In an exclusive interview exploring the intricacies of declining democracy, the rise of far-right populism, and the adaptability of democratic systems, Prof. Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord voice their deep concerns, highlighting that this is a matter of significance for all. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes, “We’ve demonstrated through various publications that far-right extremist parties are not only populist but also hold anti-pluralist views in their rhetoric and policies. When they attain power, they often spearhead the ongoing wave of autocratization. I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.”
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
The state of democracy across the globe is under intense scrutiny as the world grapples with shifting political landscapes and the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In an exclusive interview, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, provide valuable insights into the complexities of this critical issue.
Addressing criticisms from Professor Steven Levitsky in an interview with the ECPS on October 12, 2023, the interview begins with a robust response to his contention that the global democratic decline highlighted in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report may not be as dire as depicted. Lindberg and Nord emphasize the significance of their data, underlining the approach of population-weighted data, which accounts for the global impact of democratic changes in countries with large populations.
The interviewees discuss the apparent resilience of democracy and its concurrent decline, emphasizing that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. They point to countries such as that have made significant democratic improvements, as well as others where the situation has deteriorated. These varying experiences contribute to the complex global picture of democracy.
Prof. Lindberg explained the use of population-weighted data to assess the state of democracy worldwide, emphasizing that it gives more weight to countries with large populations due to their greater impact on the global state of democracy. This approach led to the conclusion that the global average for democracy regressed to 1986 levels in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report.
Dr. Nord also pointed out that even when looking at country averages, there is a decline, which dates back to 1997. However, she highlighted the resilience of democracy in terms of the continuation of elections in many countries. The interviewees delve into the multifaceted nature of democracy, highlighting that it encompasses much more than the mere presence of elections. Dr. Nord notes that while elections may still take place in certain countries, the decline in essential democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and freedom of association is a pressing concern.
Prof. Lindberg also expressed a deep concern about the potential surge of far-right populist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024. He emphasized that extremist and anti-pluralist parties often drive the current wave of autocratization, and their rise in Europe is worrisome.
Moreover, the interview explores the adaptation of democratic systems to specific cultural and socio-political contexts. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes the inherent contradiction in the concept of an "illiberal democracy" and highlights that the core principle of liberalism is the acceptance of opposing views, which is not compatible with an illiberal stance.
The interviewees conclude with the discussion of the recent Democracy Report by International IDEA, aligning with the findings in the V-Dem Project’s report. Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord emphasize the urgency of collective action in the face of the growing number of countries undergoing autocratization.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.
Democratic Erosion Prevalent Worldwide Across All Metrics
Prof. Steven R. Levitsky, in his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ co-authored with Professor Lucan A. Way, argues that the data does not support your findings in V-Dem Project’s 2023 report. He writes: ‘The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project’s 2023 report claimed that global levels of democracy had declined to 1986 levels and, thus, that the global democratic advances of the last thirty-five years had been “wiped out’’. What is your response to Prof. Levitsky’s assessment?
Staffan I Lindberg: The data supports our findings otherwise, we wouldn’t publish it. It’s essential to note that this is a quote based on our calculations using population-weighted data. This approach gives more weight to larger countries with significant populations. The rationale behind this is that when we assess the overall state of democracy worldwide, the country-weighted averages treat all territories with governments equally. In this method, countries with small populations, like the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants, carry the same weight as a giant nation like India with 1.4 billion people. While this approach serves specific purposes, we believe that, in the context of assessing the state of democracy worldwide, it’s more meaningful. For example, when democracy declines in a country as populous as India, with 1.4 billion people, it has a more significant impact than democracy improving in the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants. According to the population-weighted measure, the global average regresses to 1986 levels. Marina, do you have anything to add to what I just mentioned?
Marina Nord: Well, I would like to add that even when we look at country averages, we still observe a decline. While the decline might not be as dramatic, it harks back to 1997, if I recall correctly. Nevertheless, there is still an overall decline.
Prof. Levitsky highlights ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ all over the world which is exactly the opposite of your findings in the 2023 Democracy Report. How do you explain the two very different findings?
