A Report Card on Democracy

Sunday, July 30, 2000

If the twentieth century was the century of totalitarianism, total war, genocide, and brutality, it was also the century of democracy. As Freedom House notes in its latest annual survey of freedom in the world, there was not a single country in 1900 that would qualify by today’s standards as a democracy. By 1950, only 22 of the 80 sovereign political systems in the world (28 percent) were democratic. When the third wave of global democratization began in 1974, there were 39 democracies, but the percentage of democracies in the world was about the same (27 percent). Yet by January 2000, Freedom House counted 120 democracies, the highest number and the greatest percentage (63) in the history of the world.

The Globalization of Democracy

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism at the beginning of the 1990s, democracy has been the dominant form of government in the world. By the end of 1991, half the states in the world were at least electoral democracies, and by the mid-1990s that proportion rose to three-fifths, where it has held for several years. It is not difficult to infer from this dramatic expansion a nearly universal legitimacy for democracy, a global hegemony. Indeed, in its 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department went so far as to identify democracy and human rights as a third "universal language" (along with money and the Internet). That report envisions the emerging transnational network of human rights actors (both public and private) becoming an "international civil society . . . that will support democracy worldwide and promote the standards embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The globalization of democracy is indeed one of the most historic and profound global changes of the past several decades. In its duration and scope, this global wave of democratization also stands in sharp contrast to the "second wave" of democratization, which began after the Second World War and lasted less than 20 years. That movement gave way to a "second reverse wave" in which democracy broke down in more than 20 developing countries, where military rulers and civilian autocrats brutalized human rights and the rule of law.

Remarkably, a quarter century after the inception of the third wave of democratization, there is no sign yet that the world has entered a "third reverse wave." Not only are there more democracies than ever before, there have been very few prominent democratic reversals. In fact, during the first 25 years of the third wave, there were only three blatant reversals of democracy in countries with more than 20 million people: military coups in Nigeria (1983), Sudan (1989), and Thailand (1991). The two coups that occurred in Africa (where the majority of democratic breakdowns have taken place during the third wave) happened before the third wave of democratization reached the African continent in 1991. The Thai coup was a major setback for democracy in Southeast Asia, but it did not last. In little more than a year, the country’s military leaders felt compelled to convene national elections to legitimize their rule, and their insistence on installing a nonelected army commander as prime minister triggered massive demonstrations that brought down the authoritarian project. Just 17 months after the coup, democracy was restored to Thailand with the election of the first nonmilitary prime minister since the mid-1970s.

If we understand that the military coups in Nigeria and Sudan (and in Ghana in 1981) came before the third wave reached Africa, then—prior to October 1999—democratic reversals during the third wave had been of only three types. First, there were democratic breakdowns during the 1990s in small, relatively marginal states such as Congo (Brazzaville), Gambia, Lesotho, Niger, and Sierra Leone. Second, democratic transitions (or possibilities) were reversed or aborted in countries such as Cambodia, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria, and several post-Soviet states. And, finally, democracy was mangled by elected presidents in Peru and Zambia, but in ways that preserved the framework of competitive, multiparty politics and thus at least some possibility of displacing the autocratic presidents in a future election.

In 1900 there was not a single country in the world that would qualify as a democracy by today’s standards. As of January 2000, there were 120 democracies, the highest number in the history of the world.

The October 1999 military coup in Pakistan, however, may portend a more ominous trend. For it occurred in a truly strategic country, with nuclear weapons and a long-running conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir that could at any time erupt into a major war. Pakistan’s coup also reflects three profound crises of governance that are afflicting many other big, strategic, emerging democracies in the world, such as Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico (which is not yet fully democratic), Turkey, Nigeria, and the Philippines. One crisis is a decimated rule of law, including a weak, politicized, corrupt, and ineffectual judiciary, and the absence of other workable institutions to restrain the exercise of state power and hold it accountable. A second stems from ethnic, religious, and regional divisions that the national state is incapable of managing peacefully, resulting in a rising tide of political violence and human rights violations. The third crisis is economic, stemming from the inability of a depleted, administratively corrupt, and inept state to implement the reforms that are badly needed to liberalize and privatize the economy and so encourage domestic and foreign investment.

Many of the world’s large, emerging democracies are suffering from three similar crises: a tenuous rule of law; ethnic, religious, or regional strife; and economic chaos.

The Varied States of Democracy in the World

If we look only at the aggregate picture of democracy in the world, we can be cheered. There have never been more democracies in the world, and the average level of freedom in the world is also the highest ever recorded in the Freedom House annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. However, to comprehend the true state of democracy worldwide, we need to break apart global trends.

Democracies—in the minimal sense, "electoral" democracies—share at least one broad, essential requirement: The principal positions of political power are filled through regular, free, and fair elections between competing parties, and it is possible for an incumbent government to be turned out of office in those elections. The standard for electoral democracy—what constitutes "free and fair"—is more ambiguous than is often appreciated. It could be argued that such prominent multiparty states as Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Indonesia fall—as a result of the dubious conduct of recent national elections—into a gray area that is neither clearly democratic nor clearly undemocratic, even in the minimal electoral sense. However, if we begin by accepting the Freedom House classifications, then how well is democracy doing globally?

