The Erosion of Democracy in Developing and Transition Countries | Part 2

Authoritarian Critique of Democracy

Crises relating to the legitimacy and performance of liberal democracies play into the hands of populists and autocrats all over the world. Even today, the discourse in Latin America still makes reference to the devastating social consequences of the “Washington Consensus” policy developed by the Western-dominated IMF and World Bank, which involved structural adjustment programs, austerity policies and cuts to social programs. The global economic crisis, which was caused by Western banks, is used as evidence for a lack of economic governance and is dubbed the “great Western financial collapse.”19 As a result of the Eurozone crisis, the EU’s ongoing inability to make decisions on key social and economic policy issues, and the insecure membership prospects of numerous countries in Southeast Europe, the attraction of Brussels is diminishing and populist powers are forming governments – including in many longstanding EU member states such as Greece and Italy. The role of the USA as a leading example of democracy has diminished due to the populist and erratic governmental style of President Trump. The quality of democracy is also being eroded in many of the OECD countries. This is captured in detail by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI). All of these difficulties and unresolved problems are construed as a sign of the decadence and exhaustion of “The West.” They provide authoritarian rulers with an opportunity to present themselves as an alternative development model.

In this context, authoritarianism is being advocated as a successful route for economic development. China is now pointing more aggressively to the economic successes it has enjoyed in recent years, which are indeed impressive. They include consistently high levels of growth, technological advances and a significant and rapid increase in the level of socio-economic development which has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty. China argues that this success can be traced back to strict, authoritarian governance, which made it all possible through state-directed industrial policy, rural industrialization and liberalized foreign trade. It could well be argued that the Asian countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pursued the very same kind of economically successful governmental steering before and also after their democratization. Nonetheless, authoritarianism is singled out and praised as an efficient, consistent alternative that facilitates reliable planning and is, therefore, more successful. Another point that often overlooked in this context is the fact that key aspects of China’s economic success are particular to China. The country has a meritocratic promotion system and it combines economic and administrative decentralization with a system of political centralization that is functional and secures loyalty. These aspects have nothing to do with the authoritarian government as such, and they also cannot simply be replicated in other countries.20 Instead, Chinese state media present the country’s governmental system as an example for other developing countries to follow if they wish to combine economic progress with social cohesion. A commentary published by the state news agency Xinhua begins as follows: “[C]rises and chaos swamp Western liberal democracy.” It adds that “[t]he Chinese system leads to social unity rather than the divisions which come as an unavoidable consequence of the adversarial nature of Western democracy today. Endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals, which make the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens.” 21

Malaysia offers another authoritarian model in Southeast Asia – although it may currently be undergoing democratization. Authoritarian development models as exemplified by China and Malaysia are also popular in Eastern and Southern Africa (South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia). They seem to show how long-term state planning and implementation can ease growing social tensions, even if this comes at the expense of political freedoms. In 2014, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was already making reference to there being “a race underway to find the method of community organisation, the state, which is most capable of making a nation and a community internationally competitive.” He then explicitly named the “stars of the international analysts today [like] Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey.” By making this positive reference, he was distancing himself from liberal democracy as the model for transformation. Instead, he proclaimed that Hungary was pursuing “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state” that does not specifically oppose the fundamental principles of liberalism, such as freedom, but “does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.” 22

This unsubstantiated reference to the supposed benefits of an autocratic, strictly governed development model can be countered with three fundamental observations. 23

The first is that the list of successful modernizing dictatorships is short – and has become even shorter in recent years. Only four of the 26 countries listed in the BTI 2018 as the most developed market economies are autocracies: Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Gulf States such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, however, were no longer included in this group of countries, due to insufficient diversification, sharp drops in economic performance or widespread mismanagement. This means that the list of showcase authoritarian economies is in fact rather short, even if consideration is given to the low and mid-level economies that are catching up (Rwanda and China respectively).

The second is that even the successful authoritarian modernizers experience periods of weaker growth and are confronted with limitations of their existing growth models, the functionality of which is their only source of legitimization. It is becoming more and more obvious in these cases that, ironically, the lack of transparency, accountability and participatory approaches are contributing to the lack of correction of undesirable developments. It is also negatively affecting the sustainability of the implementation and ongoing progress of development strategies. The main challenge facing many modernizing dictatorships is dealing with the consequences of clientelism. In Singapore, which remains one of the world’s front-runners in the area of anti-corruption policy, observers comment that the dynastic ruling elite is consolidating around the Lee family and that more and more questions are being asked concerning the inefficiency of the state-owned Temasek Holdings business conglomerate. Meanwhile, Malaysia has been shaken by a high-level corruption scandal during which the then prime minister was accused of transferring around $700 million from the Malaysia Development Berhad development fund into his private accounts. When the Panama Papers were made public, international media outlets published reports about China that provided insight into the enormous sums of money that leading party officials, including the family of the head of state, Xi Jinping, had hoarded away in foreign bank accounts. China’s large-scale anti-corruption campaign, meanwhile, seems to have been just as much about a party purge as it was about prosecuting abuse of office. In Rwanda, the fastest rising star among the modernizing dictatorships, the corruption prosecution against leading military figures revealed that the practices of office abuse in the area of illegal mining had been known about for years but the politically opportune moment for prosecution had only just come about.

