Democratic Governance and the Performance of Democracy
One of the most striking features of the growth of the “third wave” of global democratic expansion that began in 1974 has been its persistence. Yet ,there are worrisome signs of a democratic rollback in the world. First, the number of democracies in the world leveled off in the mid-1990s at about 120, and has not changed dramatically since then; according to Freedom House, there were 119 electoral democracies at the beginning of 2009. Since 1995, the percentage of states that could be called electoral democracies has oscillated within a narrow margin, between about 60 and 63 percent of all the independent states of the world. Second, levels of freedom in the world, as measured by Freedom House, have been declining for three straight years, as the number of countries with deteriorating freedom scores has significantly outstripped the number with improving scores.
Third, the incidence of democratic breakdowns has been increasing in the world during this long third wave. About one of every five democracies that have existed during the third wave has been reversed. And the incidence is rising. Of the 29 breakdowns of democracy in this 35-year period, 17 (about 60 percent) have occurred just in the last decade, since the military coup that overthrew democracy in Pakistan. Many of these breakdowns have occurred in large and strategically important states, such as Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Thailand, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
Of course, these negative trends are related. When democracy is lost freedom levels decline. But beyond this, many remaining democracies have relatively poor and declining freedom scores. There is a significant correlation between the quality of democracy and the political stability, legitimacy, and progress toward consolidation of democracy. All of the democracies that have broken down since 1999 were also illiberal, and a number of them had gradually been getting more so over time (see Table 1). Fragile democracies suffer similar problems (Table 2). But these troubled and failed democracies suffer from other problems as well. Generally speaking:
They are poor. It can no longer be said that poor countries are condemned to fail if they attempt to govern themselves through democracy. But poverty does reduce the margin for error and exacerbates other problems. Not all the democratically troubled states are poor. But they have other problems.
They are poorly governed. Most of the failed and deeply troubled democracies of the world fall into the bottom third of states in the world in controlling corruption. Three are in the top 10 percent of “most corrupt.” And in addition, their states are simply not very effective. The relevant World Bank “Governance Matters” measure looks at perceptions of the quality and independence of the civil service, and of public services and policy formulation and implementation more generally. Naturally, post-conflict states like Liberia, Sierra-Leone, and East Timor are near the bottom in this category, but so are other countries on this list with feeble states that are highly personalized and politicized, including Haiti and Guinea-Bissau.
They are politically unstable, with significant levels of politically motivated violence, or a recent history of such that has not been put to rest, or a more general diffuse sense that the government is fragile and could be overthrown. Thus some of these countries have depended for their stability on the presence of international troops, or the readiness of external powers to deploy troops if necessary to prevent a renewed descent into anarchy.
They are deeply polarized on class, ethnic, or other lines of cleavage. In Africa, the cleavages run along ethnic lines. In Bolivia and Ecuador, class divisions coincide with regional ones and with a deep ethnic cleavage between the indigenous peoples and those of European descent. In Bangladesh, the source of the paralyzing cleavage lies in the enmity between the two principal parties.
Executive power is seriously abused. Several of these countries have presidents with grandiose political projects that they believe require them to concentrate and aggrandize power. In some countries it is to remake the country along populist-left policy lines, while redistributing wealth and power to the countries’ historically dispossessed indigenous majorities (and to themselves and their supporters). In others it is to establish or maintain an ethnic, family, or party hegemony. But the outcome is always some version of the same: bad governance.
This article is based on the remarks delivered by Larry Diamond at “Democracy that Delivers: An International Conference on Improving the Quality of Democratic Governance and Economic Growth,” held in Washington, DC on October 27, 2009.
Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, and codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. He has also advised the U.S. Agency for International Development (whose 2002 report, “Foreign Aid in the National Interest,” he coauthored), the World Bank, the United Nations, the State Department, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations. His book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World explores the sources of global democratic progress and stress and the future prospects of democracy.
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). CIPE grants permission to reprint, translate, and/or publish original articles from its Economic Reform Feature Service provided that (1) proper attribution is given to the original author and to CIPE and (2) CIPE is notified where the article is placed and a copy is provided to CIPE’s Washington office.
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