Global Trends in Regime Development and Democratisation

I recently worked with a few fascinating datasets that describe the transformation and democratisation of national governments over the last decades. Based on this very comprehensive data, this post discusses important trends in global regime development from 1972 to 2015 and also provides a few more detailed graphs for Africa, which is the focus of my current research for the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). See here for some of my previous work at GIGA.

As the data below shows, the global political landscape has changed significantly over the last decades. A large majority of countries made considerable progress in liberalising their political systems and establishing democratic institutions. Regularly scheduled and increasingly competitive elections have become the norm and most countries are now governed by constitutions that are – at least on paper – more or less democratic. However, authoritarian rule has persisted or reappeared in many regions of the world and this has led to different trajectories in regime development. Some seasoned observers even argue that democratic progress has slowed significantly and that the last wave of democratisation might now be succeeded by a long phase of stagnation and decline.


Source: Own calculation based on the variable ‘regime1ny’ in Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013); see their codebook (and below) for more information on the data. 

The figure above summarises the changes in the type of government for a large majority of countries between 1972 and 2010. In particular, it shows the slow but steady increase in the number of democracies, highlights the sudden post-Cold War transformation from one-party to multiparty regimes and hints towards the stagnation of democratic progress over the last decade.

Comparing this with ‘raw’ data from the Freedom House Index (FHI, on which the categorisation in Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013) is partly based), we can identify similar trends when it comes to both civil liberties and political rights. In the FHI, a country is assigned two ratings each year – one for political rights and one for civil liberties. Each is rated between 1 and 7, with 1 representing the greatest degree of freedom (!) and 7 the smallest degree of freedom. Below you find what is called a ‘violin plot’ that summarises the development in both ratings for the FHI. The figure shows the distribution of cases from 1975 to 2015 in five-year intervals. The black diamonds depict the average score in the given year across all countries; the horizontal black lines describe the quantiles.

We can clearly identify a significant strengthening of citizens’ civil liberties and political rights. For example, in 1975 more than half of all countries were rated 5 or worse in political rights and only one-quarter received a score of 3 or better, but this situation reversed dramatically: in 2015, only about one-quarter received a rating of 5 or worse and almost half of all countries were rated 3 or better (one-quarter was even rated 2 or better). The average in both rankings also decreased by more than one point between 1975 and 2005 (also between 1975 and 2015). More recently, averages slightly increased again, but at least the median for political rights in 2015 shows that this might primarily be due to some extreme cases rather than an overall retreat of democracy.


Source: Own calculation based on FHI data (1975-2015)

Of course, reducing the very broad spectrum of real-world government types to a few (more or less distinct) regime categories simplifies the issue and many interesting questions remain unanswered. One of these questions is, for example, whether ‘multiparty regimes’ – which technically still are authoritarian regimes – have become more democratic since 1990. I try to provide an initial answer to this question below by looking at the size of the majority that the governing party enjoys in the country’s legislative assembly. This offers a relatively good indication of the level of political contestation (openness of the political system and electoral competitiveness) in the country as well as of the strength of the domestic opposition. A lot has been written on the emergence of ‘electoral authoritarian regimes‘ or ‘competitive authoritarianism‘, but this post is not a (good) literature review.

[Also see below for figures on regime development in Africa.]

Instead, let us simply subdivide the category ‘multiparty regimes’ into so-called ‘hegemonic (electoral authoritarian) regimes’ and ‘competitive (electoral authoritarian) regimes’. In this case, I will consider a regime ‘hegemonic’ if the governing party holds at least a two-thirds majority in the national parliament (and was also classified as a ‘multiparty’ regime by Wahman et al.). All cases in which the majority of the largest party is less than two-thirds, I call ‘competitive’.

The result looks like this; the yellowish sections indicate ‘hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes’:


Source: Own calculation based on Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013)

What becomes evident is that while hegemonic types mostly dominated the category ‘multiparty regimes’ in the first two decades, their prevalence mostly disappeared with the end of the Cold War and in the early 1990s their relative share was close to an all time low. However, the overall number of governments that can be classified as ‘hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes’ rose again from the mid-1990s and remained relatively constant at least until 2010. In contrast, the number of ‘competitive (electoral authoritarian) regimes’  also remained relatively constant or even decreased slightly since the mid-1990s. As the figure above shows, this was, however, not due to an overall decline in democracy but rather a slow increase in the number of countries that were classified as ‘democratic’.

But what happened after 2010? The dataset I used above only covers events until 2010, but the figure below shows more recent developments (until 2015) by relying solely on the Freedom House Index. This dataset doesn’t offer the convenient regime classification, but at least the category ‘free’ is roughly equivalent to the category ‘democracy’ in the figures above. Evidently, the number of democracies did not increase of decrease significantly over the last ten to twenty years and neither did the number of countries that are considered ‘partly free’. The figure thus generally supports the idea of a slowdown in democratic progress and overall stagnation. However, the figures so far do not really suggest a consistent downward trend in the number of democracies.


Source: own calculation based on FHI data

A little more background on the datasets: I do not use the well-known dataset by Geddes, Wright, and Frantz (2014) but rather opt for regime data collected by Wahman, Teorell, and Hadenius (2013). One important difference between these datasets is how the authors code different regimes, i.e., what kind of categories they establish and on what basis they place observations (national governments in a given year) into these categories. One reason why I prefer the dataset by Wahman et al. for this project is because they do not establish a category for ‘personal’ authoritarian regimes – which often remains quite fuzzy – and focus more on electoral contestation in the allocation process.

A Brief Look at Africa

I also want to include some figures for the 48 Sub-Saharan African States because my current research focuses on these countries. (South Sudan, today’s number 49 non-Mediterranean African country, didn’t exist until 2011 and, as you can see, the number of countries rose over time as states gained independence.) Overall, the same external shocks and transformations can be observed, but the post-Cold War transformation appears to have been especially pronounced in Sub-Sahara Africa:





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