In March 2019, the journal Democratization published an article entitled “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New About It?” by Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg. This piece noted that the world is now well into a sustained surge of more autocratic politics, and it made the significant claim that this wave is fundamentally different from previous clusters of autocratization—mainly because it is occurring mostly through gradual and surreptitious tactics.
Believing this article was important enough to merit further debate, Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program invited the authors to summarize their argument and tease out its policy implications, while four other experts were asked to give their views on the article. These experts include one of the leading academics working on democratic decay around the world, a practitioner involved in practical democracy support programs, and two experts working on democracy in specific regions.
The exchanges below among these experts hopefully shed further light on debates on this topic. While it is clear that global democracy is not in good shape, the exact nature and magnitude of democratic regression remains subject to differing interpretations. It is essential to find the right analytical framework to capture democracy’s problems if governments and other actors are to design effective policies against authoritarian trends.
A New Way of Measuring Shifts Toward Autocracy
Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg
In the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama and other political scientists proclaimed that liberal democracy stood poised to be the timeless culmination of historical governance models. A third wave of democratic declines began soon thereafter and has since gained in strength.
Since the third wave of autocratization began in 1994, seventy-five episodes of increased autocratic rule—periods of substantial democratic decline—have occurred worldwide. These numbers come from data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project and our March 2019 Democratization article, which provides the first comprehensive empirical overview of autocratization from 1900 to 2017. Most of them (forty-seven, to be precise, or about 63 percent) have affected democracies. Contemporary autocratization has happened more slowly and inconspicuously than before. Instead of coups conducted by military officers, democratically elected incumbents have been responsible for more than two-thirds of all episodes of contemporary autocratization. These elected officials erode democracy gradually by gaining control of media outlets, restricting civil society, and undermining the autonomy of election management bodies, among other tactics. They generally do so clandestinely without abolishing key democratic institutions such as multiparty elections or legislative bodies.
Despite this heightened risk of democratic backsliding, the pace of democratic declines has slowed down because sudden autocratization has become more costly for rulers. Evident violations of multiparty elections and other democratic norms can take a large toll on leaders’ legitimacy and may trigger national and international resistance. In many countries over the past two decades, obviously stolen elections have triggered mass protests leading to demonstrations—such as the color revolutions in the early 2000s or international interventions. After the 2016 Gambian elections, for instance, then president Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to accept defeat was quickly met with military intervention by neighboring countries, forcing him into exile.
There are two ways of looking at the increasingly clandestine nature of this contemporary autocratic resurgence. On the one hand, it carries risks because its slow pace could lull observers into believing that democracy is not seriously endangered until it is too late. Our empirical overview found that sixty of the seventy-five democracies that underwent autocratization turned into autocracies. On the other hand, this slower pace also means that the impact of democratic declines—at least on average, to date—is less severe than before. The median total decline during the third wave of autocratization, as measured by V-Dem’s Electoral Democracy Index, is less than half the magnitude of the declines that occurred before 1994. The Electoral Democracy Index captures to what extent elections are free and fair, the media provides alternative sources of information, and civil society as well as political parties are free from government obstruction. Before 1994, rulers often completely abolished such democratic institutions. During contemporary autocratization processes, democratic institutions often are curtailed but left in place. This means that, in many countries, democratic actors still have room to resist autocracy and preserve democracy. In South Korea in 2017, for example, mass protests forced the legislature to impeach the president.
While the third wave of rising autocratic rule is certainly worrisome, there is no need to be overly alarmed: the declines in democratic norms is somewhat modest, and the number of democracies worldwide is still near its historical peak. As the aforementioned journal article stated, “it was premature to announce the ‘end of history’ in 1992, [and] it is premature to proclaim the ‘end of democracy’ now.”
Anna Lührmann is the deputy director of the V-Dem Institute and assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg.
Staffan I. Lindberg is the director of the V-Dem Institute and professor at the University of Gothenburg.
A Highly Important, If Incomplete, Corrective
Tom Gerald Daly
Lührmann and Lindberg’s article on the “third wave of autocratization” has made a signal contribution to one of the central debates on democratic governance today: whether the world is truly witnessing a global rollback of democratic freedoms.
Their approach is important for three key reasons. First, their careful evidence-based analysis, marshalling and sifting through more than a century’s worth of global data—the coding and limitations of which are fully explained—confirms the existence of such an autocratic wave. At the same time, this analysis provides a useful corrective to a burgeoning supply of panic literature. This literature tends to lament the so-called death of democracy (or the death of liberalism, or even the death of the West or of Europe), but it often limits its scope to developments in the United States since the election of President Donald Trump; the UK’s Brexit vote; and (to a lesser extent) the serious rollback of democratic freedoms in states such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Often, the catchall term populism is applied wholesale to a host of highly disparate experiences (like those of the United States and Turkey, for instance), although they feature far more structural differences than similarities.
