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The Rise Of Autocracies Around The World And The Risks For Democracy

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Casper Libero chapter.

Researchers from the V-Dem Institute, at the University of Gothenburg, registered a rise in the number of autocracies around the world. Between 2010 to 2020, the percentage of the world population who lived under non-democratic regimes rose to 68%. These numbers represent a risk to democracies and alert to the third wave of autocracies, initiated in 1994. In an interview with Her Campus, Yuko Sato, Ph.D. in political science, spoke about the global situation and commented on Brazil.

Autocracy, a term originating from the Greek language, means to rule by itself, a regime based on the convictions of oneself, dented by power, that has absolute control over all governmental levels. Democracy, on the other hand, is based on the full and equal participation of all community members. In 2010, 48% of the world population lived under non-democratic regimes, in ten years this percentage rose to 68% and returned to the level observed in the early 1990s.

Yuko Sato and other researchers from the University of Gothenburg considered that, since 1994, the world has lived under a wave of autocracies. According to the report Variations of Democracy (V-Dem), this would be the third wave since 1990 (the first ones happened between 1920 and 1940, and later by the early 1960s and late 1970s). The scientist says that the current situation is very alarming and threatening. To fight this tendency, a democratic coalition needs to be strengthened. “World leaders have already rejuvenated the idea of a global coalition of democracies. The first Democracy Summit occurred in December 2021, and the second is planned for 2022. New initiatives such as Team Europe Democracy (TED) have also been launched to strengthen support for democracy. Meanwhile, the V-Dem Institute’s ‘Case for Democracy’ program distributes knowledge about the socio-economic and security benefits inherent in a more democratic world.”

About the third wave, Yuko adds: “The current wave of autocratization occurs through gradual processes in which elected officials often undermine democratic institutions (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019). This ‘undemocratic’ institutional change includes weakening (1) executive constraints or oversight mechanisms through the legislature and judiciary, or (2) the electoral management body. “Traditional” or old democracies tend to be more resistant to such patterns of democratic erosion because, for example, judicial processes require a bold procedure to amend constitutions, and society is less tolerant of autocratic attempts. But even so, an increase in support for autocratic (that is, populist, far-right or far-left) leaders in Western democracies is worrying.” During this wave, military coups were watched around the world more often, autocratic leaders used the media to increase and consolidate support through misinformation campaigns or polarization strategies.

Brazil is among the 12 countries whose democratic system is leaning towards autocracy, according to V-Dem. The other 11 nations in this status are Poland, Niger, Indonesia, Botswana, Guatemala, Tunisia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Guyana, Mauritius, and Slovenia. With the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organization that defends and conducts research on human rights, classified Brazil as a country ruled by an autocratic leader. For the organization, Bolsonaro “threatened the pillars of Brazilian democracy several times in 2021”. Among the attitudes highlighted by the NGO is the attempt to discredit the Brazilian electoral system and the threat to freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary. Police lethality, threats and attacks on indigenous peoples, and the deforestation of the Amazon were also highlighted. The executive director of HRW, Kenneth Roth, compared Bolsonaro to the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and to the president of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, considered a dictator.

Yuko Sato comments about the situation in Brazil: “As far as I can see from the data, democracy in Brazil is declining substantially, but it remains at the level of being an electoral democracy.” This is because the strength of democratic institutions is strong enough to resist Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic campaigns. For example, the autonomy and capacity of the Electoral Management of Body (Gestão Eleitoral do Organismo, EMB) are still at a very high level, and the executive’s legislative and judicial constraints have not significantly diminished after 2018. We still have to look carefully at the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections, as well as the transition of power after the elections, although, as we know from the United States, it can also produce a political tremor.” The 2021 Variations of Democracy report ranked Brazil as the fourth country which moved away the most from democracy in 2020. Countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey were also placed in the same category. The last two have already become autocracies according to the institute.

In the United States, democracy has also taken a toll. Sato says that there was a substantial decline in certain elements of American democracy during the period when Donald Trump was president (2016-2020). Among the former president’s acts is the speech on Capitol Hill, which called on protesters to invade the legislative center, and the allegation of unproven electoral fraud. For the scientist, the country remained a liberal democracy. “Some of the critical elements remain at the same level after the entry of President Biden, in 2021. This includes, for example, the index of ‘legislative restrictions on the executive’. We still need careful attention to see the trajectory of democracy in the United States.”

For the V-Dem Institute, governments are divided into four big categories: 

  • Closed Autocracies, such as China and Qatar, where there are no multi-party elections for the president of the republic or the head of the legislature;
  • Electoral autocracies, where there are elections, but they are not free or fair; 
  • Electoral democracies, such as Brazil and South Africa, with free and fair elections, despite the inequality and some minorities not having their rights protected
  • Liberal democracies, like Germany and Sweden, where rights are guaranteed for minorities and there is a functioning system of checks and balances between the Powers.

V-Dem’s conclusions, corroborated by the “Global Trends 2040 – A More Contested World” report, state that the uncertainties, pessimism, and distrust regarding the future caused by the pandemic, tend to increase what is called “political volatility”. Without citing specific countries, the document says that democracies tend to weaken due to increased political polarization and the rise of so-called “populist” alternatives. It is concluded that these regimes can bring democracy to collapse by 2040.

Victória Abreu

Casper Libero '25

Estudante de jornalismo na Cásper Líbero, pisciana curiosa, gosto de aprender e falar de tudo um pouco