Answering this question requires close attention to the distinction between electoral democracy and liberal democracy. The latter encompasses not only electoral competition for power but also

  • Freedom of belief, expression, organization, and demonstration
  • Protection from political terror and unjustified imprisonment
  • A rule of law under which all citizens are treated equally and due process is secure
  • Political independence and neutrality of the judiciary and of other institutions of "horizontal accountability" that check the abuse of power
  • An open, pluralistic civil society
  • Civilian control over the military

These various dimensions of democratic quality constitute a continuum, and it is hard to say exactly when a regime has sufficient freedom, pluralism, lawfulness, accountability, and institutional strength to be considered a liberal democracy.

We also need to consider how stable and firmly rooted democracies are. For political scientists, democracies are "consolidated" when all significant political elites, parties, and organizations—as well as an overwhelming majority of the mass public—are firmly committed to the democratic constitutional system and regularly comply with its rules and constraints. What is striking about the third wave of democratization has been the slow progress toward consolidation. Outside of the new democracies of Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Greece) and a few scattered others, the third-wave democracies have not taken such firm root, although they are progressing more rapidly in Central and Eastern Europe.

Global assessments of the state of democracy and freedom in the world mask big differences among groups of countries. This is clearly true with respect to the level of development. The 30 "core" countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Israel are all liberal, consolidated democracies. In fact, these core states account for the clear majority of all the liberal democracies in the world with populations over one million. Size also matters in the following respect—states with populations under one million are overwhelmingly democratic and liberal (aside from the 30 core countries, no other group of countries on average has so much political and civil freedom). Of the 41 countries with populations under one million, two-thirds are liberal democracies and almost four-fifths are democracies. However, these microstates have little scope to influence the direction of many other countries (indeed, two-thirds of them are island states that share no land border with any other country).

There are also striking differences in the distributions of regimes within regions of the world. The 15 postcommunist states of Central and Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) are moving toward the liberal democratic West in their levels of freedom; the majority of these states are now liberal democracies, and a number are progressing toward democratic consolidation. However, of the 12 non-Baltic states of the former Soviet Union, none are liberal democracies, and less than half are democracies.

Just under half of the 26 states of Asia (East, Southeast, and South) are democracies, and only 3 are liberal democracies, but we see the effect of size when we compare this group with the 11 Pacific island states, which are mainly liberal democracies. Similarly, while nearly half the states of Latin America and the Caribbean are liberal democracies, these are mainly clustered in the Caribbean region. Only 4 of the 12 South American states are liberal democracies. Liberal democracy is scarcely present (10 percent) among the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa (and the liberal democracies of Africa are also disproportionately microstates), but at least a third are now electoral democracies, a much greater figure than just a decade ago.

By contrast, there is not a single Arab democracy, nor is there a single majority-Muslim country that is a liberal democracy. By my count, only 12 percent of the states with predominantly Muslim populations are even electoral democracies. (As the table indicates, I believe that Freedom House counts as democracies several states whose elections have been too flawed to meet the standard.)

Democracy and Liberal Democracy by Region and Cultural Grouping, 1999–2000
Region Number of Countries Number of Democracies (percent) Number of Liberal Democracies (percent)
Western Europe and Anglophone states 28 28 (100%) 28 (100%)
Latin America and Caribbean 33 29 (88) 16 (48)
   South America 12 11 (92) 4 (33)
Eastern and Central Europe and Baltic states 15 14 (93) 9 (60)
Former Soviet Union (less Baltics) 12 5
Asia (East, Southeast, South) 26 12 (46) 3 (12)
Pacific islands 11 10 (91) 9 (82)
Africa (sub-Saharan) 28 20
5 (10)
Middle East and North Africa 19 2 (11) 1 (5)
Total 192 120
71 (37)
Arab countries 16 0   0  
Predominately Muslim countries 41 8

Source: 1999 Freedom House survey; Journal of Democracy 11, no. 1 (January 2000).

* Indicates a regime classification of the author that differs from that of Freedom House. Freedom House rates Djibouti, the Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Niger, and Sierra Leone as electoral democracies. I consider all five to have levels of coercion and fraud that make the electoral process less than free and fair. Other countries rated as electoral democracies have only dubiously democratic elections, including Russia, Nigeria, and Indonesia.

Varied Progress toward Consolidation

If we set aside the core states and the microstates, strikingly few other democracies are clearly "consolidated." Among the longer-standing democracies in the developing world, one could count as consolidated India (with all its troubles), Costa Rica, Mauritius, and Botswana. Venezuela and Colombia were both considered consolidated democracies in the 1970s and ’80s but have become destabilized and seriously threatened during the 1990s by economic mismanagement, corruption, and state decay—as established parties and politicians grew complacent and distant from popular concerns. Indeed, the entire Andean region of South America now suffers from a deep crisis of governance, sharply eroding the authority and capacity of the state and public confidence in democratic institutions. Like Colombia, Sri Lanka’s long-established democracy has also sunk into illiberal and unstable status as a result of protracted internal violence, in this case an ethnic civil war. In South America, only Uruguay shows the levels of both elite and popular commitment to democracy that mark consolidation, though the recent presidential elections in both Argentina and Chile (as well as the growing readiness of Chile to confront the crimes of its authoritarian past) indicate progress toward consolidation.

There are dozens of struggling and recently established democracies in the world that have yet to achieve the deep and enduring levels of public and elite legitimacy that signal consolidation. The most common reasons for failure relate to the three crises of governance mentioned earlier: legal, ethnic, and economic. It is too often forgotten that the challenge of building democracy heavily overlaps with that of building the authority and capacity of a viable but restrained state. Whether this broad challenge can be effectively addressed—especially through legal, institutional, and economic reforms of the state’s structure and role—will determine whether democracy continues to prosper in the world or instead gives way to a "third reverse wave" of democratic breakdowns.