In political science, democratic backsliding, also known as democratic erosion or de-democratization, is a gradual decline in the quality of democracy. This decline is caused by the state-led weakening of political institutions that sustain the democratic system. These essential components of democracy can be threatened in different ways. Thus, the concept of democratic backsliding can take various forms.
Political scientist Nancy Bermeo has written that blatant forms of democratic backsliding such as classic, open-ended coups d'état and election-day fraud have declined since the end of the Cold War, while more subtle and "vexing" forms of backsliding have increased. The latter forms of backsliding entail the debilitation of democratic institutions from within. These subtle forms of backsliding are especially dangerous when they are legitimized through the very institutions that ought to protect democratic values.
- Free and fair elections are degraded;
- Liberal rights of freedom of speech and association decline, impairing the ability of the political opposition to challenge the government, hold it to account, and propose alternatives to the current regime;
- The rule of law (i.e., judicial and bureaucratic restraints on the government) is weakened, such as when the independence of the judiciary is threatened, or when civil service tenure protections are weakened or eliminated.
- The government manufactures or overemphasizes a national security threat to create "a sense of crisis" that allows the government "to malign critics as weak-willed or unpatriotic" and to depict defenders of democratic institutions "as representatives of a tired, insulated elite."
These more common forms of democratic backsliding can occur in the following ways:
- Promissory coups. In a promissory coup, an incumbent elected government is deposed in a coup d'etat by coup leaders who claim to defend democracy and promise to hold elections in order to restore democracy. In these situations, coupmakers emphasize the temporary and necessary nature of their intervention in order to ensure democracy in the future. This is unlike the more open-ended coups that occurred during the Cold War. Political scientist Nancy Bermeo says that "The share of successful coups that falls into the promissory category has risen significantly, from 35 percent before 1990 to 85 percent afterward." Examining 12 promissory coups in democratic states between 1990 and 2012, Bermeo found that "Few promissory coups were followed quickly by competitive elections, and fewer still paved the way for improved democracies."
- Executive aggrandizement. This process contains a series of institutional changes by the elected executives, impairing the ability of the political opposition to challenge the government and hold it to account. The most important feature of executive aggrandizement is that the institutional changes are made through legal channels, making it seem as if the elected official has a democratic mandate. Some examples of executive aggrandizement are the decline of media freedom and the weakening of the rule of law (i.e., judicial and bureaucratic restraints on the government), such as when judicial autonomy is threatened.
- Strategic harassment and manipulation during elections. This form of democratic backsliding entails the impairment of free and fair elections through tactics such as blocking media access, disqualifying opposition leaders, or harassing opponents. This form of backsliding is done in such a way that the elections do not appear to be rigged and rarely involves any apparent violations of the law, making it difficult for international election monitoring organizations to observe or criticize these misconducts.
Democratic backsliding is often led by democratically elected leaders, and uses tactics that are "incremental rather than revolutionary." This also makes it harder to pinpoint when a democracy breaks down, because as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pointed out, this happens "slowly, in barely visible steps".
Causes of democratic backsliding
The Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem) contains more than eighteen-million data points relevant to democracy, measuring 350 highly specific indicators across 174 currently existing countries as of the end of 2016. V-Dem's 2019 Democracy report discovered that the trend of autocratization continues, but global democracy levels are not in free fall. One of the main challenges V-Dem discovered to democracy was that freedom of expression and the media are the areas under the most severe attack by governments around the world, followed by closing space for civil society, and an erosion of the rule of law. Freedom House found that freedom of expression has come under sustained attack, through both assaults on the press and encroachments on the speech rights of ordinary citizens. Freedom in the World data show freedom of expression declining each year over the last 13 years, with sharper drops since 2012. The mainstream UK media has a very concentrated ownership structure, with five billionaires owning and/or having a majority of voting shares in most of the national newspapers. This comprises Lord Rothermere, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, David and Frederick Barclay. The Media Reform Coalition found that, when online readers are included, just five companies (News UK, DMG, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph) dominate some 80% of market share (up from 79% in 2015).
Populism can be defined as: “a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." Pippa Norris of the Harvard Kennedy School and the University of Sydney argues that the two "twin forces" pose the largest threat to Western liberal democracies: "sporadic and random terrorist attacks on domestic soil, which damage feelings of security, and the rise of populist-authoritarian forces, which feed parasitically upon these fears." According to Norris, the reinforcement of these insecurities has led to more support for populist-authoritarian leaders. Also, Norris argues that this latter risk is especially pronounced in the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. For example, Norris argues that U.S. President Donald Trump has benefited from the mistrust of 'the establishment' and that he continuously seeks to undermine faith in the legitimacy of the media and the independence of the courts.