Staffan I Lindberg: These findings are not necessarily contradictory. It’s important to acknowledge that there are numerous countries globally that have made significant improvements in terms of democracy compared to their state in 1989. Large portions of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa have made substantial progress, to name a few examples. However, there are also countries where the situation has deteriorated, and in some cases, significantly so. It’s entirely possible to have countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization, as Stephen Levitsky mentioned, and have since remained stable or even improved their democratic standing. Yet, the global average declines because other countries have witnessed declines. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Resilience in Elections Amidst Diminished Democracy Quality
Marina Nord: If one only considers the survival of democracy as the presence of contested elections, then, in many countries, elections are still being held. However, the quality of these elections and other aspects that contribute to democracy, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, are in decline. This is indeed surprising. So, while we observe resilience in terms of the continuation of elections, the decline in the quality of democracy and its essential attributes is a noteworthy concern. These findings don’t necessarily contradict each other; they provide different dimensions of the overall picture.
Alright. In his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’, Prof. Levitsky further argues that: ‘Thus, even if Freedom House and V-Dem are correct in identifying an increase in incumbent abuse over the last decade or so, the consequences of that abuse appear to be modest, for many autocratic-leaning incumbents are failing to entrench themselves in power.’ How would you comment on this judgement?
Staffan I Lindberg: Well, if you were to ask serious observers of countries like Turkey, Hungary, and others, it’s not necessarily a viewpoint shared by many. The term "many" is quite flexible. While it’s true that we’ve witnessed cases where autocratizing incumbents have been defeated or removed from power recently, such as in Poland where transition is still ongoing, like Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Trump administration in the United States, there have also been reversals in countries like Zambia. We’ve seen periods of decline in South Korea that were eventually reversed. So, there are indeed significant instances where the autocratizing incumbents have failed. However, based on our data and assessments by organizations like Freedom House, there are many more countries where autocratizing parties and leaders have continued to undermine democracy and, in many cases, have dismantled democratic institutions. This broader trend is what we observe globally, rather than the isolated instances where incumbents fail to solidify autocracy.
Marina Nord: I would agree with that.
Autocratization Has Worsened Since 2019
In your article ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What Is New About It?’ co-authored with Anna Lührmann and published in 2019, you argue that a new wave of autocratization is emerging. Given the time that has passed since its publication, do you still stand by its findings?
Staffan I Lindberg: No. We began our work on that article in 2016-2017, and it was eventually published in 2019. At that time, we observed the emergence of a third wave of autocratization, and it was still unfolding. I would say that it’s still ongoing, but I must clarify that it has worsened. In our subsequent research on waves of autocratization, and also in the work we conducted for the democracy report, that wave has become much worse. In the article, if I recall correctly, the maximum number of countries undergoing autocratization simultaneously was 28. In last year’s democracy report, in which Marina was also involved, we counted 42 such countries. This represents a significant increase. What I would not agree with in that article is the notion that there is no cause for panic and alarm.
Exactly. That’s next question: In the same article you underlined that ‘As it was premature to announce the “end of history” in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy” now.’ You argue that democracy is in decline, but it is no reason to panic. It seems that you agree with Prof. Levitsky when he says that democracy has proved to be resilient.
Staffan I Lindberg: No. I hope it’s still too early to declare the end of democracy globally. However, I find myself in a different position today than Anna Lührmann and I were back in 2018 before that article was published. I believe there is a reason to be very, very concerned, if not to panic, which might be an extreme reaction, but to be deeply concerned. Many others share this sentiment. I think that what Professor Levitsky and some other commentators are doing when they suggest that not much is changing is doing a disservice to the world. When I examine our data and witness daily news reporting, I see democracy under attack in so many places, including my own country, Sweden, where signs of another far-right, extreme anti-pluralist party have emerged. This is putting pressure on our current government and could lead to a trajectory of autocratization. It’s deeply worrisome when established democracies start experiencing these challenges. So, while it may not be a time to panic, I believe it’s essential to be extremely concerned and very worried.
