Is democracy on the wane?

By Jonathan Power

June 14th 2016

Is there a democratic recession? No, not an economic one. Rather one of the voting kind. In other words is democracy going backwards? It is not. Democracy remains resilient. Authoritarianism is being held at bay, despite recession in Russia, Turkey and China.

“Democracy may be receding somewhat in practice, but it is still globally ascendant in people’s values and aspirations”, writes Larry Diamond in a new book, “Democracy in Decline”. In fact Diamond’s positive conclusion is less positive than I believe the facts say. By and large democracy is not receding.

One problem in the measurement debate is that we expect too much. From the mid 1970s to the early 1990s the number of democracies in the world rose from around 45 to an astonishing 120, well over half of the world’s population.

How can we reasonably expect all these to succeed? There was bound to be some slippage. Why should we expect this hot pace to be continued? So why the catch phrase “Democracy in Decline”?

There are at least four global democracy indices: Freedom House, Polity, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Bertelsmann democracy index. Looking at the years 2000 to 2013 the world is more democratic today than it was in 2000. Of these four only Freedom House shows a decline and that is extremely modest.

However, I admit, if we break this down a bit and look at the period from 2005 on we do see a decline, but again a very modest one. Even Freedom House shows the overall net number of democracies or near democracies in decline was only two between 2005 and 2013. Between 2005 and 2013 there were 10 countries that significantly improved their democratic practice.

Moreover, most of the significant declines occurred not in full democracies but in regimes that were already somewhat authoritarian such as the Central African Republic, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Jordan. As for fully-fledged democracies classified as “free” in the 1990s, only two went into a terminal state of affairs- Thailand and Venezuela.

Over the same period 8 countries became “free” and still are today: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Ghana, Indonesia, Peru, Serbia and Senegal.

The truth is there is an illusion of backsliding.

One reason is the excessive optimism shaped, in part, by the extraordinarily successful democratizations of the period, 1974 to 1991. In southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece), in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) and Central Europe (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland) authoritarian crises led to new democracies.

But these on the ground developments led to two mistakes among observers.

First, people began to conflate authoritarian breakdown with democratization. But this wasn’t always so- Poland and Spain yes, but Iran and Pakistan, no. Most authoritarian breakdowns have not brought democratization. The number of “new democracies” was less than many observers believed. There was quite a bit of “window-dressing” with reforms meant to defuse a short-term crisis but control was maintained through the army, police, media and courts.

Second, some observers seemed not to notice how easy it was in this period to overthrow authoritarian leadership because regimes were bankrupt, their states were in disarray and, in many cases, had lost control of the coercive apparatus. Autocracies were easily toppled in Albania, Belarus, Benin, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Georgia, Madagascar, Malawi, Moldova, Niger, Ukraine and Zaire. This easy-to-overthrow situation is not likely to return.

Compared with these heady times and the end of the Soviet Union that followed in 1991 there has indeed been a developing belief that democratization doesn’t advance today with the speed it did earlier. But in fact there is no reason for disappointment with the situation as it is in 2016. It’s as good as we could hope for.

Today many make another mistake. They look at the setbacks in China, Russia, the Middle East and lately Turkey and see not much happening elsewhere in the world on the pro democracy front.

But, Turkey apart, the other three have long been – for centuries – and long will be the difficult cases. Moreover, the “low hanging fruit” have been picked – the countries left that need democracy are the hard cases. Examples of these are some of the weaker states in sub-Saharan Africa, dynastic oil-producing countries supported by the West, single-party states with high economic growth, countries with traditionally a low-level linkage with the West, and in regimes born fairly recently in blood and revolution.

The fast growth in democratization in the 1970s and 80s has given us false expectations. We have reached a plateau after a great climb. This is not a call to rest. It is a call not to be pessimistic.

There has been no meltdown. It is a story of resilience and enormous progress. Persuading the laggards will be hard but there is no good reason for so much pessimism.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

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