Staffan Lindberg’s keynote address is a wake-up call

In introducing Staffan Lindberg’s keynote at the WIDER Development Conference, UNU-WIDER Senior Research Fellow and political scientist Rachel Gisselquist says that the COVID-19 pandemic is linked to new restrictions on rights and freedoms at a time when experts have been warning about the decline of democracy for over a decade. Dr. Lindberg is one such expert, a democracy scholar, professor of political science, and the director of the V-Dem Institute at the Department of Political Science in Gothenburg.

At its helm, V-Dem has undertaken some of the most exciting and rigorous work on conceptualizing and measuring democracy worldwide and historically. He lays out the most important findings of this work in his keynote address and in an interview with UNU-WIDER.

They are a wake-up call.

Democracy is an endangered species

We live in a very different world than just 10 years ago.

Sixty-eight per cent (68%) of the world’s population live in electoral and closed autocracies. Electoral autocracies are the most common regime type globally in 2020, representing 62 countries. A further 25 countries are classified as closed autocracies. Over two-thirds of the global population does not have democracy today, a 20 percentage point increase from just 10 years ago.

These are all findings from a new V-Dem report, Autocratization turns viral.

The trend is towards greater autocratization, not democratization

For most of the 20th century, the general trend was towards greater democratization, with democratization coming in three major waves. The most recent wave rolled over Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But, since 2010, the trend has reversed. And in the last decade, many countries began to autocratize.

We now have, globally, the same level of democracy as we did in 1990.

Figure 1: Liberal Democracy Index: 1972-2020
Population-Weighted Global and Regional Averages

Source: V-Dem Institute Democracy Report 2021.

The odds of beating autocratization are not good

'In one of our latest scientific articles, we looked at all instances of autocratization in democracies since 1900. And almost 80% of them lead to democracy dies,' Staffan says.

So, Staffan told us, the probability of staying a democracy in a nation that is autocratizing is very low. Twenty-five (25) countries are continuing to autocratize. They represent a third of the global population.

Source: V-Dem Institute Democracy Report 2021.

Professor Lindberg cites numerous recent examples of countries that have lost democracy. Turkey is one, a country that fell below the threshold for what counts as a democracy in 2014–15 after a gradual, years-long process of autocratization. Staffan's keynote presentation (slides 16-17) shows that Hungarians, Bolivians, Serbians, Beninese, and Indians — with a population of 1.3 billion people — have also lost their democracies by V-Dem's classification.

Still more countries —among them the United States and Brazil— have seen democracy decline or are on track to have their regime status downgraded from liberal or electoral democracy to electoral autocracy.

Figure 2: Countries democratizing or autocratizing substantially and significantly, 2010-2020

V-dem figure 2
Key to colours: Red marks countries where the LDI has declined substantially and significantly over the past ten years. Blue marks countries where the level has advanced. Countries in grey are substantially unchanged.

Source: V-Dem Institute Democracy Report 2021.

Freedom of expression – the area most affected

Staffan and his colleagues look at 437 indicators related to political rights and freedom to measure democracy. The ones that have changed the most, for the worst, in the past decade are mostly related to freedom of expression. '8 of the top 10 are freedom of expression indicators, harassment of journalists, bias in the media, government censorship, and so on' (see Figure 5 below).

Figure 3: Top 10 declining indicators by grouped by index type (2010-2020)
By number of countries worldwide where indicator is declining

Source: V-Dem Institute Democracy Report 2021.

Pandemic backsliding

Could a global emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic lead to further encroachment on democratic norms?

The risk that it will prompted the UN Commission on Human Rights to issue a statement on 16 March, 2020 that includes the line, 'we urgently remind states that any emergency response to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary, and non-discriminatory'. The Office of the High Commissioner establishes international norms about human rights.

Whenever states violate these as part of their COVID-19 response, V-Dem databases the violations, establishing over the past year that over 44 countries have logged major violations. On a global map, it appears that a limited set of just 13 countries have no violations from March 2020 to June 2021. 

The case for democracy

Democracy is important and desirable, Staffan says, for its own sake. Still, together with colleagues at V-Dem he is building the case for democracy. The goal is to 'Collect the latest and the best science —hard science' and see what it 'says about the effects of having democracy or autocracy or democratization or autocratization.' Democracy improves a range of outcomes outside of political freedoms and rights that we care about.

Democracy has evidence.

It increases economic growth (by 20%), reduces infant mortality substantially, increases life expectancy, and reduces the risk of conflict. It increases social protection and the scale of efforts to help the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized (doubles spending on these). And, democracies have made commitments in the Paris Accord that are much higher than autocracies, equivalent to a 1.6 degree change.

These assertions are not just lip service to democracy. In our interview with Staffan, he makes it very clear that these are scientific findings, published in top journals, backed by empirics and arrived at through rigorous methods.

'Democracy has evidence,' he says.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

Watch Staffan Lindberg’s Keynote Address at the ‘COVID-19 and development - effects and new realities for the Global South’ WIDER Development Conference 2021

Read Staffan Lindberg’s WIDER Working Paper with Maria C. Lo Bue and Kunal Sen on ‘Clientelism, public goods provision, and governance’.