Is Democracy in Decline?
Remarks to the Club of Madrid Meeting, Florence, Nov 24, 2014
We are now four decades into the third wave of global democratic expansion that began with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974. Any assessment of the state of global democracy today must begin by recognizing its impressive durability. When the third wave began in 1974, only about 30 percent of the world’s independent states had free and fair elections to choose their leaders, and democracy was a relatively rare phenomenon outside the rich West.
In the subsequent three decades, the number of democracies held steady or expanded every year from 1975 until 2007. Nothing like this continuous growth in democracy ever had been seen before in the history of the world. Levels of freedom in the world also steadily expanded during these three decades.
And then, around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has hovered around 60 percent of the world’s states. And since 2006, the average level of political rights and civil liberties in the world has deteriorated slightly.
One could see the past decade as a period of equilibrium. Given that democracy expanded to a number of countries with weak facilitating conditions (such as poverty or an authoritarian neighborhood), it is impressive that democracy survived (or revived) in so many places. It’s hard to argue that the state of democracy globally is not so good, but also not so bad.
Yet the world has been in a mild but protracted democratic recession since 2006. Beyond the stagnation or modest erosion of global levels of democracy and freedom, there have been several other causes for concern. One has been a significant and accelerating rate of democratic breakdown. Second, the quality or stability of democracy has been declining in some large and important emerging-market countries, like Turkey, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Third, authoritarianism has been deepening. And fourth, the established democracies have been performing rather poorly and seem to lack the will and self-confidence to promote democracy effectively abroad. Let me try briefly to touch on each of these.
If we break the third wave up into its four component decades, we see a rising incidence of democratic breakdown per decade since the mid-1980s. The rate of democratic failure, which had been 16 percent in the first decade of the third wave (1974–83), fell to 8 percent in the second decade (1984–93), but then climbed to 11 percent in the third decade (1994–2003). In this most recent decade, the rate has jumped back up to 16 percent. One in six of all the democracies that has existed since 2004 has failed.
Since 2000, I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world—not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedures that finally push democracy over the threshold into authoritarianism. It is sometimes difficult to assign a particular date to the latter form of failure, since there is no sharply disruptive single act, like Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe. But just as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez gradually strangled democracy in Russia and Venezuela, I think Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party have by now done so in Turkey. Some of the AKP’s changes have made Turkey more democratic by removing the military as an autonomous veto player in politics. But the AKP has gradually entrenched its political hegemony, extending partisan control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy, arresting journalists and intimidating dissenters in the press and academia, threatening businesses with retaliation if they fund opposition parties, and using prosecutions in cases connected to alleged coup plots to jail and remove from public life an implausibly large number of accused plotters. This has coincided with a stunning and increasingly audacious concentration of personal power by President Erdoğan. Following the Hugo Chavez playbook, Daniel Ortega has quashed democracy in Nicaragua, and many worry that the populist presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador are dragging their country in the same direction.
In Botswana a president with a career military background evinces an undemocratic intolerance of opposition and distaste for civil society. There are growing warning signs of the demise of this, Africa’s longest-standing democracy. These include increasing political violence and intimidation, escalating pressure on the independent media, the brazen misuse of state television by the ruling party, and the growing personalization and centralization of power by President Ian Khama.
Only eight of the 25 democratic breakdowns since the year 2000 came as a result of military intervention. The majority resulted from the abuse of power and the desecration of democratic rules by democratically elected rulers. Any international actor that seeks to stem the decline of democracy must find ways to confront this challenge of executive abuse in timely fashion.
The Decline of Freedom and the Rule of Law
There has also been a trend of declining freedom since 2005. In each of the last eight years more countries have declined in freedom than have improved, usually by a factor of two to one or more. Since 2005, 29 of the 49 sub-Saharan African states (almost 60 percent) declined in freedom, while only fifteen countries (30 percent) improved.
