11. Dezember 2018 | EDP Wire | Johannes Gerschewski

Autocratization and Democratic Backsliding: Taking Stock of a Recent Debate

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer neuen EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. Diese Woche konzentriert sich Johannes darauf die alarmistische Vorstellung eines globalen Niedergangs von Demokratie als Regierungssystem zu widerlegen. Er zeigt auf, dass es keinen generellen Anstieg autokratischer Regime gibt, aber tatsächlich besorgniserregende Entwicklungen in Bezug auf die Qualität demokratischer Regime besonders hinsichtlich politischer und ziviler Freiheitsrechte. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir zudem weitere Fragen beantworten, zum Beispiel wie man mit Shrinking Spaces weltweit umgehen sollte, und wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen.

The debate on the current state of democracy in the world centers on two prominent questions. First, has the global spread of democracy that characterized the decades from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s given way to a reverse wave of autocratization? Autocratization, in this context, means a regime change from a democratic to an autocratic one. The second question focuses on more fine-grained and small-scale changes. Here, the question is whether we are seeing a global trend towards democratic backsliding, a gradual loss of democratic quality.

This chapter shows that the empirical evidence does not support the alarming notion of a global democratic rollback. When it comes to the issue of gradual democratic backsliding, the picture is mixed but certainly worrying: While there does not seem to be a negative trend in the electoral component of democracy, most democracy indices report a recent decline that particularly concerns civil liberties and the rule of law. This decline is still fairly recent and gradual only, but it clearly suggests a break with the positive global trend of previous decades. And, as I argue in the conclusion, this trend reversal has important implications for the future of democracy promotion.


Democratization processes are usually described in waves.[1] These waves are loosely defined as a set of transitions from autocratic to democratic regimes that co-occur within a given time span and that outnumber reverse regime changes. Huntington distinguished between the long wave of democratization between 1826 and 1926 that was followed by a reverse autocratization wave, a second democratization wave between 1943 and 1962 that was again followed by a reverse wave, and, lastly, the famous third wave of democratization which started in 1974. The result of this third wave has been a historically unprecedented rise in the absolute number and relative share of democratic regimes in the world that lasted, roughly, until the first years of the 21st century.

In the last one and a half decades, however, observers and scholars have increasingly stated that we are seeing a “resurgence of authoritarian states” and a “democratic rollback.” Focusing in particular on China and Russia, a return of “authoritarian great powers” has been detected, which is seen as both representing and further driving a broader trend of authoritarian reversal.[2] In fact, Larry Diamond identifies 25 cases between 2000 and 2014 in which democratic regimes have actually broken down, such as Russia in 2000, Venezuela in 2004, Kenya in 2007, Nicaragua in 2011, the Ukraine in 2012, and Turkey or Thailand in 2014.[3] So, are we seeing a global regression of democracy that is being driven by an autocratic reverse wave?

In answering this question, a study by Geddes, Wright, and Frantz provides a helpful starting point.[4] In addition to the established concept of a democratic transition, they also explicitly define and operationalize autocratic transitions. Their key criterion for differentiating between a democratic and an autocratic regime is the existence of direct, reasonably fair and representative, competitive elections. Drawing on a comprehensive data set that explicitly measures autocratic and democratic transitions, Geddes et al. identify autocratization waves in the 1960s and 1970s in which the number of autocratic transitions was double the number of democratic ones. Yet, in the 1990s and the 2000s democratic transition significantly outnumbered processes of autocratization. Thus, this study does not find any evidence of a global autocratization wave.

It has to be emphasized that the Geddes et al. data set only covers the years until 2010 and may, therefore, miss some recent trends. However, more recent studies of the global state of democracy and its evolution over time have come to a similar conclusion: We are simply not observing a net reduction in the number of democracies in the world, nor is the global share of democratic regimes or the percentage of the world population living in democracies shrinking.[5] While the autocratization of prominent and also strategically important countries – most notably Turkey under Erdoğan and Russia under Putin – might create a different impression, these and other cases of democratic breakdown are counterbalanced by reverse trends in other countries. The prominent cases, as worrying as they are, provide a misleading picture on a global scale. The democratic rollback is fragmentary and scattered, but there are no signs of a current autocratization wave. In fact, for the time being, democracy is proving to be more robust and resilient than recent gloomy perspectives indicated. While the democracy of today faces many challenges and, without doubt, there is room for improvement, democratic regression is a myth.

Democratic backsliding

The notion of a crisis of democracy does not necessarily imply an actual wave of democratic breakdowns. According to a more differentiated perspective, what we have witnessed in recent years is rather a global trend of democratic backsliding. This term does not imply a change of the system, but rather a gradual change within the system. It does not refer to the autocratization of a country, but rather to a loss of democratic quality. While remaining democratic in a general sense, political regimes may suffer from institutional and behavioral malpractice. Such democratic backsliding may lead to a gradual breakdown of democracy (as arguably in the cases of Russia, Turkey, or Venezuela), or not (as – for the time being – in Brazil, Hungary, India, or Poland). In the following, I discuss to what extent we are currently observing such democratic backsliding.

