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V-Dem: A third wave of autocratization now affects 24 countries

Parthenon, Greece, by Evan Wise/

The annual report of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project has concluded that a trend of autocratization which first gained momentum in the mid 1990’s has developed across the world. Autocratization is defined by V-Dem as any substantial or significant worsening on the scale of liberal democracy in a country.

The ”third wave” of autocratization alludes to the fact that an unprecedented number of countries are currently being affected. As this blog reported earlier this year, for the first time in almost four decades, autocratization has affected the same number of countries – 24 – as democratization.

A significant feature of this new wave is that it is steadier and less emphatic than earlier episodes that occurred from the mid 1920s to early 1940s and again from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Rather than making wholesale changes to democratic components such as participation in elections and freedom of expression, governments are making more subtle, indirect changes which are more difficult to identify. This makes it harder for these actions to be measured and for the international community to respond.

Although the V-Dem argues that the world is still unmistakably more democratic compared to any point in the last century, the report attributes the worsening of democracy to issues such as government manipulation of media, civil society, rule of law and elections as well as toxic polarization, social exclusion and the spread of misinformation or ’fake news’.

Due to the fact that these issues are occurring in populous democracies such as the US, Brazil and India, 1/3 of the world population are currently being effected by autocratization.

Changes in major autocratizing countries from 2008-2018. Source: V-Dem 2019 report, p. 21.

Balanced, evidence-based expert assessments

The report entitled Democracy Facing Global Challenges benefits from the input of over 3,000 employed experts from almost every country in the world. Using cutting edge theory and methods, the experts collect data and make judgements on issues effecting democracy in different countries. The data allows V-Dem to observe whether countries are improving or declining with regards to components of democracy such as freedom of expression, rule of law, media censorship, media bias, legislative constraints and more.

Data is collected from at least 5 experts for each observation, allowing the results to account for uncertainty and potential bias. V-Dem argue that these methods are more effective than traditional coding with regards to measuring the strength of democracy as it is extremely difficult to code concepts which are not directly observable.

Polarization and misinformation on the rise

The report highlights polarization between political groups and between the general public as one of the major challenges facing democracy today. Respectful and constructive policy related debate is in decline whilst hate speech by politicians and clamping down on freedom of expression by governments is on the rise. V-Dem argue that in many parts of the world including Brazil, Western Europe and the US, a climate of ’us vs them’ has become prevalent within politics and subsequently fused into society.

Also contributing to the erosion of liberal democracy in the world according to V-Dem is mass dissemination of misinformation by governments or foreign governments as well as political leaders ability to discredit legitimate news sources. V-Dem found that these issues are particularly significant in the US, where president Trump has regularly labelled legitimate news sources as ’enemies of the state’ whilst the white house continues to spread misinformation. The report shows that although these issues are far more prevalent within autocracies, there is a worrying rise within democracies.

Most democracies remain resilient

Despite worrying findings, V-Dem make it clear that these are not indicative of future decline. Rather, they should be taken as a warning and give encouragment for pro-democratic forces to work together to reverse this third wave of autocratization.

The findings show that most democracies remain resilient despite the challenges which are being faced. Democracy is still the most prevalent and popular form of government and progress continues to be made all over the world. However, the V-Dem report argues that much is to be done to make up for the backwards steps which have been taken in some of the largest democratic regions in the world.

Ryan Whyte
Ryan is a graduate from The University of Edinburgh (Law LLB) and The University of Glasgow (International Relations MRes) currently based in Berlin.