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The European Union and Beyond

Keeping the Democratic Façade: Contemporary Autocratization as a Game of Deception

Comparative Perspective
Normative Theory
Anna Lührmann
University of Gothenburg
Anna Lührmann
University of Gothenburg
Staffan Lindberg
University of Gothenburg

After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, democracy spread rapidly around the globe and further democratization seemed inevitable. Fukuyama and others placed the reverse process - autocratization – in the history books. Less than thirty years later, a third wave of autocratization seems manifest with tangible reversals in countries as diverse as Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, and Hungary. The ensuing debate has focused mainly on the global state of democracy and the extent of backsliding (e.g. Diamond 2015; Mechkova et al. 2017). We lack a critical analysis of how contemporary autocratization unfolds in comparison to its historical precedents.
This paper fills this gap showing that the third wave of democratization radically changed the way autocratization takes place. Building on the literature on democracy as a global norm (Norris 2013, Hyde 2011), we argue that contemporary elites avoid sudden attacks on democracy, because they are likely to provoke substantial national and international resistance. Hence, regime elites are more likely to engage in protracted, and less visible means of autocratization. For example, while in previous eras would-be autocrats abandoned multi-party elections altogether, their contemporary cousins tend to keep them but use more subtle methods to ensure their victory (Schedler 2013). This allows consolidation of increasingly autocratic holds on power while maintaining a democratic façade. We support this argument with the empirical analysis of a new metric – the autocratization rate, which captures how fast regimes lose their democratic quality. These data allow us to provide the first comprehensive empirical overview of all autocratization episodes from 1900 to today within both the democratic and the autocratic regime spectrum. Findings from statistical regression analyses suggest that the third wave of autocratization unfolds in a much slower and much less noticeable way than prior waves of autocratization. Thus, the achievements of the third wave of democratization still have the normative power to force aspiring autocrats to play a game of deception.
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