Autocratization Turning Viral in Pandemic Times

Date October 19, 2021
Speaker Staffan I. LINDBERG (Professor & Director, V-Dem Institute, Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg)
Commentator ONO Yoshikuni (Faculty Fellow, RIETI / Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University)
Moderator SABURI Masataka (Director, PR Strategy, RIETI / Special Advisor to the Minister, METI)

In this lecture, Professor Lindberg presents the latest findings from the V-Dem Institute on the trends for democracy and autocracy in the world, and the effects that the Covid-19 pandemic has had for rights and freedoms.


The Rise of Autocratization

This presentation is based on three main points from the annual democracy report titled "Autocratization Turns Viral" from the V-Dem Institute, an independent research institute (

First, the share of the world population that lives in non-democracies or autocracies has risen dramatically in the last 10 years. Now, two-thirds of the world population live in autocracies. The liberal democracy index graph from V-Dem shows the average level of democracy in the world and in different world regions. The data points in the graph were determined by dividing the level of democracy in each country by the number of countries. Examining the data of the last 10 years, downward trends in the liberal democracy index are much more pronounced in the world as a whole and in the different regions. It is evident that the level of democracy that the average global citizens have today is at levels similar to around 1989, or the end of the Cold War. All advances that we made in the world after the end of the Cold War on a global scale have been eradicated.

V-Dem has also compiled data on the regimes of the world and countries divided into regime categories, such as closed and electoral autocracies, and electoral and liberal democracies. The trend of the last 10 years shows closed autocracies almost disappearing, and then increasing again; and liberal democracies are in a sharp decline. The most common form of regime type in the world is electoral autocracies, where multiparty elections are held to try to look like democracies, but they are not. Examples of electoral autocracies are Turkey and Belarus. Together, closed and electoral autocracies account for 68% of the world population.

To sum up the first main point, the level of democracy now has decreased to a similar level to that in 1989, and electoral autocracy is the most common regime type together with closed autocracy. Also, two-thirds of the world's population live in non-democracies.

Second, let's look at countries that are changing by either autocratizing or democratizing, which does not include the countries that are consistently autocracies like China, or consistent democracies. The share of the world population living in countries with declining levels of democracy or that are in an episode of autocratization is now over one-third. V-Dem has compiled data showing the number of countries which are autocratizing and democratizing. The number of democratizing countries peaked after the collapse of the Soviet Union and up through the ‘90s with 72 counties. However, it has fallen to its current number of 16 countries which make up 4% of the world population. Meanwhile, the number of autocracies has been increasing since around 2000 when President Putin became the de facto leader of Russia. This radical decline in the number of countries democratizing and increase in the number of countries autocratizing has really occurred in the last 20 years, which is concerning, because in a long-term study of this process, in almost 80% of cases where democracies undergo any autocratization, there is an eventual breakdown of democracy. The statistical probability that the countries that are now autocratizing would be able to stay democracies is very slim. Additionally, there are many large, important countries that are significant in the global context, that are autocratizing, such as the United States, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, India, and the Philippines. Of the 10 most highly autocratized countries in the last 20 years, 9 of them were democracies when the period began and now 7 of them are fully categorized as autocracies.

Autocratization starts with attacks on the freedom of the media, the government's censorship efforts of the media, repression of civil society, the spread of false information by the government, declining respect for counterarguments, and increasing polarization in society. Then, more formal institutions are attacked, such as the freeness and fairness of elections.

In summary of the second point, the current third wave of autocratization is accelerating and autocratization typically follows a similar pattern, and now includes India, which was previously the world's largest democracy.

Third, the threat to freedom of expression, including media freedom, is the area that has been affected the most in the last 10 years, which is worrying, because it is often the first area where autocratization occurs. Among the aspects of democracy that have been included in this index, a few have improved in more countries than have degraded, but in the majority the opposite is true, and this is especially true for freedom of expression, which has degraded in 32 countries, while improving in only 12. Freedom of expression itself includes about 15 indicator, of which more than 50% have declined more than all other democracy indicators in the last 10 years which includes the worst indicator, the repression of civil society which has been getting worse in 50 countries in the last 10 years.

