Rethinking democratic backsliding: How the global rise of authoritarianism is misunderstood, and why it matters

Facebook Twitter Email

Democracy is in trouble. No matter what index you look at, the number of countries rated as being fully democratic has declined dramatically over the last twenty years. Worryingly, this trend shows no signs of abating. Some measures even suggest that a greater number of countries became more authoritarian in 2022 than in any year since 1990. If the decline of democracy continues at the present pace, less than 5% of the world’s population will live in a full democracy by 2026. This process has had tremendous consequences for those living in backsliding states, including greater censorship and human rights abuses. It also represents a challenge to countries that remain democratic, which increasingly risk finding themselves isolated in a predominantly authoritarian world. Given that autocracies are more likely to trigger conflicts, spread disinformation, and engage in cross-border cyber-attacks, this represents an existential threat to democratic life.

Understanding why this process is taking place could hardly be more important. Yet current discussions have often been hampered by what we call the “temporal fallacy” – the tendency to view a series of different processes as being essentially the same because they happen to be occurring at the same time. In the case of democratic backsliding, the large number of countries that have moved towards authoritarianism across the globe has naturally encouraged the perception that this trend must be motivated by a common set of developments. Partly as a result, a great deal of media and policy analysis – and some academic work – appears to assume that autocratization is the same everywhere, and hence that a similar set of responses can be used to fight back. Not only is this wrong, it is dangerous. Misdiagnosing the problems facing democracy, and inappropriately applying one-size-fits-all solutions, will undermine efforts to reverse the repressive tide.

Understanding democratic recession in comparative perspective

The need to understand backsliding in comparative perspective, and to recognise the different drivers in different regions, is one of the reasons that we have launched the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), an interdisciplinary and cross-regional research network, at the University of Birmingham. Bringing together quantitative data, comparative analysis and in-depth country and regional knowledge is the only way to develop a more nuanced and accurate picture of what is happening to our world. More specifically, it reveals that there is a tendency to place far too much emphasis on factors that are particularly relevant in high profile countries – such as the rise of populist leaders in Brazil, India and the United States – and to overlook issues that are of greater importance in less well known countries, such as the erosion of democratic institutions by established incumbents in Bangladesh and Benin.

The importance of bringing out these regional and sub-regional variations is well illustrated by the recent experiences of North America and sub-Saharan Africa. Common explanations of backsliding in the United States have focused on the (assumed) negative impact of globalization and waning ability of citizens to die wealthier than they were born, which along with a growing lack of political tolerance and a surge in misinformation on social media has facilitated the rise of right-wing populist leaders. One reason that there has not been greater resilience against this trend, some have argued, is that Americans have become apathetic about democracy – in part because it is so long since they experienced the downsides of tyranny. The natural response to these diagnoses is to promote economic policies that both protect citizens from global competition while enabling them to improve their lives. Doing this while strengthening dialogue and facilitating activities designed to foster greater tolerance and mutual understanding – and a belief in the value of democracy – can reduce the opportunities for populist demagogues.

This diagnosis and response makes sense for established democracies where voters are angry that successive generations are no longer living wealthier and more rewarding lives. But it is deeply misleading for countries that do not fit this profile. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there were only a handful of established democracies at the start of the backsliding trend, and there is limited evidence that class mobility has fallen. As a result, autocratization has not been driven by the emergence of right wing populists, who have defeated centrist governments by using polarising language and strategies. Instead, incumbent leaders and parties who in many cases have been in power for decades – as in Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe – have further eroded key democratic institutions. In most of these countries this process has not turned democracies into non-democracies, but rather has seen states that were already fairly authoritarian become even more repressive. The challenge in Africa is therefore not to prevent the rise of populist leaders. A much bigger issue is how to strengthen democratic institutions that have always been weak and vulnerable to subversion. 

