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As previous chapters have laid out, the primary threats to democracy are deteriorations in the rule of law, and greater executive control over the media, civil society and institutions that can check executive power. For the most part, electoral manipulation has been less common in advanced democracies. Nevertheless, for the first time in decades, there is evidence that the number of countries in which freedom and fairness of elections are declining is more than the number in which they are improving (Lührmann et al, 2019). In grey-zone regimes in particular, electoral manipulation is becoming more sophisticated and prevalent. At the same time, there are increasing challenges to the fairness and legitimacy of elections in advanced democracies. Thus, it is not just authoritarian regimes that are engaging in electoral malpractice, but also regimes that once held free and fair elections.

The chapter begins by looking at the type of accountability that is undermined by electoral malpractice – vertical accountability. We explain what vertical accountability is, how elections provide it, and the importance of elections and electoral systems in a democracy. The chapter then examines how executives (and the ruling party) weaken vertical accountability by engaging in different types of electoral malpractice, such as manipulating the rules governing elections and voting, the ease of voting, the choices voters have, how people vote and the administration of voting (Schedler, 2002; Birch, 2008; Van Ham and Lindberg, 2016). Generally speaking, electoral manipulation is more common in grey-zone regimes that have weaker accountability mechanisms in other areas as well.

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More recent literature on democratic backsliding has shown increasing concern over executive aggrandizement. In the past, the process of undermining institutional checks and balances took place rapidly as the result of military coups.1 Since the Cold War ended, the risk of coups has decreased, while the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the executive is the biggest threat to democratic stability (Svolik, 2015). As this chapter will explain, democratic backsliding takes place because of the executive’s strategic manipulation of laws that weaken checks on executive power. This occurs in a piecemeal fashion, through a series of changes that usually happen within the confines of the law and which may seem innocuous in isolation. The leadership then gradually modifies governing institutions in ways that insulate them from any challenges.

The chapter begins by explaining what horizontal accountability is and how legislative, judicial and administrative institutions are important in a democracy. It then clarifies how these institutions are weakened, both at the direction of the executive and because of their own inherent vulnerability. Eliminating checks on executive power is a clear marker of democratic backsliding (Huq and Ginsberg, 2017). The chapter details the discrete changes to formal and informal institutions and procedures that undermine the rule of law and accountability (Lust and Waldner, 2015). It also explains one of the key preconditions for autocratization – weak rule of law. Newer democracies often lack strong rule of law as a foundation, but we are also seeing rule of law erode in more consolidated democracies, well before autocratic power grabs have taken place.

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Although it is common for media freedoms and civil liberties to come under attack in autocracies, these practice have become more prevalent in democracies as well. Many countries around the globe have seen freedom of expression and of the media deteriorate. The pervasiveness of declining media freedom in democratic settings is highlighted by Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report (Dunham, 2017, 3), which found that ‘press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, driven by unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies’. Studies have also pointed to civil society coming under particular attack from 2006 to 2016 (Mechkova et al, 2017). This chapter explains how regimes looking to expand executive control seek to undermine media freedom and civil society. Incumbent regimes do so in order to minimize these institutions’ ability to expose anti-democratic behaviour and to amplify narratives that support their own efforts to consolidate control.

This chapter explains how regimes looking to expand executive control are vilifying civil society and the media, and provides examples of this. It argues that this process degrades citizens’ rights and engagement with the state, which makes it more difficult for citizens to access accurate information about their governments (Bermeo, 2016). Unfortunately, it has been easier to delegitimize the media because of its self-inflicted wounds. The media in many democracies has become increasingly sensationalist and polarizing, and thus less trustworthy (Newton, 2017). Before doing so, we look at what how the media and civil society can provide discursive and diagonal accountability.

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Since the 2010s we have seen a rise in authoritarian populism, a style of political leadership and political force that has generated new challenges for democracy (Norris and Inglehart, 2019). Previous chapters explained how the perception of rising levels of corruption, unemployment, inequality and migration have caused citizens in democracies to be concerned that the world is in crisis. This is where populist authoritarianism comes in. The rhetoric of populist authoritarian leadership claims that democratic institutions and freedoms are what is standing in the way of resolving crises. Though populist leaders do not usually directly attack democracy, they delegitimize the institutions of accountability (see Chapters 9, 10 and 11).

This chapter explains the concept of authoritarian populism (both left- and right-wing) and explores the role of populist leaders in shaping authoritarian narratives and fostering polarizing environments on which they can capitalize. This chapter begins by outlining the strength of populism around the world. Since the 1980s, populist parties have gained a sizable vote share in Western Europe and the Americas by tapping into fears of immigration, xenophobia and corruption. We then define what populism is and explain how populist leaders activate populist attitudes. After doing so, the chapter lays out the arguments for why populism is at odds with liberal democracy. We conclude by looking at populism in Latin America and Africa – exploring the prevalence of populist styles of leadership in Latin America and their relative absence in Africa.

