously dependent on the political culture and stability of the country in question. As Daniel Treisman explains in “Income, Democracy, and Leader Turnover,” a change in leadership can have a sweeping effect on the political climate, depending on the socioeconomic growth at the time. Stable countries with established democracies, however, seem in little danger of losing grasp of their political system. So while it is clear that in certain instances leaders play influential roles in developing stable democracies, their influence is less clear in matured, consolidated democracies.
In a consolidated (or stable) democracy, there is, by definition, no threat of change in political system, and so leaders play a relatively minor role in ensuring the continuation of democracy. A particularly ambitious leader could, of course, try to seize power, but stable democracies are usually so entrenched in society that such an attempt would inevitably collapse. Existing institutions and a history of democratic rule make it much more difficult for any one leader to really disrupt the foundation of a consolidated democracy.
Leaders do play a more prominent role in burgeoning democracies, because they have the power and ability to shape the future of an entire country’s political system. Countries that, like Guinea, in West Africa, are just embarking on the path toward consolidated democracy must turn to their newly elected officials for guidance. Alpha Condé, Guinea’s first president, was voted into office in 2010, and immediately faced the task of building up from scratch the institutions that would define the country’s political system. Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel write in “How Development Leads to Democracy” that modernization “brings social and cultural changes that make democratization increasingly probable,” but because Guinea displays none of these social or cultural changes—70% of the population is illiterate and half live below the poverty line—the political environment will be shaped primarily by the leader with the most power, Condé.
Treisman explains that economic growth can lead to conditions ripe for democracy, and Inglehart and Welzel argue that it is modernization and the ensuing social and cultural changes that bring about those conditions. In either case, Guinea bears none of these markers, and so it is Condé who must enact policies to produce a climate of democracy. He plays a very influential role in ensuring the future success of democracy in his country, a more lasting role than a leader whose country already has an entrenched, stable democracy.