Democratic consolidation as legitimacy. Second part - Razón y Palabra

Razón y Palabra








Por Miguel Angel Lara Otaola




In my last article, I stated that legitimacy is a necessary condition for reaching democratic consolidation, while other factors are useful for describing or maintaining it. Therefore, consolidated democracy ultimately depends on legitimacy and not on other variables such as the ‘following of rules and procedures’ (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 6). As a result, consolidation can take place not only by playing by the rules, but even by breaking them. This, in turn, depends on these rules, and on the system’s general degree of legitimacy.

Legitimacy is closely related to the exercise and acceptance of power and has several different definitions. For some, legitimacy is understood as the degree to which a political system and a government’s authority are generally accepted by its citizens (Lipset, 1963, Held, 2006). In addition, it is also ‘the core’ or ‘organizational principle’ of a society; that is ‘those societal relations which determine the scope of and limits to change for, among other things, political (…) activity’ (Held, 2006: 190). I will take legitimacy to be as the acceptance of the authority of systems, regimes and institutions and as such, it can determine changes in political life. Furthermore, and since legitimacy is related to the exercise of power, it is important to indicate what makes power legitimate. For this, there are two main views, one advanced by Max Weber (Weber, 1978) and another proposed by David Beetham (Beetham, 1991).

Max Weber equates legitimacy to belief and outlines three different types of legitimacy. In particular, legitimacy can stem from rational-legal, traditional or charismatic sources (Weber, 1978:215). In the first place, rational-legal legitimacy rests upon impersonal rules that are rationally established and thus obeyed for this (Mills, 1946: 294-5). Then, traditional legitimacy is based on the belief in the sanctity of powers of rule which have existed since time immemorial…’the lord is obeyed on account of the particular worthiness of his person that is sanctified through tradition’ (Weber, 2004: 135). Finally, charismatic legitimacy rests on the basis of emotional surrender to the person of the lord and his gifts of grace (Weber, 2004: 138). Therefore, this is a view that consists in the belief in the part of the followers that their leader, laws or constitution can exercise power.

On the other hand, Beetham’s view on legitimacy not only takes into account people’s beliefs but also ‘their grounds or reasons for holding them’ (Beetham, 1991:10). Beetham criticizes Weber in that power is not legitimate just because people believe it but because ‘it can be justified in terms of their beliefs’ (Beetham, 1991:11) and because his definition ignores elements of legitimacy that are not very related with beliefs (Beetham, 1991:11). Therefore, legitimacy has also something to do with the actual characteristics of the regime and not just with people’s beliefs. This is more accurate for analyzing a regime’s legitimacy.

As a result, legitimacy is multidimensional and for a regime to be legitimate three different conditions are needed; legal validity, justifiability of the rules governing a power relationship, and the expression of consent through distinctive actions (Beetham, 1991). Legal validity is the acquisition and exercise of power according to the existing law. However, disputes about legitimacy are not only about obeying the law, but ‘also involve disagreements about whether the law itself is justifiable, and whether it conforms to moral or political principles that are rationally defensible’ (Beetham, 1991: 4). This makes up the justifiability of the rules. In other words, for legitimacy there has to be congruence between the regime and the standards, beliefs and expectations it is supposed to have. Finally, legitimacy needs ‘evidence of consent expressed through actions which are understood as demonstrating consent within the conventions of the particular society’ (Beetham, 1991: 12).

Consequently, legitimacy is determined by the sources (legal validity) and performance (justifiability of the system) of a given regime and by the expression of consent to it by actions (Beetham, 1991:120). Therefore, when a regime is illegitimate according to any of these standards (specifically when a regime claims it’s democratic when it’s really not) sometimes it is necessary to break the rules of the game for advancing democracy.

In this process, elections play a key role. Elections are the most important channel for the participation of people in politics. In turn, this type of participation, by being episodic but broad and strategic, opens a window for change. This will depend on whether citizens choose to use this moment to either confirm or contest the legitimacy of the regime. As a result, elections can turn into the strategic moments where regimes fall or continue and where rules are broken or followed. Remember, a move towards democratic consolidation can take place not only by playing by the rules, but even by breaking them. This will be dealt with more detail in my following article: Elections, Legitimacy and Democratic Consolidation.



Beetham, David (1991) The legitimation of power. London: Macmillan.

Held, David (2006) Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity

Lipset, S.M (1963) Political Man: the Social Basis of Politics, New York: Anchor.

Linz, Juan and Stepan, Alfred (1996) ‘Toward consolidated democracies’ Journal of Democracy 7 (2): 14-33

Weber, Max. (1978) Economy and Society. London: University of California Press



Miguel Angel Lara Otaola

Especialista en democracia, gobernabilidad, Reforma del Estado, transición y consolidación democrática, medios de comunicación y elecciones. Maestro en Política Comparada por la London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), donde fue Presidente de la Sociedad de Alumnos Mexicanos, y en Políticas Públicas por el Tecnológico de Monterrey. Ha colaborado en el Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD), el Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) y el Overseas Development Institute en Reino Unido.  Colaboró en la Asociación Mexicana de Impartidores de Justicia como coordinador del programa televisivo 'AMIJ Punto de Encuentro' y es miembro del Consejo Directivo de PRIAD (Partnership for Research in International Affairs and Development. Actualmente se desempeña como Asesor de la Presidencia del Consejo General del Instituto Federal Electoral.






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