Is democracy in retreat around the world?

Posted in Democracy , Other | 17-Apr-08 | Author: Carsten Michels

Dr. Hauke Hartmann, Project Director of the German Bertelsmann Foundation

Carsten Michels, Editor-Germany exclusively talks to Dr. Hauke Hartmann, Project Director of the German Bertelsmann Foundation, and responsible for the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) an international survey, which analyses and evaluates the quality of democracy, market economics and political management in 125 developing and transformation countries.

Carsten Michels: Going through papers and studies, one can conclude that democracy world-wide is under attack from various actors and movements. Is democracy in retreat around the world?

Hauke Hartmann: It is not in retreat, and there is no reason for alarmism. Of those 125 developing and transition countries the BTI 2008 analyzes, 75 are democracies, which is a proportionate improvement in comparison to the BTI 2006. In the past few years alone, the number of countries investigated by the BTI which have free elections leapt from 58% to 63%. A change-over to democratic systems was observed primarily in Africa. Overall democracy scores are – albeit only slightly – improving. We see a regional differentiation here, with democracy scores going still up in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, in West and Central Africa and in the CIS-region, while regressing in Asia as well as in South and east Africa. What does give cause for concern is the fact that while more and more people have the chance to elect their government freely, the quality of some democratic systems is either weak or dubious.

Carsten Michels: What are the key-findings of the BTI 2008?

Defective democracies – in which political and civil rights or an effective separation of powers are not adequately ensured, despite relatively free elections – have proved their intransigence. Whereas 23 democracies have made great strides in consolidating their democracies, the remaining 52 still have a relatively long way to go before they become functioning democracies. These defective (42) or highly defective (10) democracies show two major qualitative shortcomings, namely, an insufficient primacy of the rule of law and weak structures of representation. Only 13 of 75 democracies have a functional separation of powers including a sufficiently independent judiciary. In some countries, such as Russia or Venezuela, the concentration of power in the executive branch is a threat to the democratic system as a whole.

In the evaluation of governance, the BTI 2008 identifies a lack of social welfare regimes and negligence in fighting poverty as the key weaknesses. The index shows that despite the continued favorable global economic climate and years of stable growth rates, the social situation of most people in developing countries has seen little improvement. In Africa and Latin America in particular, little progress has been made and mass poverty remains the central problem in development. Although 85 of the 125 developing and transformation states investigated were able to participate in the uninterrupted global economic growth of the past few years, only few states used their economic leeway to combat poverty, or to invest in education or environmental protection. For about 100 states, economic performance and currency and price stability were evaluated as good or very good, but only 34 had sustainable educational or environmental policies. Hence, the global economy is booming, but too many people are left out – only 43 states were rated as having a good socioeconomic level of development.

Carsten Michels: Which countries have done exceptionally well in enhancing their democracy and why?

Hauke Hartmann: One characteristic of the period from 2005 to 2007 is a total of five regime changes from autocracy to democracy. Mauritania, Kyrgyzstan, Burundi, Liberia and Haiti can now be classified as democracies. Consequently, their democracy scores went up significantly, especially with regard to political participation. Their signature feature, though, is that every one of them is categorized as a highly defective democracy – that is, their overall democratic quality in terms of rule of law or representativeness is still very low. On the other end of the scale, countries like Ghana, India and Namibia were able to consolidate their democratic rule even further to be now included in the top group of the 23 democracies without serious deficits.

Carsten Michels: Who are the democratic losers and why?

Hauke Hartmann: Some of the most serious losses in the quality of democratic governance were observed in Asia.

Polarization between the political leaders and a resulting reform blockade continue in Bangladesh. Since the two main parties do not differ significantly on programmatic points, the main problem is the bitter personal rivalry between the two party leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. As long as both leaders and their families lead the parties, there seems to be no room for a significant improvement.

