More democracies than ever before are in decline. The setbacks amount to a third wave of autocratization. This is the result of a new scientific study by V-Dem researchers Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg. It provides the first comprehensive empirical analysis of all periods of autocratization from 1900 to today based on V-Dem data.
The study shows that the substantial erosion of democracies almost always led to their breakdown. “This finding is really worrying given the trends in the world today”, says Anna Lührmann, lead author.
The decline of democratic regime attributes has emerged as a conspicuous global challenge. Democratic setbacks have been observed in a diverse set of countries – from Brazil to Hungary and Turkey. This paper addresses the changing nature of autocratization, the magnitude of the current wave of autocratization and introduces a new metric – the rate of autocratization – as an indicator for the pace of this process.
- The third and largest wave of autocratization ever is underway with 75 episodes occurring since 1994.
- Democratic erosion leads to breakdown: 60 of the 75 democracies that ever underwent autocratization turned into autocracies.
What’s new about the Third wave?
- Unlike previous waves, the present wave mainly affects democracies.
- Traditional methods of dramatic and blatant military coups and election fraud have been replaced with legal, informal and discrete power transfers.
- Yet, we continue to live in a democratic era with more than half of all countries in the world qualifying as democratic.
No more coups?
Contemporary autocratization occurs in a slower and inconspicuous manner than before. Instead of military coups, democratically elected incumbents have started 68% of all contemporary autocratization episodes in democracies. They then erode democracy gradually by gaining control of the media, restricting civil society and undermining the autonomy of election management bodies.
Effective resistance or slippery slope into autocracy?
While the third wave is affecting 22 countries in 2017 and more are on the cusp, panic is not yet warranted. There are two plausible scenarios.
Democratic actors may be able to mobilize resistance and preserve democracy. This happened in South Korea in 2017 after mass protests forced parliament to impeach the president.
Alternatively, initial inconspicuous steps towards autocracy could entrench countries in authoritarian regimes as in Turkey and Venezuela.