The third observation concerns a comparison of the economic and social performance of all of the democracies and autocracies assessed by the BTI. Autocracies compare very unfavorably. Although only 26 of the 71 democracies in the BTI 2018 were given a social inclusion score of six points or higher, which denotes a moderate or good level of socio-economic development, even fewer countries (9) in the smaller group of 58 autocracies were given six or more points. Positive examples here are Belarus, Cuba, Kuwait, Russia and Thailand, in addition to Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Despite these positive outliers, the average score for autocracies is 3.55, which is more than a whole point lower than the social inclusion score for democracies (4.85). The comparison of the systems in the area of economic performance yields similar findings. The macroeconomic figures for 55 of the 71 democracies are categorized as satisfactory to good (six points or higher), whereas only 27 of the 58 autocracies fall into these categories. The average score for autocracies is 5.00, which is 1.55 points below the score for democracies.

6-The-Erosion-of-Democracy Page 16 Image 0001
6-The-Erosion-of-Democracy Page 16 Image 0001

Nevertheless, these observations are no cause for democratic triumphalism. In some of the larger economies in democratic countries, such as Brazil, Hungary, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey, economic transformation is stagnating or in rapid regression. Yet in these cases too, the economic downturn has been accompanied by a decline in the quality of democracy, along with widespread office abuse and glaring mismanagement.

As such, it should not be taken as a given that democratically ruled countries will pursue more socially inclusive policies just because there is usually at least relatively free competition to win over the electorate. In the same way, it should not be assumed that a viable foundation for democratic rule can only exist if there is a certain level of economic and social development. In many cases, a much more complex underlying interplay may exist between these two factors, alongside other country-specific influences. Even with this cursory overview of the performance of various political systems, it can be said with some degree of certainty that in the overwhelming majority of cases, authoritarian governmental structures are not positively effecting the sustainable development of market economies and social inclusion.

By collating the analysis, it can be seen that we are not looking at the global “retreat of democracy” in terms of a sudden increase in the number of countries ruled by autocratic governments. Rather, the quality of democracy is being eroded all over the world, particularly with respect to political participation and the rule of law. Commitment to democratic institutions and approval of democracy are some of the consolidation indicators that have deteriorated most in recent years. The deficits in the functionality and performance of democracies represent one reason for this development. Another reason is the influence of anti-democratic critics with populist and authoritarian origins. Populists who are in power seek to decisively undermine the supervisory bodies that constrain their power. They initially weaken the rule of law and then move on to the participatory elements. Their achievements in government, however, do not compare well with their anti-elitist promises. Many populist leaders devote themselves more and more to the goal of retaining power and developing new clientelistic structures of the kind they previously promised to abolish. The authoritarian model for development, which promises that strict state leadership will bring more efficiency and prosperity, does not tend to perform well either. In most of the autocracies assessed by the BTI, with the exception of a few successful cases, there are high levels of social inequality, economic performance is poor and corruption is rife. Bearing in mind that these alternative concepts have had very little success in practice, it is astonishing how much impact they can have on apparently insecure democratic societies. Deliberations about how to reinforce democracy around the world should therefore include the re-telling of a positive, self-assured democratic narrative.

IV. Conclusions

Under President Trump the USA has at least partly abdicated its role as a leading democratic power and rediscovered isolationist positions such as “America First.” Its value-led foreign policy has been superseded by financial, entrepreneurial considerations and developing nations are being referred to with unmasked contempt as “shithole countries.” In light of these developments, the role of the European Union, which is one of the most influential democratic powers at an international level, is particularly important. As set out in the Analysis section, the challenge that the EU faces is threefold. It entails discourse, self-correction and the promotion of transformation.

