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The Implications of Democratic Backsliding


What is democratic backsliding, and why is it important?

‘Democratic backsliding’ is a commonly used phrase in the context of recent events and political developments, but what does it actually entail? In essence, democratic backsliding is “the incremental erosion of institutions, rules, and norms that results from the actions of duly elected governments.”1 Moreover, as a phenomenon, it occurs in several principal steps: social and political polarization leading to public disdain and extremism, which in turn opens the door for autocrats to rise to power, and subsequent an incremental collapse of the separation of powers and other institutional tenets.2 Numerous think tanks, organizations, and NGOs tout the recent shift as a recession of the progress made over previous decades by the US and other Western countries.

democratic backsliding

On paper, this seems accurate. The V-Dem Institute’s report from last year paints a succinctly dire picture: “The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels,”

“There are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies,” “freedom of expression is deteriorating,” and “government censorship of the media is worsening.”3 Even by just observing worldwide political developments, one can see concerning signs in pretty much every corner of the globe.


Democratic backsliding is effectively a form and source of extremism. When anti-democratic forces come to power, they typically violate the rule of law, judicial and media independence, and the rights of individuals and minorities, frequently through the demonization of modern, Western, and liberal values of multiculturalism, open immigration policies, and nontraditional family structures such as gay marriage.4 The term ‘backsliding’ signifies regression, a return to perceived tradition, and a rejection of modern liberal institutions on the basis of economic, political, or social shortcomings. Moreover, democratic backsliding is connected heavily but not entirely synonymous with other terms such as populism, right-wing extremism, and non-free.


However, is it truly this clear-cut? Many have challenged the notion that democratic backsliding has any fundamental basis, and specifically that its definitions take a lot for granted. For starters, how can movements be undemocratic if they come into being through legitimate democratic processes?5 Secondly, governments around the world, even of the same general classification, exist and function with variation–how do we reconcile what a healthy democracy includes or excludes? And lastly, what does the term itself imply about levels of development around the world? The answer to these questions, from any perspective, is not simple.


Another aspect to consider is the understanding of the implementation of democracy altogether. Is it a ‘silver bullet’ that solves all issues of the non-capitalist context it arises from, or rather a product of that environment? Historically speaking, democracy has generally not meant an upheaval in terms of power dynamics, and those in power beforehand usually put systems in place to ensure that they remain there after democratization.6 This underlying reality is no doubt a starting point in determining what causes democratic backsliding in the first place.


Some context

As far as analyzing recent history and some contemporary examples of this process, a natural beginning is the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Poorer states in the EU, especially Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were especially hard-hit, but even major nations such as the UK, Italy, and Spain felt pressure too. Over the following years, confidence in democracy and liberal institutions would plummet.


challenging democratic norms
Pictured: A 2006 congregation for Viktor Orbán's party, Fidesz.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán was among the first to challenge the accepted democratic norms that his country had embraced since the end of the Cold War.7 It is especially important to note Orbán’s heavy pro-Christianity, anti-immigration, and anti-progressive stances, and how he weaponizes those existing sentiments into political dominance and anti-democratic agendas.8 The rise of extremist parties across the EU in the past decade is well-documented; in the past couple of years, another resurgence has seen far-right parties gain support in Italy, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, France, Finland, Israel, and many other nations. Democratic backsliding and the rise of far-right movements are inextricably linked and often causal.9


In Eastern Europe, skepticism over democracy has been an underlying issue for the better part of a decade; however, the term democratic backsliding has been most recently associated with historic Western democracies that seem to be faltering as of late. Whether it’s the ‘Brexit’ movement, Israeli judicial reform, or concerning rhetoric around refugees, cracks in the foundation are showing.


In examining the issue outside of a strictly Western perspective, democratic backsliding has been described throughout Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world to varying degrees. In India, recent anti-Muslim flare ups have arguably been distilled from government policy and official statements.10 Leaders in places such as Turkey and Russia consistently gain power and dismiss any systems of checks and balances.11 In Africa specifically, belief in Western institutions was a question mark in the first place. However, there is not a true pattern to democratization on the African continent, and a lack of such seems more to do with existing geopolitical landscapes and leaders’ abilities to fulfill citizens’ wants and needs.12


At a minimum, the existence of democratic backsliding is limited and can be used more as a weapon to grow a certain political party or erode the rights of a targeted minority than undermine democracy as a whole. Ultimately, this phenomena occurs as a reaction to certain circumstances, groups, ideologies, and elements of modernity. Regardless of whether these gripes are justified, they are used to promote extremism and push specific perspectives and policies which are harmful to the world.


Human Rights Implications

In order to understand the effects of democratic backsliding, one must examine the human rights contexts. Extremism and backsliding are a direct route to divisive rhetoric and polarization, which in turn creates problems for any minority and marginalized groups. In much of Eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland, rejections of refugees has been a mainstay of backsliding policies, despite conflicts with international law and EU courts.13 Publicly targeting migrants has been a consistent tool for right-wing parties across the West, despite contradicting Article 14 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.14 Other significant Articles such as those protecting free speech, free press, right to assembly, and equal rights have also become at risk in certain countries.


