The inspectors of democracy

16 March 2009

The project and the idea of expanding democracy across the globe are at a delicate point as the first decade of the 21st century nears its end. Much of the momentum of the post-cold-war period that sustained them through the 1990s and beyond appears to have stalled under the pressures of the "war on terror", authoritarian resurgence, and institutional failures. As a result, many scholars and experts have started to worry that the notion of democracy support is in crisis and needs to be rethought or at least revised (see, for example, Larry Diamond, "The Democratic Rollback", Foreign Affairs, March-April 2008).

Rodrigo de Almeida is a Brazilian political journalist, and a researcher at Núcleo de Estudos do Empresariado, Instituições e Capitalismo (Center of Studies of Entrepeneurial, Institutions and Capitalism / NEIC luperj) He was a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York. He coedited with Artur Ituassu the book O Brasil tem jeito? (Jorge Zahar, 2006) Yet on the ground the long-term effects of the advance of democracy after 1989 are still reverberating. From Latin America to South Africa, Indonesia to east-central Europe itself, democracy is surviving and in most cases resisting the forces that threaten to undermine it - which almost certainly will grow as the lethal effects of deep economic recession (and global climate change) work themselves through political and social systems.

In this transitional period, where celebration looks passé and cynicism premature, it is ever more important to base analyses of the state of democracy and freedom on evidence and as far as possible to discard ideological filters and blinkers. Many of those who take the global temperature according to country-by-country "ranks" or "indices" profess to do just this, and claim a certain quasi-scientific credibility for their work. This contribution to openDemocracy/International IDEA's debate on democracy support examines the work of these "inspectors of democracy".

A map of freedom  

The notion that democracy and freedom are in a state of decline is one to be found in the reports of authoritative institutions such as Freedom House (which publishes an annual Freedom in the World survey) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (part of the Economist group, which in 2006 published its first annual Index of Democracy).

Freedom House, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation, was a pioneer in the global survey of freedom and democracy. Freedom in the World, first published in 1972, contains survey reports on (now) 193 countries and around fifteen disputed territories; monitors trends in democracy; and tracks improvements and setbacks in freedom worldwide.

Freedom House employs a rather minimalist concept of democracy, based on elections. Its criteria for an electoral democracy include a competitive, multiparty political system; universal adult suffrage; regularly contested elections conducted on the basis of secret ballots; reasonable ballot security and the absence of massive voter fraud; and significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and generally open political campaigning. Freedom House follows the best minimalist tradition: countries are democratic when governments and legislative representatives are elected in free and fair political processes.

Its survey measures freedom according to two broad categories: political rights and civil liberties. Each country and territory is rated on a seven-point scale for both (with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free), and then assigns each location a broad category status of "free" (those countries whose ratings average 1.0-2.5), "partly free" (3.0 to 5.0), or "not free" (5.5 to 7.0). Freedom House also assigns trend arrows (upward or downward) to places that saw positive or negative trends during the year, where these are not significant enough to result in a ratings change.

Freedom in the World 2008 also assesses "the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centers of potential domination". It describes its two operating categories as follows:

▪ political rights "enable people to participate freely in the political process, including the right to vote freely for distinct alternatives in legitimate elections, compete for public office, join political parties and organizations, and elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate"

▪ civil liberties "allow for the freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state".

In commenting on the trends, Freedom House's director of research Arch Puddington was melancholy: "The year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom", with sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union seeing the greatest reversal (see "Is the Tide Turning?", Journal of Democracy [18/2, April 2008]).

The scale of disappointment looks a little odd when set against the actual details of the 2008 report in relation to the 2007 and 2009 surveys (the latter is published in late spring 2009, but some of its contents are already available). In successive years (2007-08-09), the number of countries designated as "free" was 90, 90, 89; the number "partly free" was 58, 60, 62; and the number "not free" was 41, 43, 42. Yet the conclusion is stark: "Global freedom suffered its third year of decline in 2008".

The key to elucidating the conundrum is the "trend arrows", of which Freedom House sees a large number pointing downward. But there is a puzzling paucity of evidence. It is not clear why countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Hungary, Kenya, Mexico, South African and Taiwan receive downward arrows in 2007; or why India, with a negative evaluation in the trend of civil liberties, didn't receive one; or why Brazil, Argentina and Hungary escaped one in 2008 (though "scare trends" were noted).

Freedom House's survey poses questions that seem to anticipate such ambiguous findings:

"Are people capable (of proportioning) full power to freely elected representatives? Are people's political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group? Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have reasonable self-government, self-determination or can participate in the government through informal consensus in decision-making?"