Second, the authors’ longitudinal study places this upsurge of autocratic rule in a fuller historical context. This is a helpful antidote to a tendency to focus on the 1930s as the main historical precursor of, and point of comparison for, the current wave of threats to democracy. Much can be gleaned from more recent periods such as the 1960s and 1970s. Third, the authors’ nuanced approach to analysis and terminology avoids unhelpful binaries between the supposed poles of full liberal democracy and hard authoritarianism or the poles of democratic decay and democratic breakdown. Their work helps other analysts better appreciate the subtle means by which contemporary autocratization (the authors’ term) happens, the different starting points at which states have been affected, and the fact that most regimes have rarely ended up as hard authoritarian systems (at least to date).
That said, three key criticisms can be made. First, the authors’ sole reliance on political science literature leads to knowledge gaps. For instance, more legally based analysis has uncovered a wider range of means by which governments (and other political actors) degrade democratic systems, including the manipulation of electoral laws (in countries like Hungary and Turkey), the abuse of impeachment procedures (in countries like Brazil), and the diminution of opposition powers in parliament (in countries like India).
Second, their approach, like much of the emerging literature, in the disciplines of political science and law in particular, betrays an acute obsession with executive power. This tendency may elide more tectonic shifts threatening the long-term durability of democratic governance worldwide, even in places where government power remains in the hands of committed democrats. These other challenges include (but are not limited to): a growing class of marginalized citizens who are decreasingly able to engage in their democratic systems, widespread misinformation and information overload, and the potential for mass electronic surveillance in the age of Big Data. In light of these other factors, democratic rule worthy of the name might appear under far more acute threat than Lührmann and Lindberg’s analysis would suggest.
Third, while the authors are right to note that the global share of democratic countries remains close to its all-time high, taking a simple numerical approach may overlook the question of which democracies worldwide are being affected. Many of the states under serious threat of democratic backsliding are keystone democracies whose serious deterioration could profoundly undermine the vitality of democracy as a global norm: Brazil, India, Japan, Poland, South Africa, and the United States come to mind. This is not mere conjecture: recent research, for instance, has shown that regional political environments that are supportive of democracy, as reflected in the preponderance of other democracies, strongly correlate with the durability of each democracy in the region. The converse is also true: authoritarian regimes that are perceived as successful tend to breed imitators. In short, some democracies may simply matter more than others.
Despite these limited criticisms, Lührmann and Lindberg’s work is a landmark piece of analysis and deserves a wide readership.
Tom Gerald Daly is director of the global platform Democratic Decay and Renewal and an academic and consultant focusing on democracy, human rights, and public law.
Note: Democratic Decay and Renewal is a partner of V-Dem, of which the authors Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg are deputy director and director, respectively.
A Practioner’s View of the Rise of Clandestine Autocracy
The authors’ analysis is extremely welcome, both in its treatment of the complexities of capturing increases in autocracy and in the caution it exhibits against quick judgments. Their arguments for the use of the term autocratization rather than backsliding are important and compelling, providing a solid basis for delving into the different forms of autocratization over time. The richness of the V-Dem dataset is also a major advantage of the study they conducted, even if it is difficult for data collected after the fact to be truly comparable to yearly assessments.
Distinguishing between different methods of deepening autocracy over time matters a great deal, as the responses of citizens to autocratization depend on a host of factors. Generally, the gradualism of democratic erosion stands in stark contrast to the fast pace of life in the modern world. The risk of a coup d’état is not that high today because of the threat of citizen mobilization. So while clandestine democratic erosion is a concern, the less dramatic path to autocratization today also shows the strength of democracy as a norm.
It is reasonable to quibble with some details of the authors’ account, particularly the definition of a wave of autocratization. The suggestion that this third wave of autocratization began as far back as the early 1990s is a striking one, given that until 2000 the number of countries experiencing democratization was higher than at any other point in history before the third wave.
Is there cause for concern? While the sample size is small, the warnings over the consequences of democratic erosion are troubling, particularly given recent trends. This finding presents clear problems for states seeking to support democracy abroad insofar as the traditional tools for sanctioning such behavior tend to rely on watershed moments like coups, stolen elections, and episodes of state violence. In addition, states that have been classified as democracies also tend to receive less attention from democracy supporters.
