The Corrosion of Democracy

What has happened to the idea and practice of democracy? What many vigilant observers of countries and political systems might have concluded from their daily analysis of political events and processes, has now been confirmed as a global pattern. Democratization has not only come to a halt but has been in decline across the world since 2008. These are the alarming findings of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report Democracy Index 2010 – Democracy in retreat, issued in December 2010.

This article will go into more detail regarding some surprising country assessments and regional developments. But before doing so, a word or two about the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) research project is in order. Finally, the likely causes of the current democratic recession will be considered.

EIU Democracy Index 2010

The EIU is a branch of the The Economist Group which also publishes the traditional weekly newspaper. One reason to take this democracy research project very seriously is the amount of independent and coherent country expertise assembled within this outfit. Some of the indicators were also based on pertinent public opinion surveys, such as the World Values Survey.

The Democracy Index 2010, edited by EIU-Director Laza Kekic, is only the third report of its kind, after the reports issued in 2006 and 2008, but it quite openly aims to offer an alternative to the more widely known democracy indizes produced by the US organization Freedom House. Despite the commercial background of the EIU one can only welcome more independent competition in the field of policy relevant research on democratization.

Particularly intriguing is the combination of what the political science pundits call a ‘thick’ concept of democracy, with a more reliable method of scoring the single indicators. The concept includes 60 indicators covering not only categories like the electoral process and pluralism, and civil liberties, but also the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. This wider perspective on the actual performance of political systems has, as we will see shortly, a significant impact on the rating of the quality of democracy. Overall, the index differentiates between 26 full democracies, 53 flawed democracies, 33 hybrid regimes and 55 authoritarian regimes.

In terms of scoring, the EIU researchers use a dichotomous or a three-point system. This means 1 for a yes and 0 for a no answer to the indicating questions. When appropriate, a 0.5 score is introduced for clearly specified in-between answers. This seems to be a boldly simple method, compared to more complex 1-5 or 1-7 scoring scales, but a dichotomous principle definitely increases reliability and comparability across multiple experts assessments and within a multidimensional index. By aggregation, the index of democracy compiles a 0-10 scale as the average of the five category indexes (each also converted into a 0-10 scale).

The state of democracy

The sitting French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy will hardly be happy about seeing France downgraded to a flawed democracy, ranked 31. Mainly, this assessment reflects the particularly low public confidence in political institutions and weak popular support for democracy in France. Some other issues, like the treatment of minorities and media freedom, have also become matters of concern over recent years. France is in uncomfortable company with Italy, Greece and Slovenia, countries that are now classified as flawed democracies, too. The media situation in Italy governed by Silvio Berlusconi has further deteriorated; in Greece the notorious problem of corruption and the malfunctioning of the government resulted in its downgrading; and in Slovenia political apathy and dissatisfaction with democratic practices decreased the country’s respective scores.

In fact, a major number of the European Union members states cannot be called full democracies. Among the central-eastern European countries, only the Czech Republic is classified as such. The perceived democratic recession of Hungary (=43), for example, is currently much debated within the European media. In south-eastern Europe, Bulgaria and Romania are only ranked 51 and 56. Candidate countries for EU membership in the Balkans, such as Croatia (=53), Serbia (=56), Montenegro (=68) and Macedonia (=73) also score quite low in the democracy index. Overall, the mixed picture suggests that the European Union will have to pay more attention to consolidating and preserving its democratic substance in the future.

Even in the long-standing democratic countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there are warning signs of corrosion. Although, still classified as full democracies, with not so glamorous ranks 19 and 17, the decline in political participation in the UK, and in the US, the erosion of civil liberties and problems with the functioning of government, cannot be ignored. This should concern those, who in the past regarded these countries as leading in the spread of liberal democracy. The image and reputation of the democratic governance worldwide might have suffered from the credibility gaps opening in the domestic performance of both the US and the UK.

The EIU found that the democracy scores for 91 individual countries are lower in 2010 than in 2008. The most populous democracy, India, classified as a flawed democracy, went down 5 ranks to 40, due to low scores in the categories of political participation and political culture. The risk of declining support for democracy in India is also not without wider implications, since many people around the world watch India’s socio-economic development competition with China. The disenchantment with democratic politics might also come with an increasing attraction to the model of authoritarian capitalism as represented by China.

To date, the regional picture of Asia remains diverse. Apart from authoritarian regimes such as North Korea, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, some 13 countries actually score better in 2010 than in 2008. But in only 9 countries elections are denoted as free and fair. The concept of democratic political culture is subject to major qualifications, which cannot be explained away by so-called Asian values. Only Fiji underwent a regime shift from hybrid to authoritarian.

