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BTI: Progress of democratic transformation falls to a new low

According to BTI 2020, democratic backsliding in the past ten years was the worst in Turkey. The image shows Turkish police in 2009. Copyright: Thomas Koch /

The 2020 edition of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, in short BTI, examining the status of political transformation in 137 countries, shows growing resistance to the regression of democracy and the resurgence of authoritarianism. However, the report on the state of democracy, which can be found here, shows little cause for optimism.

In approximately one-fifth of the countries surveyed, the overall political transformation score has declined by at least 0.25 points, while just one in 10 governments has achieved positive changes of the same magnitude. Eleven of the 18 indicators in the study have reached their lowest levels since 2006, and 13 of the 18 indicators have deteriorated over the past two years. Four countries with a total population of 160 million – Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, and Turkey – are now classified as autocracies, while only three countries with a total population of just over 41 million – Armenia, Lebanon, and Malaysia – have been newly classified as democracies.

Assessment of government types in the 2020 BTI edition. Source: BTI Project

The BTI notes “a series of accelerating trends that are halting the progress of democracy and threatening to bolster regressive tendencies” that have continued over the past decade. In the 45 countries that have been classified as autocracies for the entire decade, repression has mostly gotten worse. Many used to permit at least the appearance of political opposition and freedom to dissent, but governments cracked down in the wake of the Arab Spring and other reform movements. Freedom of expression, association and assembly rights, and civil rights scores have all continued to decline.

Overview of backsliding democracies, 2010-2020. Source: BTI 2020, Global Findings Democracy, Figure 1

BTI warns in a policy brief, available here, that the novel coronavirus pandemic will only exacerbate these trends. While “it is neither foreseeable how fast and far COVID-19 will spread, nor how long the resultant economic and social crisis will last until a vaccine is developed,” BTI says it is clear “that it will severely strain and probably overburden the often poorly developed health care systems of many of the 137 developing and transition countries examined” by the Index. Some experts “are already predicting that many countries will be set back many years in their development and that hundreds of millions of people are at risk of falling back into extreme poverty.”

The BTI does offer some modest cause for optimism, detecting increasing resistance to oppressive measures by citizens, as well as continued resiliency among institutions and in civil society that are facing pressure from autocratic regimes. As Eastern European states such as Hungary and Poland have become more authoritarian, protesters have turned out in Czechia and Slovakia against similar efforts there. Mass protests have taken place in India in opposition to an effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party that would discriminate against the country’s 200 million Muslims. There have also been effective anti-corruption demonstrations in Indonesia.

The report cautions, “We should be careful of engaging in excessive optimism; it is incremental change that brings about lasting transformations. At the same time, these events may also be an indication that the idea of democracy and fairness has not lost its appeal. No matter whether in autocracies or democracies, the growing sense among many citizens that an economic and political elite is increasingly committed to its own vested interests, and is increasingly less accountable to the people, will remain as long as the governments fail to react. Democracies at least make the claim to do so; they should try harder to live up to this claim.”

The new BTI study confirms a general trend towards autocratization reflected in other recent assessments by Freedom House, V-Dem and the Economist Intelligence Unit. A previous BTI report was presented in 2018.

Peter Orvetti
Peter Orvetti is a writer, intelligence analyst, and world federalism advocate residing in Washington, D.C.