Contemporary transitions to democracy are part of a long historical process which began, at least symbolically for the western world, in fifth century BGE Athens. Parallels to what occurred there can be found in other cultures outside the western tradition. What is important, however, is not so much the starting-point as the fact that democracy has evolved unevenly in fits and starts in a variety of different historical contexts, often with long gaps between one significant moment and the next. Many of the contributing factors and generating seams which have shaped its development, especially before the Enlightenment, were not labelled ‘democratic’ at the time. Some of them might be appropriately referred to as protodemocratic analogies and antecedents. But irrespective of how they are described they have been significant building-blocks in the erection of the edifice of modern democracy.
Since the eighteenth century the evolution of democracy has become exponential, as the present wave of democratic transformation indicates, but the democratic transitions of our time are not to be regarded as the final stage in the process of global democratization. For one thing, there is no inevitability about democratic transformation and, for another, the process of democratization varies considerably in character, scope, and speed from one country to another. The transition to democracy is, in fact, a permanent condition. Like all living traditions, democracy is a ‘narrative of an argument’ which is open to change and development, retrieval and renewal. Put differently, it is ‘the constantly changing, provisional result of historical processes which consist of conflicts and compromises and which depend on social, economic and cultural developments’.