Autocracies on the Rise
Two reports on the state of democracy around the world
Just one in five people live in a free country today, according to Freedom House’s latest annual report. This number was almost twice as high just two years ago, with last year’s developments marking the sad continuation of a 16-year decline in global freedom. In the latest edition of its Transformation Index, the Bertelsmann Foundation also observes an increasing autocratisation of the world. For the first time since 2004, there are more autocracies than democracies among the countries included. Notwithstanding this troubling development, civil societies in many states around the world prove that democracy and freedom continue to be very appealing.
The Washington-based think tank Freedom House makes a worrying observation in its 2022 report: Attacks on liberal democracy are on the rise. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties and authoritarian forces continue to exploit weaknesses in the political systems of liberal democracies.
In 2021, 38 per cent of the global population lived in 66 countries rated “not free” – more than at any other time since 1997. By contrast, only 20 per cent lived in 84 countries rated “free”, while the remaining 42 per cent lived in 60 countries rated “partly free”. The most drastic deterioration occurred in Myanmar and Afghanistan, but freedom also declined in Nicaragua, Sudan and Tunisia. Some countries, however, saw improvements, in particular Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Niger and Honduras. The authors argue that China and Russia succeeded in shifting global incentives, thus undermining the consensus that democracy is the surest path to prosperity, while supporting other illiberal regimes. At the same time, they note that confidence in the ability of democracies to support their partners was shaken when the United States and its allies withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 2021.
The Bertelsmann Foundation’s Transformation Index (BTI) analyses and compares the quality of democracy, market economy and governance in developing and transition countries around the world. The 2022 edition of the BTI examines 137 countries. For the first time since 2004, autocracies outnumber democracies among the selected states at 70 countries. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, almost one in five democracies has seen its quality decline over the past ten years, including regionally important and once stable democracies. These include large democracies such as India and Brazil as well as the European countries Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia and Hungary – all of which have lost more than one point on the BTI’s ten-point scale since 2012 and are now only considered defective democracies. A major reason for this development, according to the think tank, is a one-sided focus on securing political and economic power on the part of political elites, to which any social and economic development is subordinated.
Deficits in governance were evident during the Covid-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic effects, according to the analysis. Many governments lacked the political will to combat impoverishment and social exclusion. Moreover, autocratic regimes in particular used the pandemic to further restrict fundamental rights and to silence critics. For the first time, the governance in more than 100 countries was only rated moderate or even lower. The vast majority of these governments proved incapable of responding adequately to the pandemic and the resulting political, economic and social challenges.
The study, however, notes a range of positive cases as well. For example, 14 democracies have been stable and of high quality for the past 20 years, including Botswana and Mauritius in Africa, South Korea and Taiwan in Asia, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Jamaica in the Americas, and the Baltic States as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia in Europe. Both reports also highlight the important role of civil society for democratic development in many regions. Thus people protested against autocratisation in Belarus, Myanmar and Sudan and elsewhere, demanded greater social inclusion and representation, notably in Chile, and successfully resisted corruption and abuse of power, as in Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic.
Read more in the report “Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule”, published in February 2022, and on the BTI 2022’s website as well as its executive summary.
Russia and ten other threats to democracy
Since 24 February 2022, the term “militant democracy” has taken on a different ring. Originally referring to the defence of democratic norms and institutions against domestic anti-democratic actors, it has now become impossible not to think of external military threats as well – a danger which had previously receded into the background in many parts of the world. A new volume of essays by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation examines the wide range of internal and external threats to German democracy – from extremism and polarisation, to authoritarianism and nationalism, to military threats and cyberattacks.
The eleven contributions to the volume address a range of issues, as can be gleaned from their titles: armed conflict and war, radicalisation and extremism, populism and distrust in elites, polarisation and the new culture wars, disinformation and hate speech, complacency and exhaustion, self-doubt and authoritarian temptations, nationalism and revisionism, cyberattacks and web brigades, authoritarian propaganda and influence, and economic and technological dependence.
It is often not possible to draw a neat distinction between the internal and external threats at play in the essays. Increasingly, it is precisely the interaction of internal dangers and their amplification by external influences that gives rise to new types of threats. The volume thus conceives of the concept of militant democracy as the ability of democracies to react appropriately and effectively to the entire range of internal and external threats.
Read more in the volume “Wehrhaftere Demokratie. Russland und zehn weitere Gefahren für unsere Freiheit”, published in July 2022 (in German).
Facts and Public Life
How differently do Europeans see the world?
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a surprising level of distrust of scientific authorities in many countries, despite widely available information on the virus and vaccinations. But a trend towards a polarised and fragmented public, with political discourse based less and less on commonly accepted facts, has been evident around the world for some time. The United States are a striking example, where even the result of the last presidential election is now doubted by parts of society. Under the label “truth decay”, researchers from the RAND Corporation have investigated the extent, causes and consequences of this development – first for the US and now, in a new study, for Europe.
The phenomenon that the California-based think tank calls “truth decay” consists of four trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and data, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The authors were also able to identify all four trends in Europe, although with varying degrees in different countries and overall, less pronounced than on the other side of the Atlantic.
Examples of growing misperceptions of facts and data include increasing vaccine scepticism and overestimating the extent of migration in countries such as Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Poland. The authors also found evidence of a blurring of the line between opinions and facts, for example, an increase in opinion journalism. In this respect, however, the media culture of northern European countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries differs. Interestingly, the study finds that while trust in political institutions declined around the turn of the millennium, this trend has reversed since the end of the financial crisis, unlike in the United States. Trust in the media, on the other hand, has declined steadily over the past 20 years.