A number of regime shifts took place in Latin America and Africa. Honduras, Bolivia and Nicaragua are no longer flawed democracies but now grouped within the hybrid regimes. A serious general threat to the functioning of democratic government in Latin America is posed by organized and violent crime related to the drugs trade. Only Uruguay and Costa Rica are graded as full democracies. The exaggeration of executive power and populism generally remains a burden on Latin America’s democratic culture.

In Africa, the former hybrid regimes Madagascar, Gambia and Ethiopia are now rated as authoritarian. On the other hand, two African countries, Ghana and Mali, have been upgraded to flawed democracies, being the only cases of democratization in the report period. Other flawed democracies include South Africa, Cape Verde, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Benin. Whether some hybrid regimes like Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Senegal, Liberia, Uganda, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Burundi will manage to develop into flawed democracies requires critical observation over the next months. Half of the countries in Africa are still classified as authoritarian.

Causes of corrosion

What were the causes for the halt and backsliding of democratization? One reason can be found by looking at the regional strongholds of authoritarianism including the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Authoritarian governments of countries rich in oil and other commodities command vast financial means to maintain their regimes. At the same time, the Western countries, who depend heavily on these natural resources for their economic well-being had neither the ambition nor a consistent strategy to foster political liberalization towards dictators they trade with. The gap between proclaimed democratic values and Western realpolitik has widened, in particular when it comes to securing resources supply.

The case for democracy has also suffered from the financial and economic crisis and the increasing commercial competition with emerging powers some of which are not exactly pure democracies. The need to coordinate global financial regulation and economic development issues within the G20 clearly reflects the new reality in world order. But it would be too simple to blame countries such as Russia and China for projecting economic power abroad without regard to human or civil rights. It was really major Western policy failures that inflicted the greatest damage on the idea of democracy. To begin with, the US strategy to export and install democracy by foreign military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has met serious criticism worldwide, harmed the appeal of democratic movements and gave authoritarian regimes a pretext to protect themselves against external interference.

Above all, the excesses of financial de-regulation, bringing the world economy to the brink of collapse has severely discredited the model of liberal democracy. The lack of trust and confidence in democratic institutions noticed by the EIU’s index can be attributed to poor governance and irresponsible policies. People turn away from democratic government if they do not benefit from it. Moreover, the socio-economic stress caused by the crisis induced a risk of destabilization in many countries. Some governments feeling vulnerable to social protest and radicalization tend to curtail opposition rights and media freedom. Others exploit the situation with populism or mobilizing anti-immigrant feelings.

The road to recovery

Given the critical condition of democracy worldwide, one wonders what can be done to improve the situation. Nationalism, deep cuts in welfare spending, and restraining civil freedom only increase the risks of social unrest and political implosion. The road to recovery goes via verifying that democracy works best for creating equal opportunities for a vast majority of the population. That requires not only securing good health and education, but also legislating the proper environment for private entrepreneurship and foreign direct investment, best suited for creating jobs and wealth [see article]. That formula will restore the attractiveness of democracy globally. It will work for heavily indebted states in need of economic growth and higher tax income in order to reduce deficits and stabilize their budgets. It will also work for countries with a young population, who if formally employed actually provide a huge opportunity for economic growth and social development.

Very often, however, the road to good democratic governance remains blocked by a system of patronage opposed to creating equal opportunities. In autocratic Tunisia one could observe how much frustration a prevailing system of corruption and cronyism can create in large parts of the population. (In a separate article, Global Risk Affairs will analyze the events in Tunisia more systematically by looking at the conditions necessary for regime change by the people.)

Ironically, Tunisia, ranked 144 in the EIU’s index as an definite autocracy, was considered as a stable country by many Western governments, praised for containing Islamist terrorism and being a popular tourist destination. The laissez-faire attitude towards that police state, particularly within the European Union, can be regarded as another striking example of applying double standards despite the official promotion of democracy. Moreover, the case of Tunisia displayed a lack of unity within the EU. The common foreign and security policy after the Lisbon Treaty hardly gave an impressive performance in crisis management (why that is so, will be analyzed in another article at Global Risk Affairs).

The EIU’s index does not differentiate between various models of democracy, which is a major subject of political science research. But the index stresses the importance of democratic substance in terms of political participation and political culture. A general conclusion might be, that although corporatist or clientelist connections as a means of governance by secrecy exist in every regime type, patronage practices are particularly harmful to sustaining the legitimacy and global credibility of democracy. Therefore, strengthening meritocracy, accountability and transparency of decision-making is essential in order give democracy new momentum.