Likewise, the quality of democratic governance in the Philippines is meagre and remains at a low level. Conflicts between President Arroyo and sections of the national political community and civil society, as well as oligarchic structures among the political elite, bar the way to necessary reforms. Arroyo takes advantage of a range of undemocratic methods, increasing pressure on dissenters and a critical media and utilising government tools to secure the support of parliament. A dramatically high level of violence against journalists and opponents, as well as repeated attempts to instrumentalize constitutional controls, also represent deficiencies in democratic development.

Thailand showed the strongest decrease in the quality of its political system, a trend which preceded already the military coup, as the populist regime of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra increasingly and purposefully eroded the checks and balances. After the coup of September 2006, the ruling military council announced that after the return to civilian rule, the council would be transformed into a permanent “Council of National Security,” whose future role in Thai politics has yet to be clarified.

Samak Sundaravej and his six-party coalition took over from the military in February 2008, marking the return of an elected government after a coup two years earlier. The dominant party in the coalition is the People Power Party, which is seen as the successor to Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, which was banned after the coup for electoral fraud. The independent democratic forces in Thailand thus find themselves cornered between an assertive military increasingly difficult to control by civilian forces, and populist political rule eroding the separation of powers and the rule of law in general.

Carsten Michels: There is the argument that in many parts of the world, it is hardly possible to implement democratic rule, so one should rather focus on stability? What is your comment on that?

Hauke Hartmann: It would be, first of all, in all likelihood not a fruitful undertaking to “implement democratic rule” someplace else – the results of such efforts can be visited in Afghanistan and Iraq anytime. What can be and in fact should be done is to support the democratic reformers already active on the ground. And in that sense, I can really not see any fundamental antagonism between democratization and stabilization. In the long run, one is not to be had without the other.

The BTI for this reason has included the Stateness-criterion as one of its five criteria with which to measure democratic quality. As long as the monopoly on the use of force or some basic administration can not be guaranteed, there is no way in which a democratic system is to evolve successfully. But this should not serve as a pretext to focus exclusively on stabilization measures. Civil society participation, local decision-making and increased transparency can have a stabilizing impact as well.

Carsten Michels: Especially in the Middle East, most countries are run by autocratic rulers. What do you think could be an incentive for them to change their style of governing to a more democratic one?

Hauke Hartmann: What could eventually bring autocratic rulers on the path of democratization might be the understanding that they stand to lose more in a populist regime installed by street pressure than in a democratic regime chosen by free elections. However, as long as even external partners like the United States and the European Union preach the gospel of democracy but practice the stabilization of autocratic regimes, it is not to be expected that such a learning-process might start anytime soon.

Carsten Michels: Countries like Pakistan and several Arab oil-states have demonstrated that they can do quite well economically, without improving democratic standards. Where is the connection between democracy and economic growth?

Hauke Hartmann: Looking at the data the BTI 2008 provides, I am not sure if there is a stable connection between democracy and economic growth at all. Of the 49 countries showing major economic growth in the last two years, 15 of these are led by autocratic regimes and 34 by democratic regimes. This is about an adequate reflection of the proportion we are overall having in the BTI between democratic and autocratic regimes. This fact alone is of course leading one to question the alleged success of the autocratic modernizers – yes, economic growth rates in Cuba, Bahrain and China are impressive, but the same holds true for Brazil, Turkey and India.

We obviously can draw an inverse relationship between the willingness to reform and the abundance of resources. This Dutch disease is reflected in the BTI results as well. Resource-rich countries in many cases did not see any necessity and did not feel any pressure to liberalize or democratize.

The BTI finally suggests also a connection between social inclusion and democratic quality. Consolidating democracies with strong economic growth, particularly Bulgaria, Latvia, Mauritius, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic, have been most effective in using the favorable economic climate to strengthen their social safety nets. Of all defective democracies with improved performance scores, only Turkey has been able to boost its level of socioeconomic development. Generally speaking, democracies show a higher level of socioeconomic development and a more extensive set of social welfare services than autocracies.