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:
Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)
Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)
Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American Democracy Promotion: an open Letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009)- a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) www.islam-democracy.org

It is hard to see that meaningful answers could be found to questions of this kind that enable a consistent country-by-country cross-assessment. North Koreans can be regarded as dominated by a totalitarian party, Iranians by a religious hierarchy, Brazilians by an economic oligarchy - yet the limit on their freedom in each case works very differently. Moreover, phrases such as "reasonable self-government" and "reasonable self-determination" are vague, and it is not clear why the participation of minority groups in decision-making by informal consensus must be freedom-positive.

A tighter index

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy 2008 also portrays the overall trend of democracy since 2006 as one of stagnation, and concludes that the global financial crisis could further threaten democracy in some parts of the world.

The index provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy in 165 independent states and two territories. It is based on five interrelated categories:

▪ the electoral process and pluralism

▪ civil liberties

▪ the functioning of government

▪ political participation

▪ political culture.

The index classifies countries according to one of four types of regimes: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.

The report says: "Although almost half of the world's countries can be considered to be democracies, the number of 'full democracies' is relatively low (only 30); 50 are rated as 'flawed democracies'. Of the remaining 87 states, 51 are authoritarian and 36 are considered to be 'hybrid regimes'. As could be expected, the developed OECD countries dominate among full democracies, although there are two Latin American, two central European and one African country, which suggest that the level of development is not a binding constraint. Only two Asian countries are represented: Japan and South Korea".

The EIU researchers noted the modest position of United States and United Kingdom. The US had been marked by a "perceptible erosion in civil liberties related to the fight against terrorism", alongside problems in the functioning of government; Britain by some erosion of civil liberties, and "a decline in political participation...of shocking proportions".

The EIU index's sense of regression over two years was (like Freedom House) not matched by an actual change in its "average global score", which (it said) "for 2008 is almost unchanged compared with 2006". So, where does danger lie? The report notes that the economic recession may undermine democracy in certain areas; "many non-consolidated democracies are very fragile and if subjected to intense socio-economic stress, backsliding in democracy is possible". The vulnerable areas include "much of Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa where progress in democratization in recent decades - already under stress in many cases - could suffer significant setbacks". Moreover, the economic crisis may increase the attractiveness to many emerging markets of the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism.

The Index of Democracy shares the same methodological difficulties noted in relation to Freedom House, though overall it is less problematic. This is in part because the EIU is clearer about questions of definition and in acknowledging the absence of consensus over how to measure democracy.

The report says: "Although the terms freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous. Democracy can be seen as a set of practices and principles that institutionalize and thus ultimately protect freedom". It includes among the fundamental features of a democracy: government based on majority rule and the consent of the governed; free and fair elections; the protection of minority rights; and respect for basic human rights.

The contrast between the two reports is indicative here. The Economist Intelligence Unit's index is based on the view that criteria of assessing democracy based on the state of political freedoms and civil liberties are not "thick" enough: they can't encompass features that determine the quality of democracy or how substantive it is. Freedom is an essential component of democracy, but not sufficient.

The Economist's democracy index has an advantage: its five categories work to mitigate both the overly subjective and the conceptually minimal. The category of political culture is deployed to illustrate that democracy is more than the sum of its institutions: "A democratic political culture is also crucial for the legitimacy, smooth functioning and ultimately the sustainability of democracy. A culture of passivity and apathy, an obedient and docile citizenry, are not consistent with democracy. The electoral process periodically divides the population into winners and losers. A successful democratic political culture implies that the losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters, and allow for the peaceful transfer of power".

A caution in conclusion

These reports on democracy and freedom are meritorious in that they subject to scrutiny different modalities of politics: participation, civil rights, political culture, governance, gender equality, transparency, and many other categories and indicators. The reports contain a lot of information that is a useful resource in tracking developments in each country (good); carry a certain subjective or arbitrary element (not so good); reveal examples of inconsistent criteria, questionable valuations, and implausible or vague justifications (bad); may contribute to decisions about international financing, and influence the global perception of countries in times of crisis, instability, fear, and suspicion (very bad).

But my intention is less to criticise these works than to highlight the need for prudence in examining their results. If some indices compile useful and reliable information about a country's conditions, their armature of tables and lists also conceal more subjective factors than may be apparent. In particular the problematic - even alarmist - notion of a "democratic recession" that does not correspond to the ostensible findings of the reports is a caution against placing too much reliance on them.

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