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.]

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Global Trends in Regime Development and Democratisation

External Intervention to Strengthen Democracy in Africa

Although more competitive forms of authoritarianism and electoral democracy are today prevalent in most African countries, democratisation has slowed and in some places reversed. This coincides with an ever-growing rift between African citizens who are demanding further democratic rights and rulers who want to preserve their prerogatives. Western actors need to support those who hold the greatest democratic aspirations more fervently: African citizens themselves.

Read more in our most recent GIGA Focus Africa in English and German. This is an outcome of a joint project with Dr. Christian von Soest at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

  • Western support has contributed to democratic development in Africa via two channels. First, political conditionality and “democratic sanctions” have increased the costs for leaders who severely infringe human and democratic rights. Second, Western intervention has helped to increase citizens’ awareness and their opposition to their regimes. Yet, the effect of external intervention has clear limits: no African country that has been subject to Western democratic sanctions since 1990 has become fully democratic.
  • Despite the discussions about a specific African variant of democracy – for instance, one which places greater emphasis on traditional authorities – the majority of African citizens support the procedural tenets of liberal democracy and universal human rights. This sentiment largely holds across countries with different levels of democracy and with varying exposure to external intervention.
  • The majority of Africans consider local elites to be primarily responsible for democratic progress; Africans value national sovereignty more highly than regional responsibility. In particular, the absence of one specific African democratic model and African citizens’ high regard for national sovereignty renders context-sensitive external support all the more important.

Policy Implications

Seen against the rise of China and other authoritarian powers, Western influence is declining in relative terms. However, Western countries still have an important role to play in supporting democracy in Africa. Western assistance should be citizen-centred and involve consistent support for civic education and common training programmes for young leaders across the political divide.

This is what Christian von Soest and I find in our most recent GIGA Focus Africa available in English and German

External Intervention to Strengthen