Backsliding nations tend to tow the line when it comes to human rights violations such as repression, non-free elections, and minority rights. Orbán is particularly fond of this, often criticizing EU decision-making and undermining electoral processes without actually overstepping the bounds of the EU and other Western institutions.15 In the African continent, a common theme post 1990s was a return to previous levels of autocracy and one-party rule while still holding elections, primarily as a protective measure to continue receiving foreign aid from the US government.16 The merits of said elections didn’t matter all that much. Part of the reason backsliding is so dangerous is its ability to affect policy and open the door for human rights violations while remaining within the liberal international order.


Importantly, how far can democratic backsliding go? Recently, the world has seen two wars erupt, firstly between Russia and Ukraine, and secondly between Israel and Palestine. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia’s government has long been a target of criticism due to repressive tactics and undemocratic internal developments. Leading up to and during the war, Vladimir Putin has amassed domestic political power in unprecedented levels; although that alone is not responsible for the outbreak of the conflict, Putin’s ability to act unilaterally has undoubtedly opened the door for brinkmanship, erasure of internal opposition, and legally-questionable military tactics.17 On the other hand, Israel’s domestic politics have also been ringing alarm bells for several years now; generally seen as an accomplished democracy, judicial erosion, lack of minority rights, and hawkish tendencies have all diminished trust in that.18 Israel’s developments can be seen as laying the groundwork for anti-Palestinian policies which are arguably repressive, discriminatory, and violent. In the interest of brevity, analyzing either of these cases completely is not possible; however, the role of democratic backsliding as a potential cause and definite indicator of disharmony is undeniable. Moreover, in these cases of ethnic conflict, human rights violations have been a major point of contention.


Historically speaking, undemocratic movements that gain power through democratic institutions are responsible for some of humanity’s worst atrocities.


Policy Implications

Given all of this, what can the US and international community do to counter backsliding? Mitigation and prevention, in this case, prove especially complex due to the inherent realities of democracy that lend themselves to democratic backsliding.


Inherently, the leaders of backsliding countries are a source of the process; looking at examples of Erdoğan, Bolsinaro, Modi, and of course, Orbán point to their influence and concentration of power as a condition for backsliding to occur.19 In fact, each of the aforementioned leaders, not in line with American ideals of democracy, freedom, and human rights, have been able to gradually enact changes to policy and government with criticism from the West but without any tangible consequences. Any potential policy solutions should likely center around polishing the US’ foreign relationships with backsliding countries. However, one major obstacle to this would be the strategic cost of alienating allies.


So, in reality, democratic backsliding and subsequent civil and human rights violations are at the mercy of how much world powers value internal situations versus geopolitics. Any steps that can be taken will be a negotiation between the priorities of the US and other great powers.


A Concluding Thought

In summation, democratic backsliding is a component of modern political shifts in the world, but as a term, its usefulness and scope can be narrow. The underlying assumptions and Western views of democracy lead many to over-credit democratic backsliding, especially outside of the West. However, in several contextual examples, it is nonetheless applicable and a worthwhile lens of viewing changing human rights and policy around the globe.



Footnotes

1 Haggard, Stephan, and Robert Kaufman. “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding”. Kettering Review, 37, (2022) : 9-18.

2 Ibid.

3 Democracy Report 2023: Defiance in the Face of Autocratization. Gothenburg, Sweden: V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, 2023.

4 Plattner, Marc. “Illiberal Democracy and the Struggle on the Right”. Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (January 2019): 5-19.

5 Wolkenstein, Fabio. “What is democratic backsliding?”. Constellations, (2022) : 1-15.

6 Gandhi, Jennifer. “The Institutional Roots of Democratic Backsliding”. The Journal of Politics, 81, (2019) : 11-16.

7 Plattner, 5-19.

8 Sitter, Nick, and Elisabeth Bakke. “Democratic Backsliding in the European Union”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, (2019) : 1-21.

9 Plattner, 5-19.

10 Maizland, Lindsay. “India’s Muslims: An Increasingly Marginalized Population.” Council on Foreign Relations. July 14, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/india-muslims-marginalized-population-bjp-modi.

11 Graham, Thomas. “How Firm Is Vladimir Putin’s Grip on Power?.” Council on Foreign Relations. October 2, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-firm-vladimir-putins-grip-power. ; Kirby, Paul. “Erdogan: Turkey's all-powerful leader of 20 years.” BBC News. May 28, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13746679.

12 Arriola, Leonardo, Lise Rakner, and Nicolas van de Walle. “Democratic backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, resilience, and contention”. Oxford University Press, (2023) : 1-36.

13 Sorgi, Gregorio. “Hungarian law forcing migrants to seek asylum abroad is illegal, top EU court rules.” June 22, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/eus-top-court-slashes-hungarian-law-outsource-aslyum-applications/.

14 United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

15 Sitter and Bakke, 1-21.

16 Arriola, Rakner, and van de Walle, 1-36.

17 Tefft, John, Bruce McClintock, and Khrystyna Holynska. “From Gatherer of Lands to Gravedigger: A Political Assessment of Putin's War on Ukraine.” February 13, 2023. https://www.rand.org/pubs/commentary/2023/02/from-gatherer-of-lands-to-gravedigger-a-political-assessment.html

18 Cook, Steven A. “Israel’s Judicial Reforms: What to Know.” Council on Foreign Relations. July 26, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/israels-judicial-reforms-what-know.

19 Carothers, Thomas, and Benjamin Press. Understanding and Responding to Global Democratic Backsliding. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022.

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