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Worried about the state of democracy? Here are some reasons to be optimistic instead.

These factors help countries return to democracy after an authoritarian spell, our research finds

- March 2, 2022

In its recently published 2021 Democracy Index, London-based newspaper the Economist finds that the state of democracy around the world fell to a record low. Similarly, the nongovernmental organization Freedom House reported in 2021 that countries where freedom declined outnumbered those where it gained. And the intergovernmental organization International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), where I work, found that 2021 was the first time since we began tracking that the world has seen five consecutive years of a negative democratic trend, as you can see in the figure below.

Countries moving in a democratic (green) and authoritarian (red) direction 1975-2020
Countries moving in a democratic (green) and authoritarian (red) direction 1975-2020

Here’s what all these organizations are finding: The number of authoritarian countries is increasing, both absolutely and when compared with the number of democratic countries. And authoritarian tactics — from questioning election results to attacks on civil society and the media — are on the rise. The United States is not an exception.

But this pessimistic picture accounts for part of the story. Democracy is not as weak as headlines — which usually focus on bad news — might make us believe. While we’ve certainly seen democratic backsliding over the past decade, we can find optimism with a longer-term perspective and by looking at resilient institutions.

Reasons to be optimistic about democracy

A long view on democracy is helpful. One century ago, democracies made up only 14 percent of countries worldwide. Today, different measures estimate between 44 and 59 percent of governments are democratic.

Moreover, democracy continues to expand. Since 2000, 25 countries from regions all over the world have transitioned to democracy, from Peru to the Gambia.

In addition, democracy has proven more resilient than authoritarianism. Out of all democratic countries that existed in 1975, 92.1 percent remain democratic today. Only three no longer qualify as democratic: Turkey, Thailand, and Venezuela. Moreover, political scientist Nancy Bermeo shows the current mix of democratic backsliding can be more easily reversed than in the past. Specifically, countries with toppled democracies remain autocratic for much less time than in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

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What we can learn from nine countries that transitioned back to democracy

Since 2000, nine countries have transitioned back to democracy after an authoritarian spell. For instance, in Nepal, a united opposition ended King Gyanendra’s almost absolute rule — resulting in democratic transition. More recently, in Bolivia, mass protests led to a new election management body and a fresh election date.

To learn more about returns to democracy, I analyzed data from International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices for these and seven other countries that transitioned back from authoritarianism after 2000: Fiji, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

Drawing on 12 different data sets composed using different methods (observational data, expert surveys, in-house coding, and composite measures), IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices measure democracy by looking at 16 attributes that range from clean elections to media integrity, as you can see in the figure below.

Global State of Democracy framework’s attributes and measures
Global State of Democracy framework’s attributes and measures

How to recover from democratic breakdown

During these nine countries’ transition periods from authoritarianism to democracy, they lost some ground on certain democratic attributes, but others remained stable or even improved.

During the authoritarian spell, what declined most were formal institutions designed to keep government in check. These institutional checks and balances include, for example, clean elections, effective parliament, judicial independence and predictable enforcement.

Take Fiji, which endured a long nondemocratic spell that started in 2000 with a civilian-led coup against the Mahendra Chaudhry government and ended in 2013-2014 when the country introduced a new constitution and held parliamentary elections. During Fiji’s democratic downturn, and especially after the 2006 coup, the military declared a state of emergency and abolished or controlled many key institutions.

This included the Great Council of Chiefs, which functioned as an electoral college, nominated members to the Senate and approved constitutional changes. During this period, Fiji’s score on checks on government, including an effective parliament and an independent judiciary, decreased from 0.53 to 0.27 on a 0 to 1 scale on the Global State of Democracy Indices.

On the other hand, in this group of countries, the democratic attributes that remained stable or even increased generally involved independent organizations that monitor government actions. Such autonomous checks and balances include things like civil society participation — citizen involvement in political and nonpolitical associations and in public debates — free political parties, civil liberties, and media integrity.

For example, Nepal’s democracy broke down between 2001 and 2008 during a civil war between the government and an armed Maoist insurgency. While at times the government declared states of emergency and ruled by decree, several groups nevertheless worked on restoring peace and democracy.

Toward the end of the conflict, for instance, Maoist rebels, opposition parties and civil society organizations united to end the monarchy and organize elections. During this period, Nepal’s civil society participation score — by which we measure the extent to which organized, voluntary, self-generating social life is dense and vibrant — increased from 0.64 to 0.74 on a 0 to 1 scale.

The countries that returned to democracy after an authoritarian spell scored higher on autonomous checks and balances than those that did not.

More important, during the period of democratic downturn, we found that while institutional checks decreased significantly, those autonomous checks declined less, remained steady or even increased. This suggests that autonomous checks and balances may be better at withstanding authoritarian pressures than government institutions.

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Investing in autonomous groups pays off

These countries show us that democracy is resilient and that countries can and do return to democracy. They also show that authoritarian spells do not affect all aspects of democracy equally. While authoritarian governments quickly erode the independence and effectiveness of state institutions in checking their power, independent groups tend to be more resilient.

Even amid the pandemic, protest and civic action have persevered. Protests in places like Belarus, Cuba, Eswatini and Myanmar confirm that the spirit of democracy is not as weak as headlines might make us believe. Democracy is not only resilient, but very much alive.

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Miguel Angel Lara Otaola (@malaraotaola) is a senior democracy assessment specialist at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and a board member of the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP). He earned his PhD in politics at the University of Sussex.