Marina Nord: I agree with the sentiment that "panic" might not be the right word, but being worried is indeed appropriate. To provide you with some statistics, our latest data from 2020 indicates that 43 percent of the world’s population resides in autocratizing countries. This is a global trend. What’s concerning is that not only democratic countries like Brazil, Ghana, or Greece are undergoing autocratization, but already autocratic countries are further regressing into autocracy, such as Hungary, India, the Philippines, and Russia. In the case of Russia, which was already a stable autocracy, we’ve observed further autocratization. This is the reason for concern. So, I would say it’s a time for action, not panic, but to take action and pay attention.
Autocratization and Growing Discontent with Democracy
One of the findings of the Democracy Report 2023 by V-Dem is that the global advances of democracy achieved in the last 35 years has been wiped out. The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels. How do you explain the dynamics of this downfall? What went wrong?
Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, I think that’s what it is called these days as one-billion-dollar question. I don’t think we have an answer, and the explanation is likely quite complex. Various forces are at play simultaneously in many countries and regions of the world, including local dynamics. What’s remarkable is that it’s a global phenomenon. We observe this trend in every region of the world, with countries undergoing autocratization across different levels of socioeconomic development, various ethnic, linguistic, and social identity configurations, ranging from countries with dominant/homogenous groups to highly heterogeneous ones, and varying levels of economic development and pre-existing democracy.
This diversity suggests that there are global forces at play. We know about some of these forces, such as Russia, which played a role in the third wave of autocratization. Putin in Russia turned things around in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and its subsequent actions, including the invasion of Ukraine, involvement in Brexit, interference in American elections, and support for far-right extremist parties and groups across Europe. Then there is China, which has been pushing back against the democratic wave since the mid-1990s, impacting both established democracies and countries in the global south. Let’s not forget about Saudi Arabia. They have been doing a similar thing by supporting anti-democratic Salafist movements. Salafis used to be the microscopic, little part of the Muslim world. It is no longer. Iran is another player on that side. Of course, there are many versions of practicing Islam, that are compatible with human rights and democracy and women’s rights, and so on. Salafism is not.
There’s a growing body of research suggesting that a significant increase in relative economic inequality, which began in the 1980s and spread worldwide, is providing fertile ground for wannabe dictators to exploit dissatisfaction and fears for the future often associated with inequality. While there’s no solid scientific consensus, a growing body of evidence points in this direction.
Marina Nord: I would agree that each case has context-specific factors, but a general explanation could be a growing discontent with democracy as a regime. In each instance, it might be triggered by factors like inequality, an economic crisis, or migration, which are often country-specific. This discontent can give rise to populist movements, ultimately paving the way for wannabe dictators to come to power within democracies. Once in power, these leaders significantly undermine elections.
What distinguishes contemporary autocratization from historical examples is that it’s often a gradual process, not happening overnight, and it often occurs under the facade of legality. This process is frequently referred to as “democratic backsliding” or “democratic corrosion,” marking a substantial decline in a country’s democracy over time.
Having Legislature Does Not Automatically Translate into a Democracy
In the V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2023, you underline that “Democracy broke down in seven of the top 10 autocratizing countries in the last ten years: El Salvador, Hungary, India, Serbia, Thailand, Türkiye, and Tunisia.” What do you mean by democratic break-down? In Turkey, for example, elections are still held, and the Parliament is open and keeps legislating.
Staffan I Lindberg: The same is also the case in Russia. The mere presence of multiparty elections and a functioning legislature on paper doesn’t equate to having a democracy. Back in the 1990s, Thomas Carothers and others referred to this as the "electoral fallacy." Democracy necessitates more than just holding multi-party elections. To be considered a democracy, it’s crucial that these elections are genuinely free, fair, and held periodically. Furthermore, even if elections meet these criteria, it’s essential that opposition parties are not harassed, oppressed, prosecuted for political reasons, or otherwise impeded between elections.