In 2017, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovire Kaltwasser wrote that:
Populism does not have the same effect in each stage of the democratization process. In fact, we suggest that populism tends to play a positive role in the promotion of an electoral or minimal democracy, but a negative role when it comes to fostering the development of a full-fledged liberal democratic regime. Consequently, while populism tends to favor the democratization of authoritarian regimes, it is prone to diminish the quality of liberal democracies. Populism supports popular sovereignty, but it is inclined to oppose any limitations on majority rule, such as judicial independence and majority rights. Populism-in-power has led to processes of de-democratization (e.g., [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary or [Hugo] Chávez in Venezuala) and, in some extreme cases, even to the breakdown of the democratic regime (e.g., [Alberto] Fujimori in Peru).
A 2018 analysis by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle links populism to democratic backsliding, showing that since 1990, "13 right-wing populist governments have been elected; of these, five brought about significant democratic backsliding. Over the same time period, 15 left-wing populist governments were elected; of these, the same number, five, brought about significant democratic backsliding."
A December 2018 report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change concluded that populist rule, whether left- or right-wing, leads to a significant risk of democratic backsliding. The authors examine the effect of populism on three major aspects of democracy: the quality of democracy in general, checks and balances on executive power and citizens' right to politically participate in a meaningful way. They conclude that populist governments are four times more likely to cause harm to democratic institutions than non-populist governments. Also, more than half of populist leaders have amended or rewritten the countries' constitution, frequently in a way that eroded checks and balances on executive power. Lastly, populists attack individual rights such as freedom of press, civil liberties and political rights.
In a 2018 journal article on democratic backsliding, scholars Licia Cianetti, James Dawson, and Seán Hanley argued that the emergence of populist movements in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Andrej Babiš's ANO in the Czech Republic, are "a potentially ambiguous phenomenon, articulating genuine societal demands for political reform and pushing issues of good governance centre stage, but further loosening the weak checks and balances that characterise post-communist democracy and embedding private interests at the core of the state."
In a 2019 paper, presented to the International Society of Political Psychologists, Shawn Rosenberg argues that right wing populism is exposing a vulnerability in democratic structures and that "democracy is likely to devour itself."
Many political economy scholars, such as Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, have investigated the effect of income inequality on democratic breakdown. Studies of democratic collapse show that economic inequality is significantly higher in countries that eventually move towards a more authoritarian model. Hungary is an example of a country where a large group of unemployed, low-educated people were dissatisfied with the high levels of inequality, especially after the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Viktor Orbán used this dissatisfaction of a relatively large segment of the population in his advantage, winning popular support by using national-populist rhetoric.
A 2019 study found that personalism had an adverse impact on democracy in Latin America: "presidents who dominate their own weakly organized parties are more likely to seek to concentrate power, undermine horizontal accountability, and trample the rule of law than presidents who preside over parties that have an independent leadership and an institutionalized bureaucracy."
The U.S.-based research group Freedom House, in reports in 2017 and 2019, identified democratic backsliding in a variety of regions across the world. Scholarly work in the 2010s detailed democratic backsliding, in various forms and to various extents, in Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Venezuela. Political scientists writing in 2017 and 2019 identified the United States as being in danger of democratic backsliding.
The scholarly recognition of the concept of democratic backsliding reflects a reversal from older views, which held "that democracy, once attained in a fairly wealthy state, would become a permanent fixture." This older view came to be realized as erroneous beginning in the mid-2000s, as multiple scholars acknowledged that some seemingly-stable democracies have recently faced a decline in the quality of their democracy. Huq and Ginsburg identified in an academic paper "37 instances in 25 different countries in the postwar period in which democratic quality declined significantly (though a fully authoritarian regime didn't emerge)," including countries that were "seemingly stable, reasonably wealthy" democracies.
Hungary and Poland
In the 2010s, a scholarly consensus developed that the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region was experiencing democratic backsliding, most prominently in Hungary and Poland. In the Polish case, the European Commission stated in December 2017 that in the two preceding years, the Polish legislature had adopted "13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland" with the "common pattern [that] the executive and legislative branches [were] systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch."
Since 2010, Hungary under Viktor Orbán has been described as a prominent example of democratic backsliding. The Hungarian government has dismissed criticism of its record on democracy issues.
Some scholars have argued that other countries in the CEE region have also experienced democratic backsliding. According to Rutgers University political scientist R. Daniel Kelemen, the EU has failed to prevent democratic backsliding in some of its member states, and may even make it easier for authoritarian-minded leaders to erode democracy. He argues that the EU's system of party politics, a reluctance to interfere in domestic political matters, appropriation of EU funds by backsliding regimes, and free movement for dissatisfied citizens under the backsliding regimes helps to support backsliding regimes.
Since the early 2000s, Turkey has been considered another example of democratic backsliding.
Effects of judicial independence
A 2011 study examined the effects of judicial independence in preventing democratic backsliding. The study, which analyzed 163 nations from 1960 to 2000, concluded that established independent judiciaries are successful at preventing democracies from drifting to authoritarianism, but that states with newly formed courts "are positively associated with regime collapses in both democracies and nondemocracies."
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