Currently, public discussion of democratic backsliding is shaped by the prominent examples mentioned above. Recent developments in the United States in which President Trump is violating democratic norms, attacking free media, and treating political opponents as illegitimate (and even criminal) are being discussed in this context (see Poppe in this report). The importance of these cases and constant media reporting of these worrying developments have led to pessimistic conclusions about the state of democracy. Are these conclusions based on firm ground, or are we only extrapolating an apparent trend from prominent cases?

The empirical picture is rather mixed. Systematic comparative studies come to a nuanced result when assessing the seeming loss of democratic quality worldwide. When looking at the scope of the phenomenon, most leading international datasets agree that recent years have been characterized by a remarkable trend reversal. In the ranking of the influential think tank “Freedom House”, 2017 was “the 12th consecutive year” in which “countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains.”[6] According to another set (V-Dem), the trend to democratic backsliding has also accelerated in recent years, but the number of countries backsliding has remained lower than the number of countries with advanced democracies – until 2017, when for the first time since 1979 these numbers were the same. This trend becomes even more strongly negative when the different sizes of the countries affected are taken into account: In 2017 “democracy has declined in countries home to one-third of the world population – or 2.5 billion people.”[7]

Yet, it is important to note that the overall decline has remained quite modest and has not affected all components of democracy equally. First, according to the different rankings, recent losses do not imply a return to some distant past but typically mean that the global state of democracy is again as “bad” as it was around the turn of the century. Compared to the high hopes and near euphoria that culminated in the end-of-history thesis, these developments are worrying. Yet, I warn against prematurely overstating this short-term trend. Second, it is declines in specific components of liberal democracy that are driving the recent trend to democratic backsliding. Notably, existing indices do not observe a decline but rather continuity, if not continuing improvements, in the electoral component of democracy. Recent losses in democratic quality are mostly seen in the area of civil liberties and the rule of law.[8] A particularly notable element is the spread of increasing restrictions on the freedom of assembly and association (see Poppe/Wolff in this report).

In sum, we are currently facing a global situation characterized by a more or less short-term and modest decline in democratic quality, particularly in the field of civil liberties. This recent trend has put a halt to – and has started to reverse – decades of democratic advances. The period of continuous advancement that started in the late 1970s is clearly over and has given way to a new period of heightened uncertainty over the state and future of democracy. Yet, it is still too early to say whether the world has entered a period of global democratic backsliding, or whether we are rather witnessing merely a few years of democratic stagnation.

Conclusion: What does this mean for democracy promotion?

What are the consequences and implications of this empirical picture for the future of democracy promotion? Today, democracy promotion is facing an enormous challenge. It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify and spot the concrete needs for democracy promotion as the dividing lines between democratic and autocratic regimes become blurred. In particular, illiberal democracies are growing in number. While still maintaining the electoral core of democracies and therefore fulfilling minimal definitions of democratic rule, they are gradually undermining political participation rights and civil liberties. These regimes rely on formally democratic rules and structures, but are increasingly expressing them in authoritarian practices. This process represents not only a gradual decay of democratic quality, but it also involves a very subtle hollowing out. Democracy promotion needs to react to this subtlety that often goes unnoticed at the beginning. This need makes in-depth local knowledge indispensable. Analytical precision is needed today to stop the ongoing loss of democratic quality in some countries. As I have shown, from a global and long-term perspective these democratic backsliding processes are not as dramatic as some comments suggest, and an outright wave of autocratization cannot be detected. Yet, democracy promotion clearly faces new challenges. That key democracy promoters and former democratic role models like the United States are beginning to lose their global credibility and integrity and that the European Union is rightly criticized for double standards is making the current situation even more difficult (see Grimm and Poppe in this report).

[1]     Samuel Huntington 1991: The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

[2]     See, among many, Azar Gat 2007: The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers, in: Foreign Affairs 86, June/July, 59–69.

[3]     Larry Diamond 2015: Facing up to the Democratic Recession, in: Journal of Democracy 26: 1, 141–155.

[4]     Barbara Geddes/Joseph Wright/Erica Frantz 2014: Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set, in: Perspectives on Politics, 12: 2, 313–331.

[5]     See Freedom House 2018: Democracy in Crisis, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FITW_Report_2018_Final_SinglePage.pdf; IDEA 2017: The Global State of Democracy. Exploring Democracy’s Resilience, Stockholm: International IDEA. https://www.idea.int/gsod/files/IDEA-GSOD-2017-REPORT-EN.pdf; Anna Lührmann et al. 2018: State of the World 2017: Autocratization and Exclusion?, in: Democratization, published online, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2018.1479693.

[6]     Freedom House 2018 (footnote 10), 1. See also the findings of the most recent Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI 2018) at http://www.bti-project.org.

[7]     Lührmann et al. 2018 (footnote 10), 1.

[8]     See IDEA 2017 (footnote 10); Lührmann et al. 2018 (footnote 10).

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