The trend of erosion in freedom and accountability is not always evident to outside observers. In a number of countries where we take democracy for granted, such as South Africa, we should not. In fact, there is not a single country on the African continent where democracy is firmly consolidated and secure today—the way it is, for example, in such third-wave democracies as South Korea, Poland, and Chile. In the global democracy-promotion community, few actors are paying attention to the growing signs of fragility in some more liberal developing democracies, not to mention the more illiberal ones.
Why have freedom and democracy been regressing in many countries? The most important and pervasive answer is bad governance. If we reorganize the Freedom House data into three scales—political rights, civil liberties, and transparency and the rule of law—we find that every region performs worse on transparency than on political rights and civil liberties. The deterioration in transparency and rule of law since 2005 has been particularly visible, even in a supposedly liberal democracy such as South Africa. As more and more African states become resource-rich, with the onset of a second African oil boom, the quality of governance will deteriorate further. This has already begun to happen in one of Africa’s most liberal and important democracies, Ghana.
Around the world, democracies are struggling with the resurgence of what Francis Fukuyama calls “neo-patrimonial” tendencies. Leaders who think that they can get away with it are eroding democratic checks and balances, overriding term limits and normative restraints, violating opposition rights, and accumulating power and wealth for themselves and their families, cronies, clients, and parties.
Space for opposition parties, civil society, and the media is shrinking, and international support for them is drying up. Ethnic, religious, and other identity cleavages polarize many societies that lack well-designed democratic institutions to manage those cleavages. State structures are too often unable to secure order, protect rights, meet the most basic social needs. Democratic institutions such as parties and parliaments are often poorly developed, and the bureaucracy lacks the policy expertise, and even more so the independence and authority, to effectively manage the economy. Weak economic performance and rising inequality exacerbate popular disaffection.
Another recent blow has been the crushing or implosion of Arab movements for democratic change. Levels of freedom are actually lower in most Arab countries today than they were at the end of 2010, and nowhere has the resurgence or reinvention of authoritarianism been more evident than in Egypt, where the military has given a thin electoral façade to a regime more repressive and intolerant than the worst days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
The Authoritarian Resurgence
The resurgence of authoritarianism in the Arab world has been part of a recent global trend. In Russia, space for political opposition, principled dissent, and civil society activity outside the control of the ruling authorities has been shrinking. In China, human rights defenders and civil society activists have faced increasing harassment and victimization. The autocracies of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have become much more coordinated and assertive. Russia and China have both been aggressively flexing their muscles on territorial questions. And increasingly they are pushing back against democratic norms by also using instruments of soft power to try to discredit democracies while promoting their own models and norms. This is part of a broader trend of renewed authoritarian skill and energy in using state-run media (both traditional and digital) to air an eclectic mix of proregime narratives, demonized images of dissenters, and illiberal, xenophobic diatribes.
The resurgence of authoritarianism has been quickened by the diffusion of common tools, such as laws to criminalize international flows of financial and technical assistance from democracies to democratic parties, movements, media, election monitors, and civil society organizations in authoritarian regimes. There have also been broader restrictions on the ability of NGOs to form and operate and the creation of pseudo-NGOs to do the bidding of autocrats. In addition, authoritarian (and even some democratic) states are becoming more resourceful, sophisticated, and unapologetic in suppressing Internet freedom and using cyberspace to frustrate, subvert, and control civil society.
Western Democracy in Retreat
Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence in the West, including the United States. We in the U.S. and in parts of the EU have some hard reform work ahead to reduce polarization, foster better policymaking and diminish the corrupting influence of money in electoral politics and lobbying. The lackluster performance of democracy in the West, most of all the US, is hurting its cause globally.
As a global democratic community, we also need to recover our energy, and our confidence in our own values. If we do not undertake more rapid, resourceful, coordinated, and explicit actions to confront the resurgence of authoritarianism, the mild democratic recession of the past decade will mutate into something far worse.
It is vital that the established democracies not lose faith. Democrats have the better set of ideas. Democracy may be receding somewhat in practice, but it is still globally ascendant in peoples’ values and aspirations. This creates significant new opportunities for democratic growth if we can restore the global normative climate of vigorous democratic solidarity and assistance.