Similarly, democratic backsliding in Asia has not all been about the rise of populist strongmen, such as India’s Narendra Modi or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Gradual erosion of democratic institutions in Indonesia and South Korea under President Park Geun-hye, civil society repression in Bangladesh and military coups in Thailand and Myanmar have been defining features of backsliding – and sometimes even breakdown – in this diverse region. China’s increasing assertiveness and power further compounds this problem, offering Asian autocrats like Cambodia’s Hun Sen a level of protection from outside pressures with its no-democratic-strings-attached approach to economic development. Meanwhile, China’s own success in achieving relatively high levels of economic development while further centralizing power under authoritarian one-party rule has offered an attractive alternative to Western liberal democracy for many autocrats both inside and outside of Asia. The region also has a very different story to tell where popular attitudes to democracy is concerned. As in Africa, where the authoritarian trend often runs against the grain of popular opinion and is often challenged by popular protests, large sections of society in many Asian countries have mobilised for greater freedoms. Recent examples include Hong Kong, Myanmar, South Korea and Thailand – where a pro-democracy party made history by winning the most seats in the recent legislative elections. These examples demonstrate that the battle over democracy is far from over in Asia, and highlight the extent of variation within each world region, as well as between them.

Latin America provides yet another variant. Between 2000 and 2015, democracy was more widespread in the region than ever before. The process of rising repression therefore started later than in some other regions, and has been characterised by a cycle of political instability, economic stagnation, and corruption scandals. In this context, actors promoting autocratization have gained considerable strength inside and outside presidential palaces. In the worst cases, which are predominantly located in Central America – including El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua – weak democratic institutions have been further undermined in recent years. Sometimes using anti-systemic rhetoric, many of these leaders used public safety concerns and accusations of criminality (against the opposition, against civil society …) as a pretext to erode the powers of other branches of government, restrict freedoms, and weaken the opposition, often with the support of the countries’ entrenched elites. Yet in large parts of South America, societies so far have been able to resist those forces of democratic subversion, despite the real challenges they pose, including in the dramatic episodes in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. Democracy has thus been left damaged but not defeated, an important reminder that we should constantly probe the evidence that authoritarianism is on the rise, and remember that this trend is geographically uneven. In the Latin American case, political turnover remains high and the region still has some of the most democratic countries in the world, including Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.

If there is a “temporal fallacy” in explanations for autocratization across the globe, in Central and Eastern Europe there is also a representational fallacy. Researchers – and in particular those looking for an example from this part of the globe – take developments in the two prominent cases in the region, Hungary and Poland, as somehow representative. The authoritarian playbook of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has certainly been influential, and was to some extent subsequently applied in Poland, where the undermining of formal institutions like the judiciary, were combined with criticisms of opposition voices, the thwarting of the media, and the politics of identity. But beyond Hungary and Poland things look rather different and this is particularly important because the region’s less studied cases often provide clues as to how autocratization can be decelerated, halted or even reversed. The role of civil society demonstrations in Slovakia, new political parties in Slovenia, and presidential candidates drawn from non-political backgrounds in the Czech Republic all point to both the potential instruments for ensuring democratic survival, but also additional threats and challenges. Democracy may not be the only game in town in the region, but at least not everyone is losing.

We need to talk about backsliding … 

The recent experience of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe demonstrates an urgent need to rethink how we are approaching democratic backsliding in at least four ways. In addition to being more empirically careful about where is and is not experiencing authoritarian regression, we should work more comparatively to reveal the different constellations of factors that are driving political change in different countries and regions. Avoiding the temporal fallacy will also require us to rethink backsliding conceptually, moving away from this homogenising terminology to emphasise a wider range of terms that capture what we are seeing – such as gradual democratic erosion, rapid authoritarian shocks, and autocratic hardening – more precisely. Only once this is done will we be in a better position to rethink backsliding reactively, moving beyond the standard “medicines” for democratic maladies that have often proved unable to stem the rising authoritarian tide. The formation of CEDAR represents the commitment of the University of Birmingham to supporting this process, and to play our own part in the development of a more imaginative and flexible toolbox of strategies that is up to the task of protecting civil liberties and political rights in 2023 and beyond.


For more information on CEDAR, check out our website here, and follow us on Twitter here.

Petra Alderman (@PetraAlderman) is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Leadership for Inclusive and Democratic Politics and a Research Fellow with CEDAR at the University of Birmingham.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy and the Director of CEDAR at the University of Birmingham.

Licia Cianetti is a Lecturer in Political Science and International Studies, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, and the Deputy Director of CEDAR at the University of Birmingham.

Manoel Gehrke (@Manoel_Gehrke) is a Research Fellow with CEDAR at the University of Birmingham.

Tim Haughton (@HaughtonTim) is the Professor of Comparative & European Politics and the Deputy Director of CEDAR at the University of Birmingham.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading