28.03.23 Review

The Global Autocracy Renaissance: How and Why the World is Becoming Less Free

The world is currently experiencing a phase of de-democratisation; the level of democracy has returned to that of 1986, right before the fall of communism. Autocratisation has become a global phenomenon affecting all levels of society; autocracies are becoming more repressive, democracies are experiencing a backslide in democracy, and transitional countries are drifting towards authoritarianism. Shockingly, 72% of the world's population, or 5.7 billion people, currently reside in countries that are ruled by authoritarian regimes. Of this number, 2.2 billion individuals reside in ‘closed autocracies,’ with no civil rights and freedoms, and only 1.1 billion people are lucky enough to live in full democracies. The spread of autocratisation is like an epidemic; regimes and societies have begun sharing oppressive tactics such as disinformation, toxic social polarisation, and the crusade against ‘fake news’ masquerading as a tool for censorship. Although democratic resistance to these tendencies does exist, it has either not yet been successful (as is the case with Iran) or it has succeeded, but has bypassed the largest and most influential countries, and has thus resulted in the overall picture remaining unchanged. These conclusions are based on the annual report from the V-Dem international project.

The global renaissance

According to the recently published annual report on the state of democracy around the world by the international V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) project, the decline of democracy is a global trend. Political regimes all over the world are either becoming more authoritarian, or are seeing a degradation of the quality of their democratic institutions. The report reveals that, in 2022, 35 countries experienced a decline in freedom of speech — a significant increase compared to just seven countries ten years ago. Moreover, levels of censorship rose in 47 countries, government repression of civil society organisations increased in 37, and the quality of electoral procedures deteriorated in 30.

V-Dem reports that authoritarianism is experiencing a resurgence across all regions of the world, and signs of de-democratisation are evident in various types of ruling regimes. Non-free regimes have experienced increasing levels of authoritarianism. For instance, unstable electoral democracies such as El Salvador, Hungary, and India are in the process of transforming into electoral autocracies, while countries that may have previously been categorised as electoral autocracies (such as Burkina Faso, the Philippines, and Russia) are evolving into closed autocracies. In general, the quality of democratic institutions is declining, and authoritarian elements are on the rise, even in stable democracies such as Brazil, Poland, Greece, USA, and Ghana. By the end of 2022, 42 countries have moved closer towards autocracy, while only 14 countries have experienced democratisation, or in other words, a shift towards liberal democracy.

Countries undergoing democratisation and autocratisation by region, 2021-2022, number of countries

According to the experts at V-Dem, the last time there was a complete shift towards authoritarianism was 50 years ago, in 1973, following the end of the Vietnam War and during General Pinochet's rise to power in Chile. This time, however, many influential regional and global powers, such as India and Russia, are among the countries undergoing this process of autocratisation, and this is having a significant negative impact on the democracy of other countries within their respective regions. Conversely, the 14 countries experiencing democratisation are mostly small states, comprising just 2% of the world's population. As a result, their progress towards democracy has a negligible impact on the global political landscape.

The methods and ideologies of autocratisation are strikingly similar and have spread from country to country, almost like a contagious epidemic. These methods include disinformation, which creates toxic polarisation in society by dividing it into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ censorship disguised as a crackdown on ‘fake news,’ and more. For instance, Turkey passed a law in October 2022 that makes the dissemination of ‘false information’ punishable by imprisonment from one to three years. This allows for the arbitrary prosecution of not only media outlets but also bloggers and ordinary citizens, based on their private social media posts. Similarly, recent protests in Tbilisi were directed against the ‘foreign agents’ law, which seems to have been inspired by a similar law in Russia targeting independent media and public organisations.

The landscape of resistance

According to V-Dem's report titled ‘Opposition to Autocratisation,’ liberal democratic institutions have the ability to resist authoritarian tendencies. The report highlights Brazil and Poland as examples of countries that, despite experiencing authoritarian setbacks, have managed to maintain their democracies in 2022 through political competition and civil society activism, which thwarted attempts by their right-wing governments to consolidate power. On the other hand, the report highlights  Greece where the opposite trend has been observed: it has experienced a continuous decline in its quality of democracy, including issues with freedom of speech, and problems with the electoral process. 

Despite the prevailing trend towards authoritarianism, V-Dem also reports some positive, albeit minor, developments for democracy around the world. The report notes that eight of the ten most democratised countries in the past decade have now become consolidated democracies, representing success stories of the transition to democracy. Additionally, eight more countries (the Seychelles, Armenia, Gambia, Honduras, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and Madagascar) are currently in the process of democratisation, in spite of the recent global trend of authoritarian backsliding. Further, some countries have undergone a rapid transition to electoral democracies, with four (Gambia, Honduras, Malawi and Zambia) of the ten states that experienced democratisation over the past decade completing their transition to democracy in the last three years. For instance, Gambia has witnessed improved political conditions following the defeat of authoritarian President Yahya Jammeh in the 2016 elections, and its 2021 presidential election was declared both free and fair. A smooth transfer of power has solidified the country's democratic progress. In Europe, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Moldova have led the way in the process of democratisation.

Experts have identified five key factors that have played a crucial role in the progress of democratisation in eight out of the 10 success stories. First, significant mass mobilisation against the incumbent government. For instance, in Moldova, in 2014, protests erupted after the blatant corruption of the country’s ruling elite was exposed. Second, the judiciary’s ability to resist attempts by the executive power to subordinate it. In Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Janša attempted to shift power in favour of the government and exert more influence on the judicial system, but mobilisation by both ordinary citizens and the opposition prevented this from happening, and also resulted in Janša’s party losing the next election. A similar confrontation is currently being witnessed in Israel. Another key factor is the alliance between a country’s opposition and its civil society; for example, in North Macedonia in 2015, the opposition and non-political NGOs formed a united front following the revelation of wiretapping by the government. Electoral victories that result in a change of power are also an important factor. Finally, international support for democratic movements also plays a crucial role in the progress of democratisation.

The economics of autocratisation

According to V-Dem, the global decline of democracy can be attributed in part to changes in the economic balance of power between autocracies and democracies. The share of global GDP accounted for by autocracies has grown substantially, now representing 46%. In 1992, at the peak of the previous wave of democratisation, this number stood at just 24%. The proportion of closed autocracies within the world GDP has also risen, going from 12% to 25%. This shift has largely been driven by the growth of the Chinese economy, although other closed autocracies, such as Vietnam and Qatar, as well as electoral autocracies (Angola, Egypt, and Malaysia etc), are also gaining economic influence. Moreover, countries such as India and Turkey have moved from being electoral democracies to electoral autocracies. If current trends continue, autocracies will soon become the dominant force in the global economy.

World GDP and types of political regime, 1992–2022, %

The balance of global trade has shifted in favour of autocracies. The share of world trade between democracies has fallen from 74% in 1998 to 47% in 2022. Autocracies are increasingly trading with one another, with their exports and imports becoming less dependent on democracies. At the same time, democratic countries’ reliance on autocratic countries for trade has doubled over the past 30 years. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the importance of this dependence in international relations and security.

V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) is an international research project based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. To study the process of democratisation, V-Dem relies on a pool of over 3,700 experts from nearly every country in the world. It then uses their assessments to create a wide range of subindexes, after which these assessments are statistically analysed and aggregated. Researchers use a four-stage classification system of political regimes during their interpretation of the results: liberal democracies, electoral democracies, electoral autocracies, and closed autocracies.