In recent years, the world has seen a worrying trend towards the decline of democratic institutions in countries that were once considered stable democracies. The concept of autocratization, or the gradual loss of democratic traits in regimes that were previously democratic, is a growing concern for scholars and policymakers alike. In this context, a recent study by the Varieties of Democracy Project sheds light on the nature and extent of this phenomenon.
The study provides a new definition of autocratization as the substantial de-facto decline of core institutional requirements for electoral democracy, which is more encompassing than the frequently used term “democratic backsliding.” Using original data from 1900 to 2017, the authors identify three waves of autocratization, with the current third wave characterized by gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions under a legal facade.
The study finds that the current wave of autocratization is affecting an unprecedented number of democracies, with incumbents using legal means to gradually undermine democratic institutions. The trend is particularly worrying as historically, very few autocratization episodes starting in democracies have been stopped short of turning countries into autocracies.
However, the study also offers a glimmer of hope. While democracy is undoubtedly under threat, the normative power of democracy still seems to force aspiring autocrats to play a game of deception. As a result, contemporary autocratizers proceed in a much slower and less noticeable way than their historical predecessors. The study concludes that it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy,” as most regimes, even autocracies, now hold some form of multiparty elections.
Nonetheless, the authors caution that more countries may be on the threshold of autocratization, and it is unclear whether democratic actors will be strong enough to resist. The study suggests that future research should investigate how autocratization can be stopped and reversed, and what distinguishes countries that successfully resist autocratization from those that succumb to it.