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Gütersloh, 29/11/2009

All over the world, the quality of democratic governance is declining

Restrictions on freedom of opinion and assembly are increasing

Cover of the BTI

Although the number of formal democracies remains constant worldwide, in many cases their quality is showing a significant decline. This has had an adverse effect on core aspects of political participation, including elections as well as freedom of assembly and the press. It should also be noted that the governments of many developing and transition countries failed to take advantage of high growth rates, prior to the global financial and economic crisis, to fight poverty and inequality. Given conditions of global economic insecurity, these structural and social deficits bring with them considerable risks. This is the conclusion reached by the fourth survey of the Transformation Index (BTI), Bertelsmann Stiftung's international comparative study of 128 transition countries. Among the countries with the most successful governance over the past few years are Uruguay, Chile, Estonia, South Korea and Brazil. Those identified as having the worst political leadership are North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Somalia and Uzbekistan.

It would be a mistake to conclude from these latest data that the ideal of democracy is doomed. Indeed, the share of developing and emerging countries that hold free elections remains stable at 60 percent. Nearly four billion people live in democracies, as compared with only 2.5 billion in autocracies and dictatorships. However, in many cases social integration and opportunities for real participation in the political decision-making process are increasingly limited. Of the 76 democracies studied, 53 can be classified as "defective democracies" which – despite relatively free and fair elections – fail to afford adequate protection to political and civil liberties, and lack an effective separation of powers. The share of moderately defective democracies has dropped from 62 to about 49 percent over the past four years, while highly defective democracies now account for over 20 percent, up from about 10 percent four years ago. In other words, while the total number of democracies has remained virtually unchanged, among countries that rank below the top group of stable democracies there has been a significant decline in democracy's effectiveness and acceptance.

As noted above, this has also begun to affect core aspects of political participation. When it comes to holding free and fair elections, defective democracies now show substantially worse results than four years ago; this is particularly true of Kenya and Nicaragua. There has been a similar decline in respect for freedom of assembly and the right to organize. Particularly alarming are growing restrictions on freedom of expression, especially in Africa's defective and highly defective democracies, notably Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, South Africa and Uganda. Even such advanced democracies as Ghana, Croatia, Serbia and South Korea offer cause for concern.

While the factors behind these developments differ from one country to another, patterns are often similar: an inadequate anchoring in the rule of law, and a low level of political and social integration. "Weak checks and balances between the government, legislature and judiciary, along with a lack of judicial independence, open the door to despotism," project manager Sabine Donner points out. All of this makes it more difficult to oppose increasing restrictions on civil rights and rampant abuse of power. For years, the Transformation Index has identified fundamental aspects of the rule of law, such as a separation of powers and an independent judiciary, as among these countries’ greatest weaknesses. The social foundation that is essential to a democracy is often lacking as well. Donner notes, "Because of weak and unrepresentative party systems, and because civil society is lacking trust and social capital, it has often proved very difficult to prevent government attempts to limit fundamental rights. Over the long term, this undermines the quality and substance of democratic governments as well as respect for democratic institutions."

In the economic sphere, a decline in the credibility and reputation of democratic governments often goes hand in hand with government failure to ensure a basic social standard and equal opportunity. Despite high food and oil prices, coupled with the initial effects of the economic and financial crisis, economic conditions have been relatively favorable for most of the 128 countries during the past few years. "The Transformation Index has shown that many governments have exploited positive economic trends for personal gain," says project manager Hauke Hartmann. "They have failed to expand and develop their economies and to combat poverty and social ills." Opportunities to lay the groundwork for a better future and prepare for economically difficult times have been squandered.

Notable weaknesses include deficient social welfare systems, inadequate anti-poverty measures and too little investment in education and environmental protection. In one-fourth of the countries studied, the level of socioeconomic development is so low that poverty and social exclusion are widespread; structural conditions make the problem even worse. Only 41 of the 128 countries studied receive moderate to good marks in this area. In a time of global economic insecurity, these structural and social problems bring with them considerable risks. Many governments may well find their stability threatened by dwindling financial resources and a lack of the economic prosperity that is essential to their legitimacy.

External supporters of development and democratic transformation would be well advised to take a closer look at countries that have managed to achieve a high level of democratic legitimacy and relatively good governance, even though unfavorable structural conditions and the consequences of the economic and financial crisis have prevented them from making satisfactory progress in the socioeconomic sphere. External aid should focus primarily on these countries, before worsening poverty and an inequitable income distribution undermine the legitimacy of weak democratic regimes. However, it would also be wise to take a more differentiated look at the shifting patterns of legitimacy among those autocratic regimes that have achieved a particularly impressive level of economic output in recent years. This would allow for an appropriate response to heightened repression as well as to trends toward increased participation.

Compared with other countries, the new Eastern and Central European EU member states continue to lead the pack. Slovenia and Estonia top the BTI Status Index, followed by Taiwan, South Korea, Chile and Costa Rica. The quality of political management is highest in Uruguay, with Chile, Estonia, South Korea and Brazil ranking next. The major losers of the past few years include South Africa, where a reform-based policy agenda fell victim to a polarizing power struggle between Mbeki, who served as president until September of 2008, and his challenger, Zuma. After North Korea, Myanmar (Burma) and Somalia rank lowest in terms of democratic development and a market economy, according to Stiftung experts.

About the Transformation Index:
Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index analyzes and evaluates the quality of democracy, the market economy and political management in 128 developing and transition countries. It measures successes and setbacks on the path toward a democracy based on the rule of law and a market economy flanked by sociopolitical safeguards. Detailed country reports provide the necessary information for assessing these countries' development status and problems, and for evaluating the ability of policymakers to carry out consistent and targeted reforms. Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index is the first international comparative index that uses its own data to measure the quality of governance and provide a comprehensive analysis of countries' policymaking success during processes of transition.

Contact Person
Headshot of Sabine Donner Sabine Donner
+49 5241 81-81501
Headshot of Hauke Hartmann Hauke Hartmann
+49 5241 81-81389
Cover: Transformation Index 2010

Transformation Index 2010

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