Telltale Signs of Democratic Backsliding
The process is often hard to detect, so how can we tell if it’s likely or already underway?
Democratic constitutions are typically designed to ensure restrained executives, but lately, some are failing to prevent strongman rule. Democratically elected executives in many constitutional democracies have managed to turn themselves into quasi-dictators. How can we tell if a given democracy is likely to experience this undemocratic fate?
One challenge in the study of democratic backsliding is that, in the early stages, it is not easy for voters, or even analysts, to discern if backsliding is happening or is likely to succeed. Often, the reason for the confusion is that backsliding, like aging, occurs gradually and piecemeal, rather than abruptly or violently. Backsliding executives do not abolish all democratic institutions and freedoms at once. Instead, they eliminate or distort them one piece at a time, often covertly.
In addition, backsliding executives sometimes camouflage their assaults on institutions with people-pleasing measures. For instance, backsliders have been known to launch anti-corruption campaigns (Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines), to rail against plutocrats and elites (Viktor Orbán in Hungary), to give rights to non-dominant groups (Evo Morales in Bolivia), to subsidize losers from trade or trade wars (Donald Trump in the United States), to create new health clinics (Hugo Chávez in Venezuela), to increase social spending (Narendra Modi in India), to build new mosques (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey), or to promise to fight crime (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil).
Illiberal executives often take these crowd-pleasing measures while simultaneously eroding checks and balances and launching attacks on the press, dissidents, and non-governmental organizations. Voters may focus less on backsliding because they welcome these other policies. The process of backsliding is thus often imbued with ambiguity, at least at first.
So how can we tell whether a country is likely to experience, or already is experiencing, democratic backsliding? Fortunately, enough research has been done to help us identify key telltale signs—two that indicate that backsliding is likely to happen, and two that indicate it’s already underway.
Signs that Backsliding is Likely to Happen
Sign #1: Preexisting Stresses and the Three “I”s
Democratic backsliding is more likely in democracies with preexisting stresses. Of course, what exactly constitutes a democracy-threatening stress is difficult to pinpoint. But we have some clues. Most of the scholarship on democratic backsliding points to three stresses that I call the three “I”s: inequality, insecurity, and incapacity. Each of these stresses increases the chance of backsliding on its own, and even more so if they occur in tandem.
Inequality refers to pronounced forms of skewed wealth distributions. Rising inequality could result from a sudden economic crisis or long-term asymmetry of economic gains between different wealth groups. Among the dispossessed, wealth inequality produces anger and a strong anti-status quo sentiment; among elites, it produces excessive conservatism. This is one reason why the earliest forms of backsliding occurred in Latin America, a region known as one of the most unequal and, until the 2000s, most prone to financial crises.
The second stress is insecurity. Understood broadly, insecurity is the rise of a self-perceived in-group that begins to feel threatened by some out-group. This out-group can be of any kind: immigrants, criminal gangs, advocates of cultural change, foreign economic competitors, technocrats, even viruses. Since insecurity is, to some extent, a matter of perception, the threat that the in-group feels is often inflated and untethered from reality.
The third stress is incapacity, meaning the inability of the existing political system to address the concerns of the time. In democracies where there is policy paralysis and an inability to address pressing issues, voters develop a sense of impatience or disappointment even with politicians with whom they are ideologically aligned. System incapacity can result from any number of structural problems including legislative gridlock, bureaucratic incompetence, and systematic corruption.
These three stresses are the fundamental preambles to democratic backsliding. Each of them can be exploited and harnessed by power-hungry and illiberal executives looking to tear down institutional guardrails. They fuel anti-systemic political movements and leaders that adopt the conventional binary populist discourse—we are here to defend the “people” against the “enemies of the people.” Their electoral platform calls not only for bringing in new actors with bold ideas but also for displacing traditional politicians and institutions. In Latin America, where these sentiments have been strong since the late 1990s, the typical refrain has been “out with them all” (que se vayan todos). In short, these movements promise a clean sweep of the political system. If elected, their leaders are well poised to carry out the kind of institutional overhaul that can result in backsliding.
Sign #2: Asymmetrical Party System Fragmentation
Of course, underlying stresses are not deterministic. Many democracies can live with stresses and still coast for years without becoming dictatorships. For backsliding to happen, countries need to experience collapses in the institutional architecture that typically sustains democracy. One such institution is the one that regulates government-opposition interactions: the party system.
In democracies, the opposition plays a role in vetoing or slowing down the party in power. Therefore illiberal leaders must find a way to bypass opposition resistance. The one factor that best predicts whether illiberal executives will succeed in this endeavor is asymmetrical party system fragmentation, or APSF.
APSF refers to a situation in which the ruling party acquires electoral dominance and unity while the opposition becomes either electorally weak or, more typically, broken into small parties. Once this asymmetry is in place, it becomes virtually impossible for the opposition to stop the executive. The executive’s party acts as a rubber stamp, and the opposition cannot mount any serious resistance. Thus, backsliding becomes hard to stop.
Examples of ASPF facilitating backsliding are plenty: In Belarus (1994), Peru (1995), Venezuela (1998), Russia (2000), Ecuador (2006), India (2014), Turkey (2014), and Brazil (2018), backsliding began after illiberal presidents beat out the second-place candidate by 10 percentage points or more. In Serbia, backsliding accelerated when the ruling party won the 2017 election with a 38 point percentage advantage. And just last year, El Salvador's president took unprecedented autocratic steps after a midterm victory in which his party won with more than 54 percentage point difference from the main opposition party, and all parties of the opposition were decimated. There are some important exceptions: In Poland and the Philippines, for instance, backsliding began under party system symmetry. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that APSF does a great deal to create the conditions for backsliding.
