/ 21 June 2019

Democracy still rules – for now

Undermining: Leaders in increasingly autocratic countries
Undermining: Leaders in increasingly autocratic countries, such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hold elections only to cement their own authority. (Aris Messinis/AFP)


It is generally accepted that the history of modern democracy plays out, for the most part, in five “chapters”. Three of these chapters document what political scientist Samuel Huntington referred to as “waves of democracy”.

The first wave occurred during the 19th century. This has taken democracy to most parts of the West. The second wave came after World War II and the third from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. The latter was driven mainly by the collapse of colonialism.

The other two chapters document the decline of democracy: the first during the 1920s and 1930s, when democracies were overthrown by fascists, and the second wave in the 1960s, when the Cold War resulted in a series of coups and military takeovers.

In their fascinating new academic study, two Swedish political scientists, Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, point out that we are in the sixth chapter of the world’s democratic history. A third wave of democratic decline has hit us — the largest to date.

Among the many countries that have autocratised (in other words, slipped away from democracy) over the past two to three decades are India, Russia and Venezuela. Brazil could also be included.

I refer specifically to these countries because three of them belong to the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa bloc, with China also far on the spectrum of autocracy.

Another interesting factor is that — according to the 2017 Global Impunity Index — India, Venezuela, Brazil and Russia are the countries in which impunity is the most prevalent. Consequently, there seems to be a link between autocratisation and impunity.

According to Lührmann and Lindberg, this third wave of autocratisation has been coming since 1994, long before most people noticed it. What is worrying is that for the past 25 years, 75 countries worldwide have been moving in this direction.

This particular finding is based on a year-on-year collection of data from each country in the world to get a good idea of the state of democracy. This data includes the credibility of elections, the independence of courts and the freedom enjoyed by opposition parties.

This shift away from democracy to autocracy is sometimes hidden because it does not necessarily take place overnight as, for example, with a coup. Nowadays, countries are gradually moving in this direction — often in a way that appears to be democratic.

One example is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strengthened his power over the past decade by holding regular elections, but only with the intention of sanctioning his growing authority in a democratic way.

Lührmann and Lindberg say current autocrats have “mastered the art of subverting electoral standards without breaking their democratic façade completely”.

These efforts are not always led by charismatic personalities such as Erdogan, but often by “faceless” political parties and bureaucracies, or by governments shying away “from sudden, drastic moves to autocracy” that “instead mimic democratic institutions while gradually eroding their functions”.

Another interesting finding by these two researchers is that the general form of autocracy today is not dictatorship, but something they refer to as “electoral autocracy”. This means elections are still held — people can vote freely and votes can be counted accurately — but under circumstances that do not promote democracy.

Examples of the latter would be the intimidation of the opposition, the weakening of transparency, certain overturned legislation, restricted media freedom and some prominent platforms being used for propaganda.

But the authors say their findings do not have to lead to large-scale panic, because we are still living in a democratic era. Democracy remains the world’s most popular form of government and almost the most popular ever in the history of humanity. Today, more than half of all countries (53%) still qualify as democracies.

Yet, it must be pointed out that there has been a significant backsliding to autocracy recently, that certain strong democracies have become poor democracies and that some authoritarian states have become more authoritarian.

The reason for concern lies in the following paragraph of their study: “About a third of all autocratisation episodes … started during a democratic dispensation. Almost all of the latter … led to the country turning into an autocracy. This should give us a great pause in the spectre of the current third wave of autocratisation. Very few episodes of autocratisation starting in democracies have ever been stopped before countries become autocracies.”

So every democracy that even just started to slip back slightly to autocracy had an 80% chance of slipping all the way to complete autocracy.

In 2017 alone, 24 countries became autocracies, affecting about 2.5-billion people. In addition, there were 24 countries that showed positive aspects of democratisation, but most of these are countries with smaller populations.

The concern is, as already implied, that autocratisation leads to a huge decline in people’s claim to rights and freedoms.

Somewhat reassuringly, Lührmann and Lindberg say in their report: “As it was premature to announce the ‘end of history’ in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the ‘end of democracy’ now.”

Chris Jones heads the unit for moral leadership in the faculty of theology at Stellenbosch University