This paper presents a hypothesis for understanding democratic stability based on the distinction between politicized and meritocratic bureaucracies. We argue that in a politicized administration, the professional careers of large numbers of government officials depend directly upon which party wins the elections. This increases the likelihood that the government will take opportunistic actions aimed at surviving in office at any cost; that is, benefiting core supporters at the expense of other groups. In turn, this may foster pre-emptive actions from the opposition, such as military coups. Conversely, in democracies with meritocratic administrations, incumbents are credibly constrained from undertaking partial policies because their hands are tied in terms of managing the staff policy of the state apparatus. Consequently, countries with meritocratic bureaucracies have greater prospects for democratic stability. Empirically, we illustrate the mechanisms with two well-documented cases of democratic transitions that enshrined a politicized administration – Spain (1876–1936) and Venezuela (1958–1998) – and one transition that kept a meritocratic bureaucracy, Spain (1975–).
Democratization, 2014, Vol 21, Issue 7, p. 1286-1304