Advancing the understanding of what drives success in nations

Cracks within democracies & the declining liberal practices

While many attribute development to an ‘economic miracle,’ meaningful prosperity is multi-dimensional. It requires the formation of effective institutions that then support accountable and representative politics. Whereas many improvements to human life have been seen in countries with a variety of political beliefs, it is only liberal democracies that allow the fullest extent of human flourishing.

The key institutions that facilitate the path to prosperity include an independent judiciary, constitutional checks and balances, independent electoral institutions, and free and fair elections. In other words, prosperity depends on full adherence to the principles of liberal democracy.

When many countries democratised under the Third Wave of Democratisation in the 1990s, it was believed by many that liberal democracy had reached the status of the final form of governance. However, today, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ seems to be a distant goal. Any hope that the world would transition inevitably towards democracy and peace has been shattered by the emergence of autocratic regimes intent on imposing their own style of governance on the rest of the world.

Democratic practices have been backsliding around the world, regardless of the frequency of elections. Executive constraints have deteriorated in every region other than Western Europe. The level to which executive powers are effectively limited by the judiciary and legislature has decreased. Furthermore, Political Accountability has deteriorated in five out of eight regions. Worryingly, the extent to which political actors agree on democracy and market economy as a goal has also been declining in four out of eight regions: Central and South Asia, MENA, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) finds that in Africa, a decade of governance progress is threatened by democratic backsliding and worsening security. In fact, our Index shows that the bottom 40 countries are diverging from the rest in rule of law and government effectiveness. Yet, it is not only in the less prosperous countries where declining democracy poses a concern. The trend is prevalent in many of the countries that feature at the top half of the Prosperity Index rankings.

In Europe, Hungary presents a concerning example, as the country is experiencing democratic backsliding. Executive constraints and political accountability have been declining significantly over the past decade. This year, Hungary ranks 113th in the former, and 91st in the latter. When it comes to government powers being subject to independent and non-governmental checks, this Eastern European country stands as low as 148th.

Freedom House has noted that the country’s government has dismantled core democratic institutions and significantly limited freedom of speech. In recent years, Hungary’s government has rewritten several components of the constitution, giving substantially more power to the office of the executive. This allowed the executive to fire civil servants, gerrymander parliamentary districts and install loyalists into key positions, including in Constitutional Courts that then disregarded executive constraints.

Hungary is not the only country where democratic governance has been deteriorating. Turkey presents another prominent case. The current government has ruled Turkey since 2002. As noted by Freedom House, after initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the government has pursued a wide-ranging crackdown on critics and opponents since 2016. For example, Amnesty International points out that hundreds of people, including journalists, social media users and protesters, have been detained in Turkey in 2019 due to their criticism of Turkey’s military offensive in Syria.

This action was allowed by the constitutional changes implemented in 2017 that concentrated power in the hands of the executive, removing key checks and balances. Most recently, the Turkish Parliament has passed new amendments known as the ‘censorship law’ that introduce new abusive criminal speech offences and deepen online censorship and access to information. Human Rights Watch has raised concerns over the development, coming right before the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections.

On the other hand, while democracy is declining around the world, in some countries, such as Mongolia and Kenya, people are showing increasing support for an open and transparent political system. In Mongolia, a recent survey indicates that 72% prefer a democracy, while simultaneously acknowledging the need for its improvement. In Kenya, the democracy level, which is produced by Freedom House and measures constraints on chief executives, regulation of political participation and competitiveness of political participation, has improved in the last decade. This was facilitated by a continuous improvement in democratic elections. While the results of the most recent multi-tiered elections were investigated, they have been conducted without any violence, showing a major gain for Kenyan democracy.

While there are countries that present hopeful examples, the lack of democracy in some regions, and democratic backsliding in others, illustrates a worrying trend, as democratic institutions are an essential component of a nation’s pathway to prosperity. In cases where democracy is being challenged externally by actors such as the Kremlin and Beijing, it will be essential to ensure that democratic institutions are protected and improved domestically.

This is particularly important as decline in democracy can lead to increased conflicts. And while Safety and Security has improved globally over the last five years, the improvement is not comprehensive – some regions are affected more, while some areas are getting worse. In the bottom 40 group of countries, every element, including war and civil conflict, terrorism, politically related terror and violence, violent and property crime, has deteriorated. Meanwhile, in the middle and top 40 countries, while most elements are improving, terrorism has deteriorated, and is converging with the bottom 40.

Additionally, other than Sub-Saharan Africa and North America, the extent to which the military is involved in the rule of law and politics has also worsened in all regions. For example, since 2019 the government in Thailand has been controlled by a semi-elected, military-dominated government, the successor to a military dictatorship following the 2014 coup. According to Freedom House, the authoritarian regime has seen a major uptick in lese-majeste imprisonment, with impunity for crimes against activists a regular feature of the government. Moreover, many African countries saw their political control being seized by military officers. In the last two years military coups have affected Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan. The 2021 coup in Sudan resulted in the Secretary General of the United Nations declaring ‘an epidemic’ of coups in Africa.

As military involvement in governance is increasing, conflict is also on the rise, and with war in Ukraine it has once again reached the doorstep of Europe. Currently, there are 27 active conflicts around the world, and not a single one is classified as improving. The ones that are worsening include the war in Ukraine, the war in Afghanistan, political instability in Lebanon, the war in Yemen, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and the conflict in Ethiopia. Eleven out of 27 conflicts are in the MENA region, while Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia host 7 each. This means that 2 billion people, or a quarter of the entire global population, currently live in conflict-affected areas, and at least 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance this year.