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Article

Anna M. Meyerrose, Thomas Edward Flores, and Irfan Nooruddin

The end of the Cold War, heralded as the ideological triumph of (Western) liberal democracy, was accompanied by an electoral boom and historically high levels of economic development. More recently, however, democratic progress has stalled, populism has been on the rise, and a number of democracies around the world are either backsliding or failing entirely. What explains this contemporary crisis of democracy despite conditions theorized to promote democratic success? Research on democratization and democracy promotion tends to focus predominantly on elections. Although necessary for democracy, free and fair elections are more effective at promoting democratic progress when they are held in states with strong institutions, such as those that can guarantee the rule of law and constraints on executive power. However, increased globalization and international economic integration have stunted the development of these institutions by limiting states’ economic policy options, and, as a result, their fiscal policy space. When a state’s fiscal policy space—or, its ability to collect and spend revenue—is limited, governments are less able to provide public goods to citizens, politicians rely on populist rather than ideological appeals to win votes, and elections lose their democratizing potential. Additional research from a political–economic framework that incorporates insights from studies on state building and institutions with recent approaches to democratization and democracy promotion, which focus predominantly on elections, is needed. Such a framework provides avenues for additional research on the institutional aspects of ongoing democratization and democratic backsliding.

Article

The importance of political parties has been at the heart of the debate about regime and regime change. Parties are essential actors for democratic politics. They can trigger transitions from and to democracy, polarize making democracies vulnerable to breakdown, or manage conflict to protect democratic institutions. However, not all parties or party systems are equal. The levels of fragmentation, polarization, and institutionalization in any given party and/or party system are key to understanding the rise, fall, and survival of democracy. In Latin America, the literature has focused, mostly, on party and party system institutionalization. In general, scholars agree that institutionalization fosters democracy. The organizational strength and embeddedness of political parties in society and the extent to which they interact regularly in stable ways, they argue, is key to the survival of democratic politics. There are instances, however, that suggest that this relationship is more problematic than the literature assumes. In contexts of crisis, highly institutionalized parties and party systems can be slow to adjust to new groups or demands and stiffen party leaders’ ability to respond to new issues. When facing a polarizing potential autocrat, for instance, high levels of party and party system institutionalization could hurt more than help democracy. They can reduce the ability of politicians to attract moderate voters from opposing parties, hinder their capacity to counteract antisystemic trends in order to lead opposition efforts, or limit the extent to which they can reach across the aisle to build ideologically diverse prodemocratic coalitions.

Article

There is a global trend of democratic retrenchment across the world, in both new and more established democracies. The African continent is part of the trend, although there are distinct regional variances on the continent. Yet, despite democratic gains in some states and along some dimensions of democratic rights, the overall trend is that the democratic gains won in the period after 1990 are now eroding. Democracy is challenged in ways that pose threats to freedom of speech, association, and information, the ability to choose political leaders, protection of personal integrity and private life, and the rule of law with recourse to independent courts. As part of a global trend of democratic backsliding, African states have adopted legal restrictions on key civil and political rights that form the basis of democratic rule in a range of countries, from dominant party regimes such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Tanzania to competitive electoral democracies like Zambia, Senegal, and Malawi. In South Africa, where democracy and rule of law appear deeply institutionalized, the succession battles and exposed levels of corruption under President Zuma, now removed from the leadership of the ANC party, suggest a weakening of the institutions intended to check executive powers. The September 2017 court annulment of the Kenyan elections suggests that the courts were able to perform an important accountability function and safeguard free and fair elections. Yet, the aftermath of the 2017 Kenyan elections culminated in early 2018 with President Uhuru Kenyatta closing down television and radio stations. Civil society actors, policy makers, and scholars warn against the democratic backlash and its negative implications for domestic and international politics. Internationally, the African democratic backlash challenges global actors who have long pressured developing countries to politically liberalize. Yet, following what appears to be a global trend of democratic backsliding, space for international influence and the spread of liberal norms is closing rapidly. Domestically, the observed backlash against democracy may pose further social and political threats with wide-reaching implications for development. This may, in turn, challenge the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Whereas closing space for civil society impacts first and foremost on voice and participation, restrictions on civil society ultimately may curb even the most seemingly apolitical activities such as humanitarian relief. At present, there is limited understanding of possible response mechanisms to the conscious attempts at democratic rollback from political elites. How do activists come together to advocate for particular rights? When are activists more effective in generating mass citizen support for their campaigns? How can researchers, international actors, and domestic civil society organizations work together to disseminate and use knowledge about organizational resilience in these circumstances? These will be pressing questions for scholars and activists going forward.

