One-third of the world living in ‘autocratising’ countries

Former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in peaceful elections in Armenia last year, wants to lead his country towards a full democratic transition. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Numbers living under autocratic systems have risen to 1990 levels, but it’s not time to sound democracy’s death knell, writes a major international research project. 

This content was published on May 16, 2019 minutes

Mixed messages emerge from this year’s Varieties of Democracy report, an annual analysis of the health of democracy around the world (to be released publicly on May 22).

On one hand, the so-called “third wave” of autocratisation continues its surge, with around one-third of the planet’s population now living in countries undergoing autocratisation – a process whereby power is gradually concentrated in the limited hands of one strong leader.

Problems in large populous states like the US, India, Brazil and Turkey have contributed to the regression in overall terms, while negative signs in countries like Hungary and Poland reinforce the sense that “traditional” democracies are in decline.

“Don’t panic”

On the other hand, “most” democracies have remained remarkably resilient in the face of challenges such as financial difficulties and digital disruption, while autocratisation “plateaued” rather than plummeted over the course of 2017 and 2018.

“We shouldn’t panic,” says V-Dem deputy director and lead author Anna Lührmann. Although she finds it “worrisome” that the trend towards strongmen leaders is continuing, we haven’t yet reached a “crisis point” where established democracies are falling like dominoes.

Besides, she says, there are a lot of “positive signs” over the past year, such as the election of president Sooronbay Jeenbekov in Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s first ever peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected leader to another.

Political systems

According to V-Dem, four distinct types of political systems exist today:

Liberal or full democracy: basic rights guaranteed, rule of law prevails, separation of powers ensured

llliberal or flawed democracy: free and fair elections, basic rights (such as press freedom) under pressure

● Hybrid regimes: elections, but manipulated; basic rights under pressure, rule of law and separation of powers compromised, persecution of political opposition

● Autocracy: absolute monarchy or dictatorship, minimal pluralism, manipulated votes, state or state-friendly media, censorship, persecution of political critics

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Electoral autocracies

Advancements at the local and regional electoral level are another positive trend over the past years, while “success stories” like Tunisia, Bhutan, Fiji, and other non-traditional democracies show that the system can still muster new fans.

Digging into the report’s methodology and data, however, it’s sometimes difficult to pull out many more signs of the hope Lührmann describes.

For one thing, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the wrong direction: in the last year for which the report has data – 2018 – autocratising countries were shown to now outnumber democratically advancing countries for the first time since 1978 (24 to 21).

And if there are still more democracies than autocracies overall (99 to 80), the authors worry that “within the democratic regime spectrum, there is a shift away from liberal democracy”.

This basically means that while some states retain certain features of freedom (open elections, for example), regression on other indicators like freedom of expression and freedom of civil society can lead to them being downgraded to a partial (or full) autocracy.

Indeed, the report shows that while 39 full “liberal democracies” exist, they are outnumbered by a growing number of “electoral autocracies” (55), that is regimes which hold multi-party elections, but which favour the incumbent by restricting media, civil society, and opposition.

Orbán’s influence

Hungary is pinpointed as a particularly sensitive case. Having been downgraded from liberal democracy to electoral democracy in 2010, further erosions in media pluralism and academic freedom (among others) have left it “on the verge of a breakdown to electoral autocracy”.

Should this happen, Hungary would be the first former liberal democracy to suffer such a breakdown in recent times, and given the links and influence that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has not only with other like-minded conservative European leaders but also with US President Donald Trump, it could be bad news for democracy more widely.

This year it features for the first time an “at-risk” section -- a list of the ten countries most liable, in the analysis of the authors, to undergo an “adverse regime transition” in the next two years.

The Philippines, Fiji, Mali, Hungary, and Guatemala are the most at-risk between now and 2020, they reckon. At the other end of the scale, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, and Switzerland top the liberal democracy index.

Varieties of Democracy is the biggest international research programme comparing the health of democracies around the world.

The project involves some 18 project managers, 170 country coordinators and 3,000 country experts.

They evaluate the quality of democracy in 202 countries across over 470 indicators. Data and changes are tracked for the period 1798 to 2018.

This year, two new categories of indicator were introduced: “exclusion” and “digital society”.

The V-Dem Institute is located at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

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