Monday, March 10, 2008

Is Democracy in Retreat ?

That’s what Larry Diamond claims in an article just published in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008), titled “The Democratic Rollback. The Resurgence of the Predatory State”.
Worrying indeed. Here is what he writes:
“… the democratic wave (1974-2005, brackets added) has been slowed by a powerful authoritarian undertow, and the world has slipped into a democratic recession. Democracy has recently been overthrown or gradually stifled in a number of key states, including Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela, and, most recently, Bangladesh and the Philippines”.
Moreover “serious problems of governance” affect Kenya, Chile, Ghana and Poland, and no progress is in view in the Arab world (except Morocco). But wait: chronically ill functioning democracies in some countries do not mean that there is a democratic “recession”. And observing no more cases of new democracies in the world is not the same thing as a “democratic rollback”. Having reached a watershed of roughly 60 percent of the world’s population and world’s Gdp, the powerful democratic wave of the last few decades seems simply stabilized, give or take a few cases. But then a fluctuating equilibrium is not a reversed trend: a few cases out of 190 + countries do not make a new trend and could be due to just “random noise” in the series.
Let’s have a look at the Freedom in the World Report 2008 (admittedly freedom is not exactly the same concept as democracy, but there is a close link) ranking countries as Free, Partly Free, and Not Free:
Number of countries
(% of countries in that year)
Year under review Free Partly Free Not Free
1977 43 (28%) 48 (31%) 64 (41%)
1987 58 (35%) 58 (34%) 51 (30%)
1997 81 (42%) 57 (30%) 53 (28%)
2007 90 (47%) 60 (31%) 43 (22%)

No broad reversal of political environment is apparent here.
Let us add that in the six cases that Diamond mentions, three (Nigeria, Russia, and Venezuela) are oil producing countries, a condition which is generally known to be inimical to democracy. Could these atypical reversals happen to result from rising oil price, a trend-free phenomenon?

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