Autocratization and the decline of international cooperation

March 10, 2022

The last decade has not been favorable to democracy worldwide. The rise of right-wing populists and the hardening of autocratic rule have left clear imprints. The Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index (BTI) traces this development for 137 developing countries and emerging economies, or four-fifths of the world's population. For this purpose, we provide more than 5,000 pages of country analyses and a comprehensive data package.

But sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. That's why we are delighted to supplement our assessments with creative and compelling visual depictions designed by our colleagues at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC. Their latest publication, Graphic Images: Autocrats and the Use of Power, is devoted to portraying autocratic settings in China, Iran and Russia, according to BTI data. We are grateful, especially to Irene Braam and Tony Silberfeld, for this great transatlantic cooperation.

Political regression worldwide was driven by three factors:

In 39 countries, the level of political transformation has dropped significantly within a decade, by more than 0.75 points on the BTI scale of ten. Even democracies that were once considered consolidating, such as Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland and Serbia, belong to this category and are now rated as defective democracies with pronounced deficiencies in terms of the rule of law and participation. Blatant mismanagement and unfulfilled promises of economic and social inclusion were often the reason for voters to choose the populist or ethno-nationalist card.

For some former democracies, however, the road led even further downhill. The tragic frontrunner is Turkey, which had been regarded as a promising example of how to combine political Islamism and democracy, and which is now classified as an autocracy, with a drastic drop of 2.85 points. Another dozen countries have followed this path to autocracy. Ten years ago, 44 percent of the countries surveyed by the BTI were autocratic; today, 51 percent are. In most of these cases, severe deficiencies in the rule of law first allowed power to concentrate in the executive branch and then led to the dismantling of political participation rights.

Moreover, the number of hard autocracies—in which the separation of powers is eliminated and political participation rights are restricted to a minimum—increased to 44 countries, or nearly one-third of all 137 countries surveyed. Often, autocratic hardening was a backlash against weaknesses in legitimacy due to rampant corruption, lack of socioeconomic progress, or democratic movements, the most recent example being Belarus.