For the first time since 2004, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) has recorded more autocratic states than democracies around the world. Civil society activists often represent the last bastion of resistance.
Autocracies such as Russia and China on the one hand; democracies like the USA or Germany on the other. Is that the great conflict of our time? “It’s a tough fight,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz, describing the global political climate during his visit to Washington on February 7.
In an interview with CNN, Scholz was optimistic: he was adamant that democracy would win in the end. Because it is not just a Western idea, but deeply rooted in people. “I am absolutely sure that people all over the world would appreciate our way of life that we have with democracy, rule of law, individual freedom and market economy.”
Freedoms restricted, separation of powers abolished
Democracy is, however, farther away from a worldwide triumph than it has been for a long time. For the first time since 2004, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) has recorded more autocratic than democratic states. Of the 137 developing and transition countries examined, only 67 are still considered democracies. The number of autocracies has increased to 70.
“This is the worst political transformation result we have ever measured in the 15 years of our work,” says Hauke Hartmann, BTI project manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation. This is due to the fact that around the world there are fewer free and fair elections, less freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as increasing erosion of the separation of powers.
This is the case in Tunisia — a country that was long considered the last beacon of hope for the democratization movements of the Arab Spring. Yet President Kais Saied has ruled by decree since he ousted parliament and government in July 2021 and suspended parts of the constitution. Most recently, Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, which is supposed to guarantee the independence of the judiciary in the country.
That is just one example of many that Hartmann mentioned in an interview with DW. “Turkey has lost the most in the last ten years under President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, who actually started out as a beacon of hope,” he says. “The separation of powers and participation are so limited there that two years ago we had to classify Turkey as an autocracy. Unfortunately, this assessment hasn’t changed since.”
The main drivers of autocracies: political and economic elites
It is a worrying trend that many democracies which had previously been well-established have now slipped into the category of “defective democracies,” the study’s authors note. For example, through the ethno-nationalist course of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and the right-wing authoritarian governments of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
“For me, these are the democracies that ten years ago we classified as consolidating, as stable, and which now have major defects in their political processes. In Europe, we know the examples of Poland and Hungary as thwarting EU principles of the rule of law.”
What does Hartmann see as strengthening autocratic systems and eroding democratic norms? The main drivers are political and economic elites who want to protect their clientelist and corrupt system, he says. “In the majority of the 137 countries we examined, we are dealing with a political system based on pseudo-participation and an economic system that distorts competition and prevents economic and social participation.”
This can be observed particularly frequently in Central America, where politics is often undermined by mafia structures. In sub-Saharan Africa, this manifests through individuals securing political sinecures and exploiting the weak institutionalization of political processes.
The wave of populists
People whose daily lives are threatened by poverty, hunger and social exclusion and do not see any improvement through democratic processes have often been blinded by populist alternatives. This is the case not only in the countries examined, but also in long-established democracies such as the USA, which the BTI does not take into account. The index does not examine countries that were members of the OECD before 1989 and were therefore always considered to be democratic and market-economy consolidated.
“Since the election and the enduring popularity of Donald Trump, as well as the irresponsibility of the English elite, everyone has probably lost some illusions about the strength of our own democracies,” says Hartmann. In addition to the marginalization of individual population groups, he sees simple majority voting as a problem, which often leads to two-party competition: “It seems to me to be a fuse for polarization, which we can probably observe best in the USA.”
Repression in the shadow of the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has also brought further restrictions on political and civil rights in many countries. In most cases, these were moderate, limited to a certain time period and, as far as democracies are concerned, were also legitimized by parliament, says Hartmann. “But we do find exceptions in populist regimes with authoritarian traits, such as the Philippines or Hungary, or in autocracies including Azerbaijan, Cambodia or Venezuela, which have used the pandemic as an excuse to push the repression even further.” In advanced autocracies such as China, the extent of digital surveillance has increased massively.
Despite the worldwide trend towards more autocracy, Hartmann also continues to believe that most people long for freedom and co-determination. One hopeful sign is that there has been no decline in the global average for civic engagement. “Take the courageous stand up for free elections in Belarus, civil society solidarity in Lebanon, the fight against military dominance in Sudan or the protest against the coup in Myanmar. These people don’t just go to any demonstration, they risk their lives for a better society at stake.” They are heroes, he says — the last and the toughest bastion in the global struggle against autocracy.