To summarize the third point, the threats to freedom of expression and freedom of civil society are intensifying and many more countries have started to autocratize.

Since the pandemic started, V-Dem has done a special data collection called "Pandemic Backsliding: A Year of Violations and Advances in Response to COVID-19," looking at countries that violate the international norms about what governments are allowed to do in response to such a crisis. Seven indicators were used to capture data related to illiberal practices and authoritarian practices. The worst levels of violations occurred in the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. Unfortunately, there are a number of countries using the pandemic to further autocratize. Comparing the different types of violations, restrictions on media freedom have the most violations, and some leaders, such as President Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Orban of Hungary, sought to justify these violations as measures instituted in order to fight the pandemic.

V-Dem also made efforts to find a correlation between sacrificing democracy and preventing COVID deaths. It found that there is no relationship between severe measures in terms of violating international norms and lower death rates from COVID.


ONO Yoshikuni:
Why is the trend of declining democracies and increasing autocracies occurring, and can you talk more about the V-Dem project, particularly about indices created from the project?

Staffan I. LINDBERG:
The V-Dem project was started in 2010, bringing together a large group of scholars that were experts on democracy and democratization, and different parts of the world. We built up a network of what we call "regional managers professors" in other countries, including in Japan. For East Asia, it is Prof. Yoko Katsuya at Keio University. In the Philippines, it is Prof. Julio Teehankee at De La Salle University, etc. Eventually, the network grew into over 3,500 scholars and other experts.

About half of the 473 indicators that we measure are factual measures. For example, how many political parties do you have in parliament? What does the legislation say about the powers of the legislature to provide checks and balances? The many things that we need to know about, such as to what extent there is democracy in a country, do not show in those factual indicators. We need to have factual indicators, but they are not enough. For example, the legislatures in Belarus or in the Philippines have the same powers of providing checks and balances over the executive branch as we do in Sweden. However, the key question is, do they use it? For example, considering media freedom and harassment of journalists, we could count how many journalists are being harassed, thrown in jail, or killed, which is a factual measure. However, it is not a good measure, because the number is zero most of the time, for example, in Sweden. However, it is also zero in North Korea because no one publishes anything there that could be a risk. Therefore, with this empirical equivalence, the factual measure shows that North Korea has perfect media freedom because no journalists are being harassed.

What we really want to know is if a journalist criticizes the government, what is the probability that the journalist will be harassed or thrown in jail? The probability is about 100% in North Korea and close to zero in Sweden. The 3,500 country experts are helping us to code these indicators in this way. It is something we have developed over 10 years, and the data was first released in the public sphere in January 2016. Since then, we have done annual updates and started to produce these democracy reports as well. It is an enormous international collaboration, and the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg is the headquarters for all this. Our data is being used widely now, for example, by the World Bank, the European Commission, the European Union, and USAID.

Regarding the future, if we extrapolate these trends, it is going to get worse. There is nothing suggesting that this trend will reverse anytime soon. As with other global trends, when something starts happening, especially involving large, influential countries, other countries tend to follow suit.

ONO Yoshikuni:
I am helping code and create indices, and they are useful especially for social scientists in Japan. I agree that the autocratization trend seems pessimistic. It is hard to expect that the trend will change anytime soon. As a political scientist, I also do not know how autocratization can be changed. We still do not know what causes autocratization, and what causes many countries and many people to pick autocracy rather than democracy.


What is the value of democracy? According to Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous American democracy expert, "Democracy does not give its nation the most skillful administration, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create:: namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable the circumstances may be, produce wonders. Therein lies its real advantage." According to this question, the point of democracy is the freedom of expression and freedom itself, but some kind of activities and energy in society would be important. Do you have any comments about the value of democracy?

