Revisiting the Global Prospects for Democracy and Democratization

RM1In this post, Ash Center Research Fellow Richa Mishra follows up on her February 2014 post, Reviewing the Global Prospects for Democracy and Democratization in 2014. In that widely-read review of recent articles and reports on democratic movements, public opinion and democracy promotion efforts, Mishra highlighted the importance of contextual nuance in understanding democratic twists and turns. Below, Mishra revisits her earlier post and offers a comprehensive update on the important themes of political freedom and civil liberties, electoral trends, government legitimacy, and citizen disenchantment.


By Richa Mishra

Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years… Until recently, most authoritarian regimes claimed to respect international agreements and paid lip service to the norms of competitive elections and human rights… Today they argue for the superiority of what amounts to one-party rule, and seek to throw off the constraints of fundamental diplomatic principles.

-Arch Puddington, Freedom House

Around the same time last year, on this blog, I had suggested that 2014 was going to be a significant year for democracy. And significant it was, though not necessarily along the lines we may have hoped for. On the one hand, around 40 countries representing over 40% of the world’s population, and more than 50% of global GDP, participated in elections and exercised their right to select their representatives. On the other hand, political freedom and civil liberty faced tough challenges from increasing authoritarianism, an erosion of political and civil liberty as well as worsening insecurity due to war and terrorism.

The year has barely begun, and yet, we are inundated with troubling news of the strains and stresses democracy is under. The initial optimism of the Arab Spring has faded as countries in the region have spiraled into factional wars, anarchy, terrorism or a tightening of dictators’ vice grip across the region. Save Tunisia, the entire region has seen a worsening in terms of democracy and personal freedom. Elsewhere, Russia, China and other centrally controlled systems have witnessed hardening controls and extremist nationalism. Mass anti-government protests have wracked countries as geographically disparate as Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Singapore.

As we attempt to understand and learn from these events, it is helpful to focus on key trends and trajectories.


Political Freedom and Civil Liberty

In the early 90s when novice democracies sprung up to replace communist USSR, it seemed that the idea of democracy and democratic systems had triumphed. More recently, the Arab Spring seemed a welcome portent for democracy (read more from the HKS Associate Professor Tarek Masoud here and here). In both cases, the initial promise had to concede to a revised pragmatism.

Freedom House which conducts an annual evaluation of the state of political freedom and civil liberty in the world, democracy and the political, economic and social rights associated with it found that 2014 saw democracy and freedom decline for a ninth consecutive year. Of the 195 countries evaluated, almost twice as many (61 countries) saw deterioration in democracy and freedom than saw improvements (33 countries). Only 46 percent of the 195 countries were rated ‘Free’; 28 percent were rated ‘Partly Free’ and 26 percent were rated ‘Not Free’.

Of the 6 regions studied, all but one registered worsening conditions, regression and set-backs compared to earlier years. While Syria received the lowest score, other countries ranking among the worst of the worst were (in alphabetical order) the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Americas saw erosion in democracy and freedom. The sixth region, the Asia Pacific broke even, registering as many improvements as deteriorations in democracy and freedom. For further information, interactive maps and to download the report visit this website.

A host of factors have contributed to this decline. The rise of modern authoritarianism is one. Countries like Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, post-Soviet regimes of Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan saw a clamping down of political opposition, civil society institutions and the media as well as any form of citizens’ protest. Centralized systems like Russia and China saw further centralization of power and hardening of authoritarianism.

Second, wars and internal conflict led to a complete breakdown of democratic norms and the rule of law in countries like Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, Yemen and Ukraine.

Third, the scourge of terrorism has or threatens to set back gains made in freedom and democracy in the Middle East and South Asia in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq among many others.


Electoral trends

Electoral trends for 2015 are tough to pin down since the past year’s elections have thrown up a diverse array of outcomes ranging from extreme swings to the left or the right, complete overhauls, continuation of business as usual and arguably the most worrying: extreme uncertainty.

In this context, it is instructive to decipher what goes on in citizens’ minds and how they view their political leaders. Analysis by Anthony Saich, Ash Center Director and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, of citizens’ perceptions of their own political leaders as well as leaders of other countries demystifies the elements that shape public opinion. He offers a particularly revealing insight: citizens are more critical of their leaders in multi-party and genuine two-party systems than in countries where politics is less contested. Also in countries where media is dominated or controlled by the government, citizens pay more attention to their leaders. Attention and recognition does not always mean approval of course.

2014 saw a further entrenchment in conservative, right leaning, nationalist politics in some countries. Shinzo Abe’s return in Japan and Narendra Modi’s impressive electoral victory in India are two examples. Here in the US, the midterm elections saw sweeping gains by the Republicans in both the House and the Senate. The Israeli Knesset election held in March 2015 saw the extreme right prevail again and this might lead to a further hardening of stance, shrill nationalism and another round of ratcheting up of old tensions.

On the other end of the spectrum, European elections showed a swing to left leaning, Euro skeptic and generally anti-establishment parties. The year 2015 kicked off with the Greek elections culminating in a thumping victory for the left wing, anti EU Syriza party. The UK parliamentary elections scheduled for May are likely to see the UKIP (Anti EU) and SNP parties gaining further ground. As a matter of fact, trends indicate robust gains for anti-establishment and Euro skeptic parties in Poland, Spain, Denmark, Portugal and Spain, all of which go to the polls this year.