At the same time, I would be reluctant to call the behavior of autocrats clandestine because activists, academics, and practitioners are well aware of the steps they have taken. Data captured in real time confirm this reality, as do the vast array of related articles and commentaries. The EU and affiliated institutions have been heavily criticized for how they have dealt with growing autocracy in Hungary after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán returned to power. This is even more troubling given that they noticed worrying signs as far back as 2011 (including a 2011 media law and the country’s revised constitution). The European Commission also detected problems in Poland as early as late 2015. In both instances, increases in autocracy were perceived but not prevented.
My experience working on democratic governance around the world suggests that the authors’ notion of democratic erosion reveals something operationally important. Commentators and politicians often repeat the mantra that democracy takes time because a culture of accountability and transparency does not develop overnight. Skeptics of democracy support often point out that democratic culture cannot be created in short order. Yet Lindberg and Lührmann show that the reverse applies as well: autocratization can also take time. This insight leaves some room for optimism. Dealing with democratic erosion will call for updated and bold approaches from citizens, practitioners, and the international community, but these efforts can also benefit from today’s slower, more incremental rollback of democratic norms and practices.
Ken Godfrey is director of the European Partnership for Democracy.
The Various Forms of Autocratization in Central Europe
Lührmann and Lindberg draw useful conceptual distinctions between autocratization, democratic recession, democratic breakdown, and autocratic consolation. They argue that they have developed a new method for identifying not only sudden but also gradual episodes of autocratization. This measure is designed to capture the rate and various dimensions of democratic decline.
Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, however, might note that while the authors’ operationalization is likely to capture the now pervasive attempts by the region’s governing elites to delegitimize all critical voices, it excludes another critical assault on democracy in the post-communist space—persistent efforts to undermine democratic checks and balances on government power. Consider, for example, that their measure combines indices reporting freedom of association, freedom of expression, and free and fair elections.
The authors’ important and impressive empirical study seeks to demonstrate that the third wave of autocratization affects mainly democracies and involves mainly legal and gradual autocratic tactics. Yet in the sense that the category they call democratic erosion appears to be a catchall slot for transitions that are not invasions, military coups, or autogolpes, their argument nearly falls prey to circular logic. The distinction they draw between democratic erosion and the conceptually closest category of autogolpes is one of changes to informal versus formal rules.
Democratization scholars and experts on Central and Eastern Europe might take issue with this lumping together of qualitatively different autocratization processes happening in their region. For example, both Bulgaria and Poland would be considered cases of democratic erosion under the authors’ rubric, although the two cases are different in an important respect. Bulgaria has featured continuously but subtly deteriorating rule of law, media independence, and quality of national governance. In Poland, by contrast, in only two years, the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), passed far-reaching reforms to politicize the media, clamped down on civil society, and compromised the separation of powers by using the PiS-dominated parliament to control the election of the members of the National Judicial Council responsible for appointing judges nationwide. So the PiS has arguably been acting quickly and changing the formal rules. Most Central and Eastern Europe experts would argue that this form of autocratization has been neither clandestine nor especially gradual—in fact, the government’s actions have provoked heated debate both domestically and internationally.
Moreover, Lührmann and Lindberg talk about waves of democratization and autocratization but without actually conceptualizing these dynamics as waves. They understate the impact of regional diffusion or demonstration effects (learning by active teaching and by modeling the strategy and tactics of similar groups abroad). Scholars of Central and Eastern Europe have done a lot of work to empirically document and theorize such dynamics; some of this work suggests that the pace and form of regime change are shaped by when in the wave of autocratization a country experiences regime change. Such an approach might lead one to hypothesize that, as an early mover in this wave of autocratization, Hungary might have undergone slow and clandestine democratic erosion because the ruling government was inventing a model of regime change while domestic and especially international opponents struggled to react. In contrast, in a country like Poland, whose autocratization came later in the wave, the government was positioned to quickly and boldly appropriate a well-formed model of regime change.
Lührmann and Lindberg end on an optimistic note, observing that states hit by the third wave of autocratization remain much more democratic than their historical cousins. But the authors cannot and do not address the critical analytical question of when democratic recession becomes a democratic breakdown. These two processes are not conceptually separate, and their overlap is an important empirical issue given widespread concerns about the quality of democracies born in the third wave of democratization. If (gradual) democratic recession eventually leads to democratic breakdown, how many contemporary democracies are close to the point of regime change? Moreover, it is unclear that the endurance of poor-quality democracies is reason for optimism, given that such democracies are associated with a range of suboptimal outcomes (including inequality and conflict) that are unlikely to engender mass support for democracy in the future.
