Economic crisis could turn democracy’s stagnation into retreat, report warns

Economic crisis could turn democracy’s stagnation into retreat, report warns

Democracy’s forward march has halted, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2008. The third wave of democratization has given way to stagnation and regression. The EIU cautions that if the global financial crisis generates a protracted recession, “the recent halt in democratization could turn into a retreat”, as fragile non-consolidated democracies deteriorate.

“There is talk of a broken financial system discrediting Western values in general,” the report suggests. “A broader backlash may develop against free markets and neo-liberal ideology in some countries as economic conditions deteriorate.”

Some 48 countries have a high risk of social unrest, says the EIU. The financial and economic crisis may boost the appeal of the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism in emerging markets.

The index defines almost half of the world’s states as democracies, but only 30 as “full democracies” 0); 50 are deemed “flawed democracies”; and, of the remaining 87 states, 51 are authoritarian and 36 “hybrid regimes”.

The report notes the “delegitimation of much of the democracy-promotion agenda” as a key factor, alongside the tenacity and assertiveness of authoritarian forces. “Autocrats have also learned how better to protect themselves; many of them preside over energy-rich states and have been strengthened by sustained high oil prices,” the EIU observes.

“There is, contrary to some alarmist reports, no recent trend of outright regression,” the EIU states. The current democratic stagnation is not as bad as the reversals after the Second World War which saw over 20 states regressing into authoritarianism.

“We are not yet witnessing that sort of rollback, but the threat of backsliding now outweighs the possibility of further gains,” the report warns:

There has been a very weak response in the Middle East to pressures for democratization. The promise of “color revolutions” in the CIS has remained unfulfilled and authoritarian trends in Russia have continued. Political crises and malaise in east central Europe have led to disappointment and questioning of the strength of the region’s democratic transition. Media freedoms are being eroded across Latin America and populist forces with dubious democratic credentials have come to the fore. In the developed West, a precipitous decline in political participation, weaknesses in the functioning of government and security-related curbs on civil liberties are having a corrosive effect on some long-established democracies.

The EIU index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. It claims to adopt a “‘thicker’, more inclusive and wider measure of democracy” than other indices, including measures for political culture.

The shallowness of democratic cultures, reflected in low scores for political participation and political culture, indicates the “fragility of many democracies and the potential for reversals.” Democracies in eastern Europe experienced a decline in their scores after EU accession was achieved, and “natural” antagonistic politics exposed the “underlying fragility of east-central European political systems”.

Although eastern Europe has democratic forms, the substance of democracy-including a trust-based political culture, public confidence in state institutions and healthy levels of political participation-is weak. “A key underlying factor is that transition has resulted in a large stratum of discontented voters, who feel that they have lost out during the transition, and who as a result often favor parties that would challenge the status quo,” states the report.