Elections that illustrated the electorate’s desire for a complete overhaul include Sri Lanka’s presidential election that delivered major upset for an entrenched authoritarian presidency which saw major curbs on dissent and freedom of press. Similarly, despite complications and false starts, Afghanistan’s presidential elections ended with a creative solution to a long drawn out limbo. Further, relatively new leaders emerged in countries like Indonesia and India, demonstrating a desire for an overhaul of ‘business as usual’.

In stark contrast, far too many countries saw a clamp down after perceived gains in openness. In Myanmar, for instance, after transferring power to a civilian government in 2011, the military junta has reemerged to clamp down on political freedoms, amidst reports of the persecution of minorities and a curtailment of press freedom. Read more in this report from the Ash Center’s Myanmar Program.

In Turkey, Erdogan looks set to expand powers of the presidency with the parliamentary elections in June which is hardly good news for the already dismal state of individual, political and press freedom in the country. Political strongmen in Africa are brazenly trying to manipulate constitutions and defy legal term limits to prolong their hold on power.

In spite of the case of Burkina Faso where people overthrew President Compaore when he tried to maneuver an extension to his 27 year authoritarian rule, several African leaders such as Joseph Kabila of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo, Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin and Paul Kagame of Rwanda are suspected of trying to revise their countries’ constitutions to keep their vice grip on power.

Saudi Arabia presents another case of cosmetic democratic gain without any change in real terms. Although municipal elections are scheduled this year, the elected representatives will have no say in the policy or politics of the monarchy. Real power will continue to remain firmly in the grip of the Sultan and his close family. The one interesting thing to watch for in these elections is whether or not the new king will reverse King Abdullah’s decision to permit women to both vote for and contest in these elections, however inconsequential they may be.

Regrettably, in far too many parts of our world, elections in 2015 forebode more uncertainty and insecurity. The very real threat posed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthi takeover in Yemen, the continuing troubles in Libya and Egypt are just a few factors that queer the pitch for any credible electoral exercise of democracy.

For a snapshot of all the elections scheduled for 2015, please see this complete list.


Faltering Legitimacy of Governments and Citizen Disenchantment

Watching the news this past year, one could not be faulted for believing that popular movements were indeed changing the face of democracy the world over. In spite of the ostensible rise of the masses for democracy, citizens’ faith in democracy has in fact been waning. In established, mature democracies, this is evidenced in low participation rates in elections and an increasing distrust of political elite. In developing and new democracies, weak, non-existent or corrupt institutions, and disregard for the rule of law have undermined citizens’ faith in their governments. In both cases there is a real or perceived lack of transparency and accountability, of responsibility and responsiveness, which has eroded the governments’ legitimacy.

The frustration with government stems mainly from a lack of trust in political leadership and so-called representatives. Citizens’ expect but seldom receive the kind of performance in terms of service delivery, education, jobs, income mobility, security, and accountability that they both deserve and demand. The democracy protests that we have been witnessing are perhaps an expression of citizens’ frustration with democracy’s failures as much as they signify a desire for democracy.



According to the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 80% of the world’s population irrespective of gender, geography, income class, culture or religion believes that democracy is the best available form of governance and yet only 30% is satisfied with their experience of democracy. There remains a glaring gap between the promise and the practice of democracy.

While illiberal democracies under repressive regimes, war and terrorism exert pressure on democratic systems from ‘top down’ or the ‘outside’ if you will, there are factors that impinge democracies from the ‘bottom up’. These include absent or compromised institutions, deficits of legitimacy, of accountability, of responsibility and responsiveness, of the rule of law and so forth. What goes on inside a democracy needs to be both understood better and addressed more squarely.

Democracy may begin with free and fair elections, but it does not end there. Elections are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for democracy. Democracy is not an event (an election) but a process that is dynamic and ever evolving, one characterized by healthy tensions and balancing mutual checks and balances among the four estates and the people.

This past year we have seen genuinely popular movements fizzle, or worse, serve as flimsy excuses for modern day dictators to entrench ersatz democracies that are cynical, illiberal and deeply flawed. Free and fair elections, citizen participation, political equality (irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, language, class, wealth and so on), popular control over public decision making, majority rule with well secured minority rights, transparency, accountability and responsiveness are critical elements of a functioning democracy. The absence or weakening of these elements causes grave damage to democracy and leads inexorably to suppression of citizens’ freedom, suboptimal economic and social outcomes, rising insecurity and in some cases worsening internal and external conflicts. Until the gap between the promise and practice of democracy is closed, and absent these elements the prospects for freedom and democratic governance look none too bright.



…building the institutions needed to sustain democracy is very slow work indeed, and has dispelled the once-popular notion that democracy will blossom rapidly and spontaneously once the seed is planted.

-The Economist, What’s gone wrong with democracy



Richa Mishra is a research fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She has over 15 years of experience in international development and public policy formulation with the UN system, the World Bank and research and academic institutions. Richa has extensive experience in promoting democratic institutions in transitional political systems.


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Filed under All Checks, No Balance, Corruption, Expansion of Presidential Power, Future of Social Movements, Participation, Political Polarization, Representation

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