Why democracy is in retreat across the globe
The collapse of the Soviet Union was widely predicted to herald a new generation of democratic enlargement across the world. Yet, three decades on, there are growing signs that much of the world is moving toward authoritarian or nondemocratic political models.
Take the example of the latest annual report from the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The eye-catching claim in the research released this week is that the US, for the first time in its history, belongs to a list of “backsliding democracies.”
The reason for the downgrading is the debacle at the end of Donald Trump’s administration, when the-then president disputed the legitimacy of the 2020 election in a way that the institute asserts undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process, culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Yet, while the US is the headline-grabber, the study found that more than a quarter of the globe now lives in such democratically backsliding countries — defined as nations seeing a gradual decline in the quality of their democracy.
In the words of the study, “the world is becoming more authoritarian as nondemocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression, and many democratic governments adopt their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a new normal of pandemic restrictions.”
The research found that the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times those moving toward democracy, which is unprecedented in its 50 years of tracking democratic indicators in what is now about 160 countries.
The institute is by no means the only body that makes such claims. An October 2020 study by the Washington-based think tank Freedom House, for example, found that democracy and human rights had worsened in 80 countries since March of that year alone, the date when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
The institute’s research also tallies with separate, recent academic research from an international network of academics compiling the Global Populism Database. This work suggested last year that about 2 billion of the world’s population were then governed by populist leaders, who tend to be at the vanguard of the trend toward democratic backsliding, winning power through campaign tactics such as attacking multinational organizations, so-called “fake media” and immigrants.
The database highlights the extent of what it asserts is an approximately two decades rise in populism by analyzing speeches — through textual analysis — by key leaders in 40 countries during this period.
According to the database, the “populist club” expanded significantly after the international financial crisis from 2006 to 2009. But it is the past decade that has seen the biggest rise in populism. A key question is whether this trend is now deeply entrenched or is reversible. Here, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report offers some cause for optimism. It highlights, for instance, that protest and civic action are alive and kicking, with three-quarters of countries having demonstrations during the pandemic. On that basis, it points to the resilience of democracy, as people brave repression around the world and social movements to tackle climate change and fight racial inequalities emerge.
Even if that is true, however, it cannot be assumed that the current wave of democratic backsliding has peaked. This is partly because of the legacy of the pandemic, which — at least in some countries — may yet provide a further fillip to populist leaders channeling the political and socioeconomic discontent of the past 18 months.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.