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This text was written by Justine McGahan, Intern at RWI.
Between the 7th and the 9th of December 2022, Raoul Wallenberg Institute in collaboration with Altitude Meetings organised Sweden’s first-ever Human Rights Festival, in Lund.
The theme of the festival was ‘Backsliding democracy’, and includes different activities, ranging from lectures, exhibitions, and a human rights film festival. The programme also included the third edition of Raoul Wallenberg Talks, a series of talks on current challenges in International Human Rights and Humanitarian law.
Keeping with the theme of the festival, the keynote speaker was Martin Lundstedt, representing V-Dem Institute, which is currently conducting the world’s largest democracy research project.
In his talk titled: ‘Bye bye democracy – all you need to know about the global decline of democracy’, Martin Lundstedt, exposed the trends of global backsliding democracy and autocratisation.
‘Autocratisation or democratic backsliding, is essentially a process through which a country becomes less democratic.’
The discussions were introduced through the contrasting the global ‘democratic boom’ which occurred between the 1970s and 2010s, and current trends of increasing challenges to democracy.
Such challenges manifest themselves in the form of the limitation of fundamental freedoms including freedom of expression and association. Furthermore, this limitation of rights is associated with increasing political polarisation, due in part to growing disinformation used, notably, for purposes of demonisation of opponents and discrediting of democratic parties and institutions.
Using data collected and analysed by V-Dem, Martin Lundstedt highlighted patterns in the decline of democracy. As of 2021, only 3% of the world population lived in countries that were experiencing increasing democratisation. In contrast, 36% of the world population are currently experiencing democratic decline.
Martin Lundstedt emphasised that democratic backsliding is a gradual process. Using Hungary as an example, it was shown the shift from democracy to autocracy is in fact very slow. In Hungary the process started with the repression of media outlet and civil society, meaning that now very difficult to critic the regime. The slow response by the EU despite the process taking up to 10 years means that it is now pretty much impossible for Orban to lose an election.
Hungary serves as a good example of the process of autocratisation and the patterns highlighted in V-Dem’s study. The process starts in a context of discontent. If it is very difficult to generalise where the discontent comes from; inequalities, social media and disinformation are the ones that come back the most frequently. This period of discontent is the perfect time for political outsiders and populist parties to increase their levels of support and influence. As the capitalise on popular discontent by starting a process of blaming mainstream parties and democratic institutions, increasing polarisation.
Arriving into positions of power, the populist parties are able to continue undermining institutions and contribute to the backsliding of democracy.
‘they try to control media and civil society first so that that stands unchallenged. And that’s the way of legitimising further infringements on democracy’.
Once there is no more possibility to challenge the actions of the anti-democratic power, the final step consists in undermining the electoral process. In countries such as Hungary and Turkey, electoral autonomy is more or less non-existent and it is very hard to save democracy if the elections are controlled.
This process contrasts with the common association of the fall of democracy with a singular action such as a coup or external intervention. Martin Lundstedt instead demonstrated that democratic backsliding is a process of steady and consistent undermining of democratic institutions and values.
‘If the fall of Rome was associated with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, now as Larry Diamond said it is as if they are crossing the Rubicon in a fog’
However, the length of the process means that it can in fact be halted:
‘This long term, gradual thing is the most common now, and you can see signs of it long before that party or that leader gets into government… there is a long time before that ends up into an autocracy, which also gives a long amount of time for people to try and do something about it.’
In this respect Martin Lundstedt offered the example of South Korea, where the engagement of civil society and media through demonstrations led to the inditement of corrupt leaders and reversing of democratic backsliding trends.
‘It’s the media and civil society who can scrutinise and they can criticise, they can especially engage the population more widely with demonstrations, how they vote in elections.’
Strong institutions also have a very important role in safeguarding democracy, through what is called horizontal accountability:
‘Parliaments and courts can be very effective in stopping, for instance, when someone proposes illegal and to term limits of how long a president should sit, which Putin has done and Erdogan has done. Trump would have wanted to do. They can stop that if they’re strong. If they’re weak, they can’t’.