CTN Blog - "The Pressing Global Challenge of Democratic Decay"

By Dr Tom Gerald Daly

What links seemingly disparate events such as the ongoing Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, the growing conflict between the Polish government and the EU on the ousting of Supreme Court judges, or the intensifying crisis caused by thousands of Venezuelan citizens spilling into neighbouring countries? All are aspects of the growing global phenomenon of ‘democratic decay’ – the creeping deterioration of democratic rule worldwide.

Since the mid-2000s global democracy indices (produced by e.g. Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit) show a year-on-year decline in democratic rule worldwide; a ‘democratic recession’ reversing decades of democratic expansion. Until recently, this was most evident in young democracies. Hungary has become the paradigm example, where from 2010 a democratically elected government used legal means (including a new Constitution of 2011), and other tactics such as buy-outs of independent media, to incrementally neuter key accountability institutions (e.g. the Constitutional Court, media, human rights organisations, the Central European University). Once considered a star democratic performer, Hungary is now commonly considered at best a hybrid regime (i.e. a governance system blending democratic and authoritarian elements).

The Hungarian experience was far from the first instance. The current crisis in Venezuela is rooted in a similarly wholesale dismantling of the democratic system – largely through constitutional-legal means – from the late 1990s onwards under the ‘Socialist Revolution’ led by Hugo Ch├ívez, which has in the past eighteen months hardened into full-blown authoritarianism under President Maduro. The Polish government has followed the Hungarian playbook closely since gaining power in 2015. In other young democracies such as South Africa and Brazil, there has been no Hungarian-style ‘masterplan’ but, rather, a reactionary and diffuse assault on democratic institutions and norms.

The decay of older democracies is becoming an even more acute concern: While the USA has garnered by far the most attention, states such as France have declining scores in democracy indices; Japan’s press freedom scores have plummeted in the past decade; and liberal democracy in India is also considered to be under threat. Russian interference in elections may grab the headlines – and is a serious issue – but threats to democracy are far deeper rooted and diffuse than external hacking and meddling.

Understanding how negative constitutional transformation occurs – through formal legal means, non-legal means, and erosion of democratic norms – has become a pressing challenge for scholars and policymakers. At present, the study of democratic decay is a discrete area within a variety of established research fields of public law, encompassing — within law alone — comparative constitutional law, constitutional theory, international human rights law, and the law of international organisations, to name just a few. However, the phenomenon of democratic decay transcends neat boundaries between research fields, and seeking understanding of this threat, and possible solutions, requires much greater interaction across these boundaries. Public law scholars working on this issue from very different angles, and in different states and world regions, have much to learn from one another.

This is the motivation behind establishment of the Democratic Decay Resource (DEM-DEC), by ConTransNet co-convenor Tom Gerald Daly. Launched in June 2018, it seeks to provide useful information on democratic decay, to frame the research area, to bring together scholars and policymakers who are working in this area, and to provide teaching resources to help students better understand this threat.