University of Limerick
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Economic complexity, regime transition and sectoral forces: the impact of trade unions on democratization in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia

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posted on 2022-10-04, 10:53 authored by Ciara McCorley
This thesis interrogates uncertainty in transitional politics in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It questions why some countries transition to democracy and some stagnate or revert to authoritarianism. To address the dual nature of political contingency and structural formations in transitional politics, it adopts a conceptual framework based on economic complexity, to ascertain the relationship between economic structures and the results of regime transition. This study engages with the extensive literature linking economic development and democracy throughout the world, to see if it can be applied to the recent and on-going transitional events across Africa. It identified trade union confederations as economically important actors whose political contingency was directly affected by the sectoral composition of each country’s economy. In other world regions, trade unions have been of import in determining transitional outcomes, and this thesis interrogated whether the same was true in three African countries. The concept of economic complexity was developed to offer a conceptual framework through which to understand transitional politics. It was argued that the more complex the economy, the more likely democracy was to emerge following transition because there would be more factors in play in the political-economic arena that could erode a regime’s relative power and thus bestow power onto other actors who could utilize it for regime change. In terms of indicators, economic complexity was composed of five features – sectoral spread, state intervention and investment, formal sector employment, level of unionization, and level of foreign private investment – and it was argued to impact strongly on transitional politics because economic complexity tempered the power relations amongst salient political-economic actors. Economic complexity allowed for the examination of each countries sectoral composition, which then was hypothesized to mediate the power relations of each countries economic actors and subsequent transitional trajectory. In terms of research findings, the economic complexity argument certainly had traction at an empirical level. Countries with more complex economies were more likely to be democratic regimes after transition. More interestingly than this simple point however was that it was changes in complexity that proved to be of great importance in triggering opportunities for mobilization. Throughout the three cases the general outcome was that increased complexity resulted in higher levels of democratization as a transitional outcome, but it was changes in complexity, upwards or down, that actually got transitions moving. So, mobilization can be triggered during times of economic change, not only economic failure. In all three cases conditions of economic change - declining complexity, constrained complexity, and mutated complexity – triggered the development of a movement that could challenge the dominance of the state. The contribution of this study lies in the conceptual framework developed to approach regime transitions. The findings contribute to broader debates in the transitional literature, pointing to the possibilities that sectoral examination can have for determining a regime outcome. It highlights the interconnectedness of structures and agency in regime transitions.



  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Lodge, Tom

Second supervisor

Robinson, Neil



Other Funding information

Irish Social Science Research Platform



Department or School

  • Politics & Public Administration

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