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Autocratization and its consequences

The global resurgence of antidemocratic forces

Democracies are under pressure worldwide. As Vanessa Boese and Sebastian Hellmeier show in their contribution to the Online-Mitteilungen, we are globally in an ongoing wave of autocratization. The two researchers look at the current transformations of democracy and evaluate statistics to trace these developments and put them in a historical context.

In many parts of the world, democracies are under siege. Globally, we are in an ongoing wave of autocratization. In our research, we monitor current transformations of democracy around the world and analyze statistics to track these developments and place them in a historical context. Some of our findings are summarized in the annual Democracy Reports published by the Varieties of Democracy Institute based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. According to the most recent report, the number of democracies worldwide barely equaled the number of autocracies: 89 states with democratic governments face 90 autocratic governments. The 90 autocracies are home to 70 percent of the world’s population, whereas only 30 percent of people worldwide are governed democratically. The number of autocracies—that is, systems of government without free and fair elections and without a minimum of civil liberties—has been increasing steadily since around the turn of the century, a trend that continues today.

Using comparative data on the quality of democracy worldwide, we observe autocratization in the last 20 years along two pathways. First, autocratization processes unfold in (formerly) democratic countries such as Hungary, where the elected government undermines democratic norms and institutions by curtailing freedom of the press, for example, or by redrawing electoral districts in a way to help the current government win a disproportionate share of seats in parliament, making it extremely difficult for voters to oust incumbents from power. In the worst case, such erosion leads to the collapse of the democratic system. Second, we see countries already ruled by authoritarian regimes becoming even more repressive. For example, freedom of the press and civil liberties in Russia were further restricted before and during the attack on Ukraine. As a result, existing autocratic institutions are being expanded and consolidated.

The magenta colored line in Figure 1 shows the number of countries (both democracies and autocracies) in which the quality of democratic institutions has declined significantly since 1900. We refer to this as episodes of autocratization. Three waves of autocratization are notable: the first around World War II, the second during the 1960s and 1970s, and finally the third wave starting around the end of the Cold War. The figure highlights the vast extent of the current wave of autocratization: Never in the entire 20th century was there a time in which as many countries were simultaneously subject to autocratization as in 2021. For comparison, the dashed line in the figure shows the number of countries undergoing episodes of democratization. Again, three global waves of democratization emerge, running in opposite directions to the waves of autocratization. The first two waves occurred after World War I and World War II, the third after the end of the Cold War. Currently, the number of countries undergoing democratization is decreasing, and these countries tend to be small with little economic power, such as the island nation of Fiji. By contrast, the countries threatened by autocratization are much larger (India, for example). As a result, we find democracy to be in a critical situation and the current wave of autocratization to be of historic proportions, notwithstanding the high level of democratization found in many countries when viewed over the long term.

Autocratization in action

The loss of democratic quality is also called regression or erosion. What characterizes the current wave of autocratization is that erosion is gradual, proceeding at a slow pace. In previous waves, it was often the military that came to power through a coup d’état. Another characteristic is that illiberal actors often fuel pre-existing trends toward polarization to further divide society and weaken democratic institutions. High degrees of polarization (also referred to as toxic polarization) and autocratization form a vicious circle: society increasingly splits into two opposing camps, and public discourse is characterized by a rhetoric of “us” versus “them.” One example of such toxic polarization is the growing division of U.S. society along party lines. When elections occur at such a toxic level of polarization, political content fades into the background, and candidates tend to be elected based on their affiliation with one of the two camps. Their democratic (or anti-democratic) stance loses significance for voters. If anti-democratic actors come to power in this way, they vilify the members of the other group, driving polarization and autocratization even further.

Joe Biden Donald Trump
M Ainuha Zainur R/Shutterstock

But even in already authoritarian countries, a dismantling of partially existing democratic rights and freedoms is underway. The year 2021 saw at least five successful coups d’état worldwide—a striking increase compared with the average of 1.2 coups per year since 2000. Five of these coups occurred in autocracies and helped to expand and consolidate autocratic structures: in Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Sudan.

One hallmark of contemporary autocratization is the strategic use of disinformation by anti-democratic actors. This can be observed in all regimes (democratic and autocratic). On the one hand, it includes strategies aimed at influencing public opinion to one’s own advantage, for example by spreading fake news via social media and the press. On the other hand, it even includes the manipulation of official statistics, such as death tolls in the coronavirus pandemic or economic performance measures.

Renaissance of violent autocrats?

What are the consequences of the current wave of autocratization? Research has clear answers to this question. First and foremost, autocratization paves the way for more (and bloodier) conflicts. According to Kant’s idea of perpetual peace, democracies do not attack other democracies. For a resurgent autocrat like Putin, however, the idea of attacking other states is no longer out of bounds, with the invasion of Ukraine being a case in point. Even in domestic conflicts such as the war in Syria, it is evident that there are more casualties when autocracies are involved in the conflict. The world map in Figure 3 shows democracies as well as autocracies, indicating whether they were involved in armed conflict (domestic and international) in 2021. Most democratic countries were peaceful in 2021 (dark purple). For autocracies, however, we find the opposite: the majority of autocratic states were involved in armed conflict in 2021.