The Nature of Democratic Backsliding in Europe

This article is part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.

In Europe, as in most other parts of the world, democracy is retreating and autocracy is gaining. Yet Europe’s challenges are particularly noteworthy. Although it is commonly assumed that democratic backsliding starts with electoral problems, other political elements—such as the infringement of individual rights and the freedom of expression—are at the core of Europe’s democratic woes.

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) index, a signature product of the V-Dem Institute based at the University of Gothenburg, examines the state of global democracy through a distinctive focus on seven different democratic types. V-Dem recently released its 2017 data and annual “Democracy Report 2018,” using over 400 detailed indicators of the particulars of democracy, human rights, civil liberties, and freedoms aggregated from ratings provided by over 3,200 scholars in 180 countries; almost fifty indices capturing components of democracy such as accountability, women’s empowerment, freedom of expression, clean elections, and so on; and five main indices of democracy (electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian democracy) to give new insights into the state of global democracy and the shape of European democracy, in particular.

V-Dem’s data show that a global wave of autocratization—a reduction in democratic qualities that can lead to the breakdown of democracy—is manifesting itself less than thirty years after communism’s collapse and democracy’s global spread generated tremendous hopes for a twenty-first century dominated by liberal democracy. The rise of authoritarianism in Honduras, Nicaragua, Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, and Ukraine, accompanied by substantial backsliding in countries like Brazil, India, Israel, and now the United States, over the past decade testifies to the erroneousness of the optimism expressed in the 1990s. Should the world be genuinely alarmed about the future of democracy in Europe?

A SOBERING GLOBAL PICTURE

The third global wave of democratization started in the mid-1970s and gained momentum across the 1980s and 1990s, peaking between 1993 and 1999. In that period, seventy countries made significant advances on V-Dem’s liberal democracy index every year, while only four to six countries backslid on an annual basis. This dominance of democratic advances over deterioration actually continued from 1978 until around 2010. Since then, a downward trend in democratic progress has become obvious, while the count of nations relapsing has increased. In 2017, the number of countries backsliding matched the count of countries making progress for the first time in forty years.

The overall level of democracy in the world from 1972 to 2017, based on V-Dem’s 2018 data, can be viewed from the perspective of two complementary metrics (see figure 1): conventional averages across countries (the left panel) or averages weighted by each country’s population size (the right panel). There are some noticeable differences, both in levels and the trends over time.

Significantly, overall levels are markedly lower when population size is taken into account, meaning that large countries are worse at delivering democracy. This also holds true for several regions of the world, including the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. It does not hold in the former Soviet republics, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa. Africa is also the only region bucking the contemporary trend of autocratization in both measures.

This means that the gathering trend toward autocratization is much more demonstrable when population sizes are considered. The global level of democracy calculated by conventional country-averages dips slightly after 2010 but is well within confidence intervals. Using population weights, the fall is more pronounced: by this measure, the world has receded to a level of democracy last recorded some twenty-five years ago in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup. One-third of the world’s population—2.5 billion people—lives in countries that are now part of the global autocratization trend.

Many countries have experienced major changes in their democracy scores over the last ten years (see figure 2).1 Several large and populous countries have registered substantial declines in recent years, including Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Notably, all of these are or used to be democracies.

While there are also countries making progress on democracy, they tend to have small populations, such as Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Fiji, Sri Lanka, or Vanuatu. Nigeria is the only country with a large population that has made substantial progress in terms of liberal democracy in the last ten years.

EUROPE’S SITUATION

Democracy in Europe is in decline, even by the more conventional measure. When weighted by population, the trend is again much more apparent. By the latter measure, the level of democracy in Europe has fallen back forty years, to where it was in 1978. This decline is just as steep as the backslide seen in several other regions of the world.

Europe is often portrayed as a bastion of democracy that is more advanced than the rest of the world, perhaps with the exception of the United States and Canada. But while the average level of democracy in Europe is still the second highest in the world, it is only by a slim margin. When weighted for population size, democracy in Latin America is clearly comparable to Europe.

Another important perspective is the qualitative transition from one type of regime to another among European countries, in particular when such transitions cross the democracy-autocracy divide (see table 1).2

Europe has seen six shifts in regime classification over the past ten years. Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia lost their status as liberal democracies and transitioned downward to be electoral democracies. Several of these transitions have been drawn out over several years, but the autocratization of Poland is notably picking up speed and most of the changes in Warsaw have occurred between 2015 and 2017.

Fortuitously, only one full democratic breakdown has occurred so far. In Serbia, autocratization has gone so far that democracy is no longer upheld, even in its most limited sense of electoral only. In another instance of slow-moving developments where the government changed its nature in an incremental fashion over many years, Serbia has become an electoral authoritarian state.

Only Albania has transitioned to a better state of affairs, now qualifying as a liberal democracy.

Overall, the evidence points in the direction of democracy losing significant ground in Europe.

WHAT IS CHANGING IN EUROPE?

V-Dem’s data can also help identify which aspects of democracy are diminishing and which are holding up more strongly. The index for liberal democracy consists of the index for electoral democracy and three indices capturing more specific liberal concerns: the protection of civil liberties by the rule of law and both judicial and legislative constraints on the executive.

The index driving most of the downward trend in recent years is the measure of electoral democracy (see figure 3), which has registered the largest drop between the various indices.

Plotting the twenty-five indicators that go into V-Dem’s index of electoral democracy shows the number of countries in Europe that have significantly improved or declined on each indicator between 2007 and 2017 (see table 2).3

Notably, the indicators measuring the freedom of expression and alternative sources of information have declined significantly in many countries while improving in very few—just one country has seen improved media self-censorship and two have seen less media bias in favor of the government. In addition, indicators from the clean elections index that measure civil society’s ability to organize freely without being repressed or prevented from existing also suggest democratic backsliding.

At the same time, almost all indicators that measure purely electoral aspects in the clean elections index show improvement. In particular, the extent to which the elections are free and fair in procedural terms and the quality of the voters’ registry—two of the most fundamental indicators ­related to elections—record more countries improving than declining.

This gives a detailed depiction of the current trend of democratic backsliding in Europe. Some ruling elites are clearly on an undemocratic quest, but the electoral institutions that most observers think of as representative of democracy have so far been robust or even improving.

In contrast, democracies are backsliding by way of less conspicuous violations. The freedom of expression and government- and self-censorship of the media, academia, civil society organizations, and cultural institutions can be affected negatively by relatively obscure means, such as inducements, intimidations, and co-optation. Incrementally, governments are constraining autonomous actors to impair their abilities to function as pro-democratic actors, while skillfully engineering an increasing level of acceptance for such measures. On its own, each step can appear relatively inconsequential. Yet the outcomes add up and are now evident—as shown in table 2. Critically, this is weakening those liberal rights and institutions that make electoral practices consequential and effective instruments of democracy. This is a problematic development that presents a clear test for the future of democracy in Europe.

Europe is also not exceptional in this regard. As noted in the V-Dem Institute’s “Democracy Report 2018,” the exact same pattern of autocratization is found in countries across the world today. This should not be a comfort to Europe or a reason to relax. On the contrary, the undermining and weakening of media, civil society, and freedom of expression has been followed by more dramatic turns to autocracy in a diverse set of countries including Russia, Turkey, and Nicaragua—and is an uncomfortable reminder of Europe’s political tumult in the 1930s.

CONCLUSION

The level of democracy in Europe remains close to its highest level ever recorded. Albania, for example, recently transitioned into a liberal democracy. Yet, as in other parts of the globe, substantial autocratization over the last ten years may threaten the future viability of democracy in Europe. Several countries have recently backslid from liberal to electoral democracies, and authoritarian rule is increasingly recorded in others. This backsliding occurs primarily in media and civil society—non-electoral soft spots of democracy where governments can limit democratic space with less immediate scrutiny.

The subtlety and variation across different components of democracy needs to be fully understood to correctly address the challenge to democracy in Europe. Electoral institutions and practices remain robust (or are even improving). It is media freedom, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, and the rule of law that are being undermined in a significant number of countries.

These disquieting conclusions fit political scientist Nancy Bermeo’s observation that “the most blatant forms of backsliding” are disappearing while surreptitious tactics such as harassment of the opposition and subversion of horizontal accountability are on the rise: “Elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one . . . [and] hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.”4

Both negative and positive trends are observed at the same time. It is important to recognize that the “democraticness” of European society is under strain. Placed in the wider sweep of time, the current situation is not yet as bad as previous moments of crisis; European democracy still scores well across most indicators compared to the 1970s. Tremulous times are nothing new. Yet recent developments most certainly give room for pause.

V-Dem’s 2017 democracy report concluded that democracy still seems relatively resilient.5 This year, the assessment is more pessimistic. Democracy is being rolled back. A trend of autocratization is evident. The starkest difference from last year is the number of very large and powerful nations that are now part of the autocratization wave, affecting billions of people and sending a very strong signal to the rest of the world.


NOTES

1 Color codes are by regions of the world, and only countries with significant changes outside of the confidence intervals are labeled. The term “confidence intervals” is used here to denote credible regions in which the Bayesian highest posterior densities would place the equivalent of one standard deviation within. For details on the V-Dem measurement model and the calculation of the confidence intervals, see Daniel Pemstein et al., “The V-Dem Measurement Model: Latent Variable Analysis for Cross-National and Cross-Temporal Expert-Coded Data,” Varieties of Democracy Institute, University of Gothenburg, April 2018, https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/5a/23/5a231d27-8f14-4b87-9a27-1536d6a2e482/v-dem_working_paper_2018_21_3.pdf.

2 Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “Regimes of the World (RoW): Opening New Avenues for the Comparative Study of Political Regimes,” Politics and Governance 6, no. 1 (2018): 60–77.

3 Orange bars indicate the number of countries that are backsliding on a particular indicator, while blue bars indicate the number of countries advancing. The indicators are ordered so that placement to the left indicates that more countries have improved than have declined, and the reverse is true for those appearing to the right in the table.

4 Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (2016): 5–19.

5 Anna Lührmann et al., “Democracy at Dusk? V-Dem Annual Report 2017,” Varieties of Democracy Institute, University of Gothenburg, May 2017, https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/91/14/9114ff4a-357e-4296-911a-6bb57bcc6827/v-dem_annualreport2017.pdf; Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “How Much Backsliding?,” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 4 (2017): 162–69.

The piece was originally published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Staffan I. Lindberg is the director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute and professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.