Staffan I. LINDBERG:
Three points are important. First, democracy is the only known system in a modern state that ensures human dignity in terms of having a say regarding the conditions under which you will live. That leads to the second point. Some people believe that having a good dictator that can produce good things for the people is better. Good dictators can happen, but they are very rare. Betting on getting a good dictator is risky because if the dictator ends up being bad, it is very difficult to get a new dictator. Looking at the world history of autocracies, ending up like China under Mao is likely, and actually the model outcome for dictatorships. The third is that democracy has dividends. The V-Dem Institute has been gathering data and analyzing if democracy has dividends in terms of economic development. Democracies have a higher growth rate than dictatorships. They are also much less susceptible to severe economic crises. It has been shown that countries that democratize increase the GDP per capita growth by 20% compared to those that do not democratize. Also, in the area of human health and human development, the evidence is abundant and very clear; Democracies are much better at lowering infant mortality. Shifting from the worst type of dictatorship to the best type of democracy, on average, is associated with a 94% reduction in infant mortality. The evidence is also very clear that life expectancy goes up when countries democratize, and when they autocratize, it goes down.

We have known since long ago that democracies do not fight wars with each other. Also, evidence shows that with domestic conflict, civil war, and lower-scale types of domestic violence, democracies are much better. Therefore, democracy has dividends. Also, when it comes to climate change, the latest studies have shown that democracies' commitment to climate change mitigation is equal to a lowering of the climate change equivalent to 1.4 degrees, which is significant. If we are going to be able to do something about climate change, then we need democracies, and this wave of autocratization is going to mean worse climate change. It is going to mean more domestic conflict and interstate wars. It is going to mean lower economic development. It is going to mean lower human development, more children dying as infants, more mothers dying giving birth, and a lower life expectancy in general. Democracy is valuable for both its intrinsic reasons and for its ability to correct when political leadership does bad things. On a host of important outcomes, democracy has dividends, so democracy is valuable in several ways.

What should we citizens do? As citizens, what points should we be careful of and watch out for in social phenomena or leadership?

Staffan I. LINDBERG:
For a country like Japan, which is a democracy, and looking at the domestic situation, it is very important to be aware that autocratization typically starts with attacks and undermining freedom of expression, especially the media. The kinds of threats we are measuring mostly are threats exercised by governments, but we also know that in today's world, with social media, different types of extremist groups, and conspiracy theories, there are also threats coming from other quarters than the government. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant about if and when there are threats to freedom of expression that start to materialize, and that we seek to counter them and protect freedom of expression.

ONO Yoshikuni:
In Japan, people often see attacks on media from the government or governing parties recently. Japan is currently facing a very fragile situation. Populism is not thriving in Japan yet, but in many other countries, the voters are very enthusiastic, such as in the U.S. Many voters support populist politicians, which is shocking. Why are people very enthusiastic about supporting populism and populist candidates in elections? The starting point comes from the media. We have to be very cautious about this trend, which partly comes from the internet, social media, and especially young people these days. In the case of Japan, for example, many young Japanese people do not read newspapers, and news consumption is usually coming from unreliable sources on the internet, so young people tend to be more critical of the media and say that the mass media often distributes fake news and information to the public. This has become a trend in Japan that is also very concerning.

Staffan I. LINDBERG:
It is very worrying to hear that the freedom of the media is also under some level of attack in Japan. It is something to be concerned about, and it should be discussed in the public sphere. I think we are facing a dilemma today that is a parallel to what the world was facing after World War II. After World War II, especially in Europe with the experience with the Nazis, the dilemma was how to constrain and regulate freedom of association to prevent parties like the Nazi party in Germany from forming and existing, in order to preserve freedom of association. In other words, restrict freedom of association in order to preserve and guard it. I think we are facing the same dilemma now with the freedom of expression. It needs to be regulated. It needs to be constrained on the internet and in social media in order to protect it, which is a very difficult dilemma, but it is something the world needs to figure out. I do not have the solution, but it is a real, long-term threat to democracy.

ONO Yoshikuni:
Thank you, Prof. LINDBERG, and I hope to invite you to Japan soon to discuss more on this important issue.

SABURI Masataka:
In Japan, there is a threat of punishment because of bullying incidents on social media, so we have to be careful of such actions. Your activities over six continents, 50 social scientists, and 3,500 country experts are amazing achievements. Political scientist Daniel Hildebush described V-Dem as "the most important provider of quantitative democratic data for academic research." As a research institute, we are very grateful for your contribution as a public goods provider. Economists know that the GDP is one of the best inventions of the 20th century because we can measure the economy, and if you can measure something, you can improve it. Now, thanks to your contribution, we can measure democracy, and if we can measure it, we can improve it.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.