The authors also assume that because recent autocratization has been more gradual, democratic actors may remain strong enough to resist. Scholars focusing on Central and Eastern Europe who compare Poland and Hungary might arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion: the PiS in Poland accomplished in its first two years in office reforms that took the Hungarian ruling party (Fidesz) close to six years, and yet pro-democratic civic and political actors remain more vibrant in Poland than in Hungary. That is, resistance has been stronger in the case where erosion has been less, not more, incremental. Experts on Central and Eastern Europe might speculate that forceful democratic erosion generates more resistance, whereas a more slow-paced increase in autocracy can lull domestic and international opposition into complacency while simultaneously ensuring that, in each of the battles or elections to come, the playing field is less and less even.
Tsveta Petrova is a lecturer in political science at Columbia University, whose research focuses on democracy, democratization, and democracy promotion in Central and Eastern Europe.
The views above are based on research conducted by the author as part of a project that receives support from the Erasmus+ Program of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for this research project does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the author, and the commission cannot be held responsible for any use of the information contained therein.
Clandestine Autocratization in Turkey
The clandestine demise of Turkish democracy over the last decade exemplifies how autocratization can occur slowly and incrementally when a governing party and its leader gradually and purposefully erode a country’s main democratic organizing principles and institutions. Turkey was not a consolidated democracy even before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002. At that time, the country’s political system could best be described as a tutelary democracy in which some state actors, most notably the military and the judiciary, served as guardians of secularism (against the perceived threat of political Islam) and Turkey’s territorial integrity (against Kurdish nationalism and calls for secessionism). Between 2002 and 2006, the AKP undertook key democratic reforms aimed at accession to the European Union (EU), a goal that united many Islamists, liberals, Kurds, Alevis, and secularists.
Between 2008 and 2010, the AKP ended tutelary democracy in Turkey by infiltrating the judiciary with Gulenist cadres and collaborating with them to oust military officials through sham trials. This violation of the rule of law shows that the government cadres’ normative commitment to democracy and the rule of law was highly questionable. Yet these violations of democratic norms often went unnoticed by most domestic actors as well as the international community (including the EU), which often viewed these steps as mere setbacks on the path to becoming a consolidated democracy.
Over the last decade, the party has steered the country toward competitive authoritarianism by seeking to capture state institutions, eradicate all checks and balances, and crack down on fundamental freedoms. Many scholars have argued that this trend was not an authoritarian turn but an instance of authoritarian continuity in the sense that, even before 2008, the party strived to centralize executive authority, co-opt media outlets, and suppress dissent to the best of its ability. The party’s success in weakening the two key veto players of the former secularist establishment meant that the AKP became much more empowered to undertake such measures. The failed coup attempt in 2016 and the added pretext of heightened security concerns provided further impetus in this direction.
The AKP gradually achieved almost full control of the country’s traditional media landscape by attacking freedom of expression in various ways, including pursuing legal action against critics, otherwise intimidating the owners of media outlets, and even pushing for changes in the ownership of critical media outlets. By 2018, this process was largely complete to the extent that almost all television channels and print media outlets have come under direct or indirect government control. Although Turkey’s main political institutions, such as the presidency, the parliament, and multiparty elections remain intact, their contribution to democracy has been hollowed out by the fundamental institutional and legal changes that the AKP has made in the last few years. Through a 2018 nationwide referendum, the party centralized power in the presidency and formally minimized the parliament’s authority, which had already been circumscribed by the AKP and its legislative allies. This consequential referendum marked the first time that opposition forces in Turkey raised election-rigging charges against the regime, albeit without any tangible results. The judiciary, which already had been highly politicized by a 2010 constitutional referendum, was firmly placed under the control of government cadres by massive purges after the failed coup attempt.
Along its clandestine path to autocracy, Turkey maintained the long-standing illusion of being a consolidating democracy even as the seeds of authoritarianism were sown. The ruling party found a sudden shift to autocracy neither desirable nor feasible for at least four reasons. First, the veto power wielded by the military and the judiciary in the party’s early years in power likely curbed some authoritarian backsliding for a time. Second, the AKP needed to broaden its domestic and international legitimacy in those early years in preparation for the country’s aspirations to EU accession, which Ankara probably would have lost if it had become more autocratic too soon. Third, Turkey’s own history of democracy and oppositional movements created hurdles for the AKP along the way, such as the 2013 Gezi protests. Fourth, the internal composition of the AKP itself was an important factor. Although Erdoğan has undoubtedly been the party’s single most important figure, the AKP initially contained numerous moderate figures who would not have been comfortable with a sudden autocratic turn. The party’s efforts to eliminate them from its ranks went hand in hand with its subsequent overwhelming reliance on Erdoğan alone, and this dynamic also facilitated such autocratic measures.