The discursive challenge is that of proactively presenting the benefits of a democracy based on the rule of law and of regional cooperation of democratic states – as a community of values rather than simply a free trade zone or an isolationist bloc for retaining prosperity – in a way that is both self-assured and self-assuring. There needs to be a fresh retelling of the success story of democracy and of Europe, not as a propaganda counteroffensive against populist and authoritarian positions but within a self-critical yet appreciative reflective process. In this process, democrats and Europeans can make use of an extensive, tried and tested arsenal of discourse options, particularly those that are held at the ready by institutes for political education and by foundations associated with political parties. Furthermore, civil society initiatives such as “Pulse of Europe” are taking their pro-European and democratic views to the streets, which justifies hope in the ability of democrats to mobilize support. As the political scientist Wolfgang Merkel recently emphasized, however, it will be of elementary importance when tackling this discursive challenge that more liberally minded “cosmopolitans […] do not [exhibit the] cognitive and moral arrogance of better-educated people and exclude communitarian positions from the discourse […] by designating them as morally inadmissible.”24 The fact that globalization has led to more intra-societal inequality cannot simply be dismissed. Nor can the fact that the supranational expansion of political spheres has contributed to a reduction in democratic governability. Furthermore, there is the risk that by marginalizing communitarian positions, the “pluralistically legitimate concern of not wanting to be excluded from the political discourse” will morph into culturally identitarian, xenophobic, right-wing populism.25 Indeed, the reference that right-wing populists make to the “true” will of the people is about as anti-pluralist as the technocratic insistence that there is “no alternative” to the trends in globalization, digitalization and migration.26 There is a representation gap here with regard to communitarian skeptics, some of whom are of a more social democratic orientation and are proponents of a socially inclusive, cohesive society. This gap must be bridged by conveying – in a convincing way – the message that they too will be heard and considered in the democratic order and that their needs will also be represented at the European level. A cornerstone of this discursive self-assurance should therefore consist of self-criticism concerning European democratic deficits, the erosion of the principle of subsidiarity, and bureaucratic over-regulation. This must also be accompanied by the willingness to make reforms.

The challenge of self-criticism is directly linked to the process of reflection. Democratic states and the European Union need to prove their ability to act and must not leave a gap between rhetoric and governance that is large enough for populists to exploit. They not only need to act in response to the urgent problems (such as the glaring prosperity gaps between nations and the growing inequality within societies) and unresolved issues (such as European migration policy), but also in response to the anti-democratic tendencies in their own ranks. The fact that the European Commission has already initiated punitive proceedings against Poland according to Article 7 of the EU treaty in response to the way rule of law has been undermined is therefore a welcome development. In theory, this could result in the withdrawal of the country’s voting rights in the EU, although in practice, Hungary will block unanimous action. For this reason, the European Commission is already planning a link between the allocation of funds to member states and compliance with constitutional standards from 2021 onwards. This procedure can only be blocked by a qualified majority of 15 member states whose combined population constitutes at least 65 percent of the EU population. Although this could represent a sharp instrument against constitutional violations, it is ultimately only a budgetary trick. Bearing in mind, among other factors, the pending potential expansion, which would see pre-accession countries in Southeast Europe joining its ranks, the EU needs a canon of values that is not subject to a majority and that is capable of imposing sanctions. This set of values should not be restricted to rule of law matters but should also take into consideration restrictions on political participation.

Finally, the challenge of promoting transformation continues to center around bringing the European Union’s own political aims and interests in line with the normative aims of the European community of values in its immediate neighborhood and further afield. This is not the place to outline and discuss the main instruments of Europe’s foreign policy, security policy and development policy, to elaborate on the European Neighbourhood Policy or to acknowledge the numerous successful democratization projects to which the EU has given ongoing support. Instead, with the above analysis in mind, this paper simply intends to give a warning regarding the potentially contradictory nature of the goals and their prioritization.

The migration partnerships, the agreement to take back or retain refugees, and the discussions surrounding “safe countries of origin” have already made it clear that the EU’s political interests concerning migration and its measures to promote stability do not line up with the premise of promoting democracy. By supporting hard autocracies such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, the EU is contradicting the normative goals that it has set itself for taking a value-oriented approach to foreign policy. As such, it is helpful to bring to mind the three key political dimensions investigated by the BTI – stateness, participatory democracy based on the rule of law, and democratic consolidation – in order develop a sensitivity to the tensions within these goals. Despite significant successes in supporting the crafting of constitutions, implementing judicial reform and monitoring elections, it is the constituent factors of democratization – that is, the establishment and consolidation of democratic institutions – that tend to be problematic when it comes to providing external support for democracy. This is because these institutions relate directly to local power struggles and the political order and are primarily the prerogative of the sovereign. If local political decision makers do not want to actively pursue the establishment and consolidation of democratic institutions of their own accord, then external efforts to support democratization will soon reach their limits. The enabling factors of democratization like stabilization and consolidation, in turn, allow for a broader scope of cooperation – even with authoritarian rulers and, in cases where political and social integration are being promoted, also with non-governmental players. Nevertheless, more and more authoritarian regimes have identified this vulnerability and have safeguarded against it by implementing restrictive measures. In these circumstances, if there are no democratically legitimized partners who are seeking to consolidate the rule of law or widen opportunities for political participation, external players can certainly focus on stabilization and supporting civil society. These stabilizing or civil society measures should not, however, counteract the constituent elements by helping to stabilize or legitimize regimes that are repressive, or simply authoritarian and populist. Furthermore, they should by no means capitalize on the supposed advantages of authoritarianism, as has been observed in the context of refugee policy.

V. References

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About the Author

Dr. Hauke Hartmann, Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh. He joined the Bertelsmann Stiftung in 1999 and directs the Transformation Index BTI measuring the quality of democracy, market economy and governance in 129 developing countries. His research is centered on democratization and human rights, with a regional focus on Arab and Latin American countries.  


Hauke Hartmann