In closed autocracies such as China and Qatar, there are no multiparty elections for the chief executive or legislature.
In closed autocracies such as China and Qatar, there are no multiparty elections for the chief executive or legislature.

Autocrats ascend: Gloomy data on democracies’ decline

In countries such as Russia and Venezuela, authoritarian rule has been entrenched and civil liberties further curtailed.

WASHINGTON: Before being elected president of Brazil in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was granted seven terms in Congress by voters.

Up for reelection in October and facing the first possible ballot box defeat of his career, Bolsonaro has suggested several times over the past year that he would not concede defeat if voters choose his opponent.

“Only God can remove me from the presidential chair,” Bolsonaro said in more than one political rally over the last two years, apparently threatening to defy the very democratic system that put him in power in the first place.

Around the world, countries are facing threats posed by would-be autocrats. And the road to restoring democracy is long and hard, as a DW analysis of century-spanning data shows.

Brazil is one of 12 countries where domestic democratic systems are tilting toward autocracy, according to data published by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg.

The other 11 countries span the globe: Poland, Niger, Indonesia, Botswana, Guatemala, Tunisia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Guyana, Mauritius and Slovenia. In addition to these 12 countries where crises of democracy are still unfolding, another 17 have lost the fight in the past decade alone — including Turkey, the Philippines and Hungary.

Not only are long-established democracies turning toward authoritarianism, but autocratic regimes are tightening their grips on power. In countries such as Russia and Venezuela, authoritarian rule has been entrenched and civil liberties further curtailed.

Though far more countries can now be called democratic than could have 100 years ago, the process of democratisation stalled globally in the early 2000s — and the process of autocratisation stopped its decline.

Democracy is usually thought of as a binary. Either a country is democratic or it isn’t. In reality, the picture is more nuanced. V-Dem researchers classify countries in four broad categories.

In closed autocracies such as China and Qatar, there are no multiparty elections for the chief executive or legislature.

In electoral autocracies such as Turkey and Venezuela, there are elections, but they are not free and fair. In electoral democracies such as Brazil and South Africa, there are free and fair elections, but inequality and a lack of effective rights for some minority groups.

In liberal democracies, such as Germany and Sweden, there are free elections, guaranteed rights for minorities, and functional checks and balances between powers.

The 179 countries classified by V-Dem are almost evenly split between electoral or closed autocracies and liberal or electoral democracies.

Some countries recognised by the United Nations, such as the Vatican or San Marino, have no data available.

Tanks rolling, troops mobilised and democracy going out with a bang (or series of bangs) — coups often come to mind when we think of countries that have turned to authoritarianism.

Though these kinds of takeovers still happen, the current shifts to autocracy are often more gradual, incrementally building to the point where little of the old system remains.

This is what has occurred in the most recent examples of established democracies that have become autocracies. It is also playing out in countries that are still democratic but on a slippery slope.

The sharpest turns toward autocracy have frequently coincided with the election of illiberal leaders such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India.

The aggravation of existing problems is often a factor in the rise of such anti-democratic politicians, said Fernando Bizzarro, a Brazilian researcher of government institutions at Harvard University.

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