In 2012, José Manuel Barroso head of the European Commission (2004–2014) claimed his biggest concern was the rise of populist movements in Europe (Stavrakakis and Katsambekis, 2014).

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This book began with the premise that the optimism about the state of democracy that characterized the end of the Cold War is over. Instead of seeing a steady rise of democracy across the globe, the level democracy has not advanced since 2006. This democratic slump has generated widespread concerns among analysts and policy-makers over the current trajectory of democracy around the world. The book sought to answer the question of why this is the case and the processes by which democracies are falling apart. To do so, it has covered a large body of research on democratic backsliding and authoritarian resurgence within the context of contemporary global political and economic dynamics.

In spite of this gloomy picture, the historical record demonstrates that democratic development has experienced many ups and downs, and nowhere is that more evident than in the late 2010s. As the previous chapter explained, 2019 was the year of the protest. There were over sixty protest movements worldwide in autocracies and democracies alike, against autocratization. Varieties of Democracy reported that 2019 had the highest global average of pro-democracy protests of all time, with higher levels of mobilization than even during the fall of the Soviet Union or the Arab Spring (Lührmann et al, 2019). These protests are promising signs for the future of democracy. But just as mobilization efforts were spreading around the globe, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic (for more on this see Box C.1). This initially stalled protests efforts in the spring of 2020, but by late May the US was seeing some of the largest and most prolonged protests in recent history over police brutality against African Americans and other systemic injustices.

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Transparency International (2018), a noted non-governmental organization focused on rooting out corruption, states that the failure to curb corruption is contributing to the worldwide crisis of democracy. Only twenty countries have improved their corruption levels, while the rest have either stagnated or worsened since 2012. According to managing director Patricia Moreira ‘With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies – we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights’.

This chapter examines how corruption undermines democracy. Many studies argue that high levels of corruption are a sign of democratic decay, but what are the ways in which corruption drives democratic erosion? Corruption is an oft cited reason for coups (Hiroi and Omori, 2013) and revolutions (Tucker, 2007), but there is less scholarship that has explored the relationship between corruption and democratic decay (Hiroi and Omori, 2013). A few studies have demonstrated that high levels of corruption are harmful to democratic consolidation, because corruption affects political legitimacy (Seligson, 2002a; Warren, 2004). Corruption affects a country’s political culture, leading to low levels of trust in public institutions, which has a severe impact on the commitment to civic activity and collective projects (Doig and Theobald, 2000). For example, the level of political corruption in Nigeria has affected its political culture substantially. There is decreasing confidence and trust in the state’s ability to organize free and fair elections and be accountable to its citizens (Ogundiya, 2010; Basiru, 2018). Rising corruption also creates fertile ground for the emergence of messianic styles of leadership that can ‘save’ the public from corrupt elites of the past.

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Why do democracies fall apart, and what can be done about it?

This book introduces students to the concept and causes of democratic decay in the modern world. Illustrating the integral link between public commitment to democratic norms and the maintenance of healthy democracies, it examines the key factors in decaying democracies, including:

• Economic inequality;

• Corruption;

• Populist and authoritarian discourse;

• Declining belief in political institutions and processes.

Drawing on real-world developments, and including international case studies, the book outlines the extent to which there is a ‘democratic recession’ in contemporary politics and shows how transnational networks and technology are impacting on this development.

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The most recent wave of democratization has resulted in a proliferation of regimes that are neither fully democratic nor classically authoritarian. While there are fewer and fewer traditional authoritarian regimes, there are also fewer consolidated democracies. Most regimes are defying these binary categories and exhibiting a wide range of democratic and autocratic characteristics. Generally speaking, regimes that fall in the grey zone can be grouped into two categories: authoritarian regimes with democratic attributes, and democratic regimes with defective institutions and practices (Kendall-Taylor et al, 2019).

In contrast to past scholarship, it is now accepted that grey-zone regimes are not regimes in transit, but are a distinct type of political system (Bogaards, 2009; Levitsky and Way, 2010; Kendall-Taylor et al, 2019). After the Cold War ended, it was assumed that countries that experienced authoritarian breakdown would eventually become consolidated liberal democracies. But many countries failed to meet this expectation, and instead became stuck in the middle. Rather than leading to democracy, authoritarian collapse led to different forms of non-democratic rule that have been surprisingly durable.

This chapter first provides an overview of the different types of regimes that dot the landscape. We explain how these regimes in the grey zone operate and what differentiates them from democratic and authoritarian regimes. We also clarify that while most regimes around the world hold elections, this has led to new forms of authoritarianism, rather than efforts by authoritarian regimes to liberalize. We explain why that is the case, and how these regimes use democratic institutions to prolong their rule.

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