Turkey’s experience speaks directly to key questions such as whether a gradual rise in autocracy is more or less serious than abrupt autocratization, and whether gradual, clandestine autocratization gives advocates of democracy more time to regroup or lulls them into a sense of apathy. The AKP’s successful push for gradual autocracy demonstrates that an incremental rise is more likely in cases where there is considerable opposition both in society and/or in the state bureaucracy. Yet such gradualism is also more serious in the sense that it divides the opposition by forming multiple ad-hoc alliances along the way. This approach can leave in its wake a highly weakened and fragmented opposition by the time autocratization is almost complete, meaning that there are often very few channels left for the opposition to express its dissent and bring about meaningful change.
Senem Aydın-Düzgit is an associate professor of international relations at Sabancı University and the research and academic affairs coordinator at the Istanbul Policy Center.
Authors’ Response: Meeting the Global Challenge of Autocratization
Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg
This debate facilitated by Richard Youngs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is both important and timely. We are grateful for the insightful commentaries by our (often-friendly) critics, and we hope our response can shed further light on the most salient issues facing both scholars and policy practitioners.
We fully agree with Tom Daly that much more attention needs to be paid to understanding the legal means by which autocratization happens today. One of the most important findings in our study is that 70 percent of autocratization efforts are made by legal means (see figure 3 in the original article). The steps the AKP took in Turkey detailed by Senem Aydın-Düzgit are a good case in point. Erdoğan frequently has used legal tools (like the 2018 referendum) to centralize even more power.
We fully acknowledge the fair critique by Tsveta Petrova who pointed out the absence of horizontal checks in our estimate of autocratization processes. We made this choice to offer a lean way of measuring autocratization that focuses on the core electoral element of democracy. Nevertheless, we agree that horizontal accountability mechanisms need to be studied to understand autocratization better. V-Dem’s Liberal Component Index and its indicators are designed to capture exactly that. We also think this discussion is an impetus for the disciplines of political science and law to work closer together in future analyses and a call for the policy community to pay greater attention to these aspects going forward.
Importantly, Daly also noted that, while our analysis often put executive leaders at center stage (as they are in journalists’ and practitioners’ work on democracy support), current autocratization trends are probably fueled by societal changes. These changes include shifts in ordinary citizens’ preferences, fears, and perspectives on economic distress, as well as the evolving information landscape in the digital age. We agree that much more talent must be employed to analyze the roles that these and other factors play in the changes political regimes undergo. This is perhaps particularly important given Ken Godfrey’s observation that policy experts and practitioners tend to overlook countries classified as democracies. Our analysis and the insights provided by our critics all point to the same conclusion: the dynamics and mechanisms of erosion in democracies demand much more attention. We also wholeheartedly agree with Daly that it matters which countries become more autocratic. Some countries are much more important because they serve as international and regional players that carry great influence over others, and because they are so populous that even domestic changes affect a large swath of people around the world.
Petrova stresses that it is important to identify which democracies break down at some point. We disagree with her that we cannot speak to that issue. We co-wrote a study called Regimes of the World, which used V-Dem data to create an ordinal measure of regime types. With this analytical tool, we can identify when regimes actually break down, and we actually quantify how many do so at one point in the article (although this issue was not the piece’s focus). In our original article, we state that the “sudden forms of autocratization – invasions, military coups, autogolpes – always result in a democratic breakdown. Even democratic erosion processes are more often than not lethal for democracy: 18 (55%) of them have resulted in democratic breakdowns; only 5 (15%) processes have stopped before democracy broke down and 10 (30%) were still ongoing in 2017.”
But aside from that, Petrova’s critique is on point. The question of whether a slow, gradual form of autocratization means that there is often more effective resistance, or that leaders in such countries (like Hungary) are shrewder and thus avoid resistance, is important. The contrast between Poland and Hungary is telling. It is quite possible, and makes theoretical sense, that a swifter, more radical change would provoke fiercer resistance more easily. Yet Ken Godfrey’s perspective on this topic is important, as he points out that international and multilateral organizations have more time to react when autocratic encroachment happens slowly. Given that such organizations are typically not constructed for swift action, this insight provides some room for optimism. When autocratic advances happen at a faster pace, this tends to mobilize domestic pro-democratic actors more readily (as in Poland). When autocratic processes unfold more slowly, international organizations have more time to respond.
This debate has shown—once more—that autocratization has emerged as a key challenge of the twenty-first century. The participating scholars have outlined many new avenues for future research. We also welcome Godfrey’s assurance that autocratization is a preoccupation of politicians and practitioners worldwide. All supporters of democracy (academics and practitioners alike) should collaborate more to meet the contemporary challenges that democracy faces.