The study suggests that political polarisation is the central driver of “truth decay”, along with changes in the media and information landscape. This goes hand in hand with a decline in trust in institutions that were previously generally recognised as sources of objective information. For example, following the highly polarised debate surrounding the Brexit referendum, trust in British media declined significantly. Poland, too, saw an increase in polarisation and a simultaneous decline in trust in public institutions and the media. Finally, different degrees of polarisation are also one of the factors that may explain why the phenomenon described by the study is much more pronounced in the United States than in Europe.
Read more in the study “Truth Decay in Europe. Exploring the role of facts and analysis in European public life”, published in May 2022. An audio interview with the authors is available here.
Kingdom of Kleptocrats?
How post-Soviet elites launder money and reputations in the UK
Western sanctions against Russian oligarchs since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have thrown a spotlight on the influence of Russian elites in the UK. Experts have long warned that London in particular has served as a safe haven for the corrupt money of wealthy elites from former Soviet republics since the 1990s. Recently, the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International estimated that 1.5 billion pounds worth of property was bought by Russians accused of corruption. The links between Russian money and British business, politics and society not only damage the country’s reputation on the world stage, but also threaten to undermine the integrity of British institutions. A Chatham House report details the UK’s kleptocracy problem and outlines strategies for British policy.
In their study, the authors of the London-based think tank show that the UK authorities are hardly able to adequately address corruption by transnational kleptocrats. The country’s approach to tackling money laundering, which relies on private sector professionals conducting appropriate checks, is ineffective, they argue. On the one hand, banks overreport suspicious activity, thereby overwhelming the processing capacities of UK authorities, and on the other hand, other non-financial service providers often under-report such activity. The authorities also regularly fail in their attempts to prosecute money laundering by post-Soviet elites who are able to hire capable and expensive lawyers to defend them.
Kleptocrats also use the services of lawyers and public relations agents to protect their reputation from criticism by journalists and researchers, according to the report, for example by filing defamation lawsuits. Besides dirty money, reputation is also an important factor in the London ‘laundromat’. By donating to universities and charities as well as political parties, especially the Tories, post-Soviet elites clean up their reputation and gain influence in society and politics, thus undermining the integrity of important institutions in the United Kingdom.
This situation damages the rule of law and the UK’s reputation as an opponent of international corruption, the authors argue. The report sketches the outlines of a more effective anti-kleptocratic policy, including closing legal loopholes, demanding transparency from public institutions, prosecuting Britons who facilitate money laundering and imposing effective sanctions against post-Soviet elites.
Read more in the report “The UK’s kleptocracy problem. How servicing post-Soviet elites weakens the rule of law”, published in December 2021.
Taking stock after two years
Elections in the Digital Age
New risks for democratic integrity
Digitalisation poses new challenges to the integrity of elections in democratic states around the world. While it provides possibilities for more efficient digital voting systems and new opportunities for civic education and online communication, cyberattacks, trolls and social bots are damaging democratic processes. Foreign disinformation campaigns and Russian hacker attacks have become a serious threat to democratic elections. In a study by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an interdisciplinary team of experts sheds light on the various aspects of the issue and makes recommendations for policymakers.
The report “Next-Generation Technology and Electoral Democracy: Understanding the Changing Environment” is the result of a joint research project of the Waterloo-based CIGI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Canada. Seven experts from Canada and Germany assess the impact of existing and next-generation technologies on elections and make suggestions on how democratic states can navigate the new risk landscape.
The topics addressed in the contributions include disinformation on social media and platform policies, the role of the dark web, international law and cyber election meddling, the security of electronic voting systems and national strategies against foreign interference in democratic processes. Democratic states need effective means to protect their elections and democratic processes from influence by foreign actors, without restricting fundamental democratic rights, in particular freedom of expression. The case studies collected in the volume indicate which technical, legal and regulatory aspects a successful political approach must include to succeed in this balancing act.
Read more in the report “Next-Generation Technology and Electoral Democracy: Understanding the Changing Environment”, published on 23 March 2022.
Polarisation and democratic risks in Latin America
For the first time in Colombia’s history, a left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, won the presidential election in June 2022. The election continues a multi-year shift in Latin America, where left-wing politicians already won majorities in Chile, Peru and Honduras in 2021. At least as remarkable, however, is the fact that Petro’s populist rival was not a member of any of the established parties either. An increasing rejection of traditional politics and the rise of populists characterises the politics of a number of Latin American countries. A volume of essays by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assesses the political developments in six countries in the region that have experienced social tensions and polarisation in recent years.
The political landscape of the six countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – is shaped in different ways by factors such as economic inequality and exclusion, corruption, ideological differences, violence and a weak state. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated social problems in many states. In their contributions, the authors each provide answers to four questions on the political situation in the six countries: What are the most important socio-political divides, the effects of the pandemic and the greatest dangers to democracy and, finally, how can these risks be addressed? Overall, the country reports paint a sobering, though not entirely negative, picture. The authors argue that there are serious dangers to democracy, from the erosion of democratic structures to the rise of illiberal political forces. But these developments are not inevitable, and the essays conclude with recommendations on how to improve the situation.
Read more in “Divisive Politics and Democratic Dangers in Latin America”, published in February 2021.
Contributors to this issue:
Team KALUZA + SCHMID Studio, Bogdan Miftakhov, Johannes Sudau, Kristin Wesemann
(6) Bradshaw, Samatha Kailee Hilt, Eric Jardine et al. Next-Generation Technology and Electoral Democracy: Understanding the Changing Environment. Centre for International Governance Innovation, March 2022.