Democracy and Authoritarianism in MENA Political Regimes from the Perspective of Comparative Area Studies
A rich and intense debate has arisen in the comparative literature about a global trend of democratic decline and an increase of authoritarianism in the 21st century. Nevertheless, there is no consensus on the concepts to refer to these phenomena, their empirical referents and the scope of these processes.
Thus, disagreement among scholars has primarily conceptual and methodological origins. Regarding democratic setbacks, different concepts have been coined to refer to the loss of democratic traits in democracies: “democratic recession” (Diamond 2015); “democratic regression” (Erdmann and Kneur 2011; Diamond 2020); “democratic backsliding” (Bermeo 2016; Mechkova, Lührmann, and Lindberg 2017; Norris 2017; Waldner and Lust 2018); and “democratic rollback” (Diamond 2008; Merkel 2010). Nevertheless, some authors have questioned a genuine decline of democracy (Levitsky and Way 2015; Bermeo 2016; Carothers and Youngs 2017; Skaaning and Jiménez 2017).
On the other hand, Lührmann and Lindberg (2019) have posited a “third wave of autocratization” which would be under way since 1994. They use a broad concept of autocratization which include three processes: “democratic recession” to denote autocratization processes taking place within democracies; “democratic breakdown” to capture when a democracy turns into an autocracy; and “autocratic consolidation” as designation for gradual declines of democratic traits in already authoritarian situations. The authors measure autocratization by identifying a substantial and significant drop on the V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index (LDI), provided by the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem). Nevertheless, Skaaning (2020) criticizes Lührmann and Lindberg’s operationalization of regime changes and their deviation from the conventional understandings about the concepts of democratization and autocratization, emphasizing relative trends in the number of upturns and downturns rather than looking at the relative size or the relative number of autocratizations vis-à-vis democratizations. Likewise, in a previous work, Cassani and Tomini (2018) pointed out the conceptual disagreement about the opposite process to democratization and the many distinct forms it can take.
In relation to this scholarly debate, the aim of this paper is, firstly, to propose a typology of political change processes, which can occur both in democracies and autocracies, in order to avoid conceptual stretching. Thus, two general processes of political change are identified which imply a regime change: democratization (from authoritarianism to democracy) and autocratization (from democracy to authoritarianism). In addition, five specific processes of political change are also distinguished: three affecting democracies (democratic regression, democratic deepening and consolidation of democracy); and two characterizing authoritarianisms (political liberalization and authoritarian progression), which can imply changes of subtypes of political regimes (full democracies, defective democracies, pluralist authoritarianisms and close authoritarianisms). Secondly, this paper undertakes a Comparative Area Study (CAS), in particular an inter-regional study, in order to identify processes of political change (or continuity) and the scope of a trend of democracy decline or autocratization on a global scale.