Of course, parties are not the only actors who can resist backsliding. Civil society groups, professional associations, religious authorities, and even the press can resist. But because these actors do not control the legislative branch or other elected offices, their resistance may not be enough to stop the executive.
Signs that Backsliding is Already Underway
Sign #1: Autocratic Legalism
Once the preexisting stresses and APSF are in place, the first stage of democratic backsliding is autocratic legalism. This is when the executive uses, abuses, and bypasses the law to pass their agenda and entrench their power.
Autocratic legalism involves a complete overhaul of a democracy’s judicial and law enforcement apparatus. Both must be filled with party loyalists, even if that means depleting them of professionals. To achieve this overhaul, illiberal leaders often try to rewrite constitutions to grant themselves more powers of appointment to the courts and law enforcement bureaucracies. This too usually happens in camouflage, with executives introducing some seemingly democratic improvement to the constitution, while simultaneously granting themselves more powers to staff the bureaucracy and courts. Other times, executives simply leave the constitution alone and rely on existing or new laws to give themselves stronger powers to fire and replace civil servants. The particular mechanism used is less important than the ultimate goal: to use the legal system to crush resistance and concentrate power.
As an executive gains more power over law enforcement and the judiciary, they are able to punish their opposition by ensnaring them in imbroglios with the law. In Russia, one of Putin’s main opponents, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from running for office, publicly harassed, and was eventually jailed, all based on questionable accusations of embezzlement. The press can also be a typical target. Ecuador’s semi-authoritarian former president Rafael Correa became famous worldwide for invoking self-serving libel laws and regulatory technicalities to sue the top editors of one of the country's main newspapers, El Universo, and shutting down a number of radio stations.
The longer a particular executive governs, the more time they have to populate the courts and the bureaucracies with loyalists. Time in office is therefore conducive for deeper autocratic legalism. That is why eliminating term limits is a key part of democratic backsliding: with more time in office, leaders will have the opportunity to increasingly entrench their power as they make more judicial and political appointments and thus expand autocratic legalism.
Sign #2: Control of Electoral Authorities
The second telltale sign that democratic backsliding is underway is the capture of the electoral apparatus. In contemporary forms of backsliding, unlike traditional forms of autocratization, elections never fully disappear. Modern-day quasi-dictators still compete in elections, but those elections are not free or far, and the rules are stacked against opponents.
All illiberal executives will face rising discontent at one point or another. Democracy defenders will eventually notice and reject the expansion of autocratic practices. Others become appalled by rising incompetence. Because backsliding involves imbuing the bureaucracy with loyalism rather than merit, the quality of public policy tends to decay, sooner or later. As the quality of public administration decays, so will the electoral support for illiberal presidents.
Backsliding executives will thus face electoral revolts and must be ready to meet that challenge. And the way to do so is to capture the bodies in charge of enacting and enforcing electoral regulations. The aim of this type of institutional capturing is the same as with autocratic legalism: ensure that rules and their enforcement favor the ruling party and hurt the opposition.
Typically, prior to an election, captured electoral bodies become strict enforcers of campaign finance rules, but only toward the opposition. They will fine opposition parties heavily for violating minor rules. They may even disqualify candidates for legal issues or technicalities.
All the while, they allow the ruling party to get away with similar or worse infractions. They will create restrictions on voting rights, tinker with voting registries and voting districts, manipulate the timing of the election, and even restrict when and how much time opposition parties can be on television campaigning. After the election, these electoral bodies, which are often in charge of auditing results, tend to be less stringent when cross-checking results that favor the ruling party—or simply neglect to audit them at all.
In the United States, for example, shortly after its defeat in the 2020 presidential elections, the Republican Party began a concerted effort to introduce laws to restrict voting access for presidential elections in 18 states where they are in control of voting regulation.
The rise of electoral irregularities and voting restrictions delivers a double blow to the opposition. On the one hand, it creates real obstacles for opposition politicians to campaign freely and build their base of support. On the other, it dissuades opposition voters from wanting to vote because they realize that the system is rigged or cumbersome, so why bother.
Obviously, not all democracies experience democratic backsliding, and not all forms of backsliding become excessively autocratic. Sometimes, illiberal executives come to office, and the system contains them. But other times, the institutional levees fail. Fortunately, telltale signs exist to help us understand whether levees will be put to a test and prevail.
A democracy strained by inequality, insecurity, or incapacity is always at risk of backsliding. But more is needed. An illiberal, anti-status quo leader must get elected. If this leader’s party or movement achieves electoral dominance while the opposition fragments, or worse, collapses, then, backsliding becomes more likely. If the executive successfully erodes the autonomy of civil service, and if the judiciary and the electoral authorities fall, the backsliding process becomes almost unstoppable, at least until the next electoral round.
Even then, elections will stop backsliding only if the opposition manages to overcome its inevitable divides. Thus, when democratic backsliding occurs, the unity of opposition forces is the best hope for a peaceful turnaround. If they fail to do so, and the executive’s party manages to take control of the judiciary and election authorities, liberal democracy inevitably falls.
Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College. His book, Autocracy Rising: How Venezuela Transitioned to Authoritarianism, will be published in 2022.