Beyond this, democracy also requires freedom of speech, particularly in terms of media and individual freedom of speech. In a genuinely democratic environment, people can express their opinions freely. However, in cases like Hungary, where, since around 2018, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have gained control over 98 percent of the media, it becomes challenging to maintain a climate of free speech. Even if individuals on the street can technically voice their opinions without consequences, having a media regime controlled by those in power can shape public perceptions, leading to beliefs that align with the government’s agenda. In Hungary, for instance, the government-loyal press has propagated stories like Putin being compelled by NATO to invade Ukraine, thereby legitimizing Russia’s actions. Many people in Hungary have accepted this narrative, not because of freedom of speech but because of the media environment. Holding elections and having a functioning legislature does not automatically translate into a democracy. Furthermore, civil society’s ability to express opinions, demonstrate, and criticize the regime is vital for a true democracy. In the case of Turkey, many leaders, academics have been imprisoned or subjected to harassment, making it challenging for civil society to operate freely.
Marina Nord: I would like to emphasize that there are only six countries worldwide that do not hold elections at this moment. Therefore, democracy encompasses much more than just the act of voting. To illustrate, the Soviet Union had regular elections, but they were devoid of meaning. So, the mere presence of elections does not automatically signify the existence of a democracy.
Many pundits argue that the upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 will witness a surge of far-rights populist parties. How concerned are you about a possible victory of far-right parties?
Staffan I Lindberg: Very concerned and I think everyone should be. We’ve shown in a number of publications, also using the varieties of parties and party organization data set, which is separate from the regular V-Dem data set, but with data on individual parties that are far right, extremist parties which are not only populist, but they are anti-pluralist in the rhetoric and policies that when they come into power they are the ones in the current wave of autocratization that typically drive those processes. There are also a few instances of left-wing parties and leaders that have also talked recently, but they’re very few and far between
in comparison to the vast majority that are driven by these right-wing. So yes, I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.
Marina Nord: I would agree.
Illiberal Democracy Is an Oxymoron
Leaders like Erdogan and Orban who deviate from democracy and veer towards authoritarianism often claim that they have not strayed from democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedoms. They even argue that they are models for other aspiring democracies. They defend these claims by arguing that they have embraced a form of democracy tailored to their country’s socio-cultural characteristics. What is your response to the claim that beyond the democractic systems with universal values and forms we are familiar with, there can be different forms of democracies adapted to each country and culture?
Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, of course. We already see that among the established democracies. It’s been very different the way democracy has functioned in the United States, since they got a really good democracy in around 1970, very different from France and France is very different from Sweden in many ways. And in Ghana it also functions different as a culture, different cultural background, and so on. We can go down the line, of course. That doesn’t mean that any version of what some leader proclaim is democracy is a democracy. China also claims that they are actually -the last white paper they put out on that- the only democracy that works in the world. That was a white paper they issued after the first democracy summit that the Biden administration put together.
(Viktor) Orban claims to have or wants to have an illiberal democracy. That is an oxymoron. That is a contradiction in terms. A democracy cannot be illiberal because the founding principle of liberalism is the reciprocal acceptance and tolerance of opposing views. If you’re illiberal, you don’t accept the opposing views and that’s not compatible with democracy. Now, Orban tries to frame this in terms of LGBTQI and women rights and conservative family values and all that. But that’s just a framing. The real politics is about eradication of opposing views and opposing political forces. And that’s not compatible with democracy.
Marina Nord: I would just add that I have heard several times in Russian political circles that Russia is called as a “guided democracy,” and that also contradicts this definition of democracy that we have.
Lastly, latest Democracy Report by International IDEA found that almost half the countries have suffered a notable decline in democratic values. ‘What may be worse is that it is the sixth consecutive year in which countries with net declines outnumbers those with net advances, the longest such pattern in our data set’ argues the report. Are you surprised or feel vindicated by the findings of the report?
Staffan I Lindberg: These findings align closely with our Democracy Report, and they come as no surprise because most of the data used in the International IDEA report originates from V-Dem. While I don’t have the latest figures, it used around 70 percent of their data sourced from V-Dem. Therefore, the patterns observed in their report, released nine months after ours, closely mirror those in our Democracy Report.
Based on the findings of the IDEA report, what are your thoughts on where this trend is leading us?
Staffan I Lindberg: We are not in a position to make predictions; our role is to present the facts as they are. The stark reality is that the number of countries undergoing autocratization has seen a significant increase in recent years, and we have yet to witness a reversal of this trend. This is a cause for concern that should prompt collective action.