Article

In Latin America, democratization in the 1980s and 1990s brought greater military subordination to elected leaders and a promising new era of civil–military relations. Yet the threat of coups lingered—particularly where leaders most threatened elite interests and where coups could be justified as “restoring” democracy. Such was the case in the early 21st century for presidents on the radical, populist side of Latin America’s “New Left,” including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. In response, these presidents sought to guard their “contestatory” agenda by diminishing the armed forces’ ability and willingness to derail it. They adopted strategies like increasing spending on military hardware and salaries, stacking the officer corps with loyalists, indoctrinating the armed forces into the government’s political ideology, and raising citizen militias and parallel security forces. To different degrees—and with different degrees of success—they attempted to secure the military’s loyalty and to raise the costs of executing a coup. In other words, they engaged in coup-proofing, a practice used by vulnerable leaders around the world. The study of coup-proofing in Latin America can advance research on comparative civil–military relations and democratization in several ways. First, scholars usually treat coup-proofing strategies as a response to the elevated risk of a coup. But when they threaten the military’s conservative corporate identity or limit its autonomy from civilian control, those strategies themselves could end up elevating that risk. Cases of coup-proofing from Latin America’s New Left would prove relevant for research seeking to disentangle this complicated causal relationship. Second, coup-proofing could jeopardize democratic consolidation, if not survival, if it shifts the military’s loyalty from a democratic, constitutional order to a particular leader and ideology. But if coup-proofing prevents unelected leaders from usurping office, then it might protect democracy. The short and long-term effect of coup-proofing on democratic institutions thus remains an open question. And third, if coup-proofing is to retain its conceptual utility in a region populated by democracies and hybrid regimes, then the definition of a “coup” has to remain limited to an illegal, undemocratic seizure of power involving at least some elements of the armed forces. Otherwise, coup-proofing could become conflated with impeachment-proofing. In practice, however, it becomes difficult to distinguish efforts aimed at preventing a coup from efforts aimed at escaping legal constraints on presidential power. This presents a challenge but also an opportunity for future research. The record of coups and attempted coups in Latin America over the first two decades of the 21st century shows that while the coup d’état is no longer a fixture of political life in the region, it remains a real possibility. That reality calls for more research into coup risk, the ways that leaders respond to it, and the political consequences that follow.

Article

Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke

Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU’s capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU’s difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right’s “illiberal” projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU’s track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states’ EU membership. Hence the EU’s dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.

Article

Making decisions is a complex and often problem-ridden process in a union of almost 30 member states. Most political science research hence discusses aspects of either decision-making or contents of specific EU policies. However, intricacies do not end when the governments and the European Parliament come to an agreement about, for example, regulative standards in a given policy. In actual fact, it is all but clear that the rules decided on the top layer of the European multi-level system will be implemented on the lower levels, ranging from the central governments of member states down to local communities. Multi-facetted issues related to the actual practice of implementing EU rules, and the Commission’s tough job in controlling this compound process, need to be addressed, while also evaluating the social science coverage of the topic. Research has a strong bias toward looking into the early phases of the implementation of EU law as opposed to the later ones, a trend which has only somewhat softened in the “new school” of relevant studies. A hardly researched but increasingly relevant factor in non-compliance with EU law is unwillingness by national governments. Therefore, it is important to consider the state of the rule of law in several member states and democratic backsliding—both essential for a healthy European integration process.

Article

The development of LGBT movements and interest groups in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reflects the region’s unique political development with respect to the experience of communism, the transition to democracy in the 1990s, the expanding influence of international institutions like the European Union (EU), and, most recently, trends of democratic backsliding and even reversion to outright authoritarian rule in some countries. Each of these aspects of the region’s political development has engendered debate among scholars and activists. There is consensus that the experience of communism strongly circumscribed not only the possibilities for activism but also, in some instances, even the possibilities for articulating LGBT identities. Nevertheless, a survey of the scholarship on postcommunist LGBT politics indicates divergent trajectories between countries of the former Soviet Union, where LGBT identities are less established and activism is less organized, and the former satellite states of Eastern Europe, whose experience under communism was shorter and, arguably, less intense. Without ignoring the evident deficits of Eastern Europe’s LGBT activism in the 1990s, its LGBT people benefited relative to counterparts in the former Soviet Union from a generally more successful transition to democracy and a greater degree of exposure to West European institutions, in particular the EU. The process of applying for EU membership, many scholars argue, advantaged these countries’ LGBT movements vis-à-vis their counterparts in the former Soviet Union by pressuring national governments to be more accommodating and by socializing elites and publics to Western Europe’s comparatively tolerant values and LGBT rights norms. Adjusting to these norms was sometimes contentious, but several scholars argue that, where conservative backlash against LGBT rights occurred during the EU’s first round of expansion in 2004 to 2007, it generally helped domestic activism by increasing its visibility and level of organization. Not all are so optimistic about the EU’s impact on LGBT activism, however, particularly those studying Yugoslavia’s successor states, for whom the EU accession process occurred later or is still ongoing. These scholars emphasize the difficulties of squaring EU norms about LGBT rights with national identity, particularly given the EU’s sometimes colonial-like relations with postcommunist societies. Others note that transnational rights advocacy supported by the EU has been matched by the rise of transnational antigay activism, and that the clash of transnational activism stalemates domestic progress on LGBT-friendly policies. Such critiques appear increasingly relevant as trends of democratic backsliding have emerged since the 2010 world financial crisis in former “success cases” of postcommunist transition and EU integration, notably Hungary and Poland. The latter’s democratic backsliding occurs within the larger context of Russia’s reversion to authoritarianism after the brief political opening of the 1990s. Across these three countries, governing elites have shown a readiness to make use of LGBT issues to define their illiberal ideologies and to mobilize voters. Whether these developments portend a narrowing of differences among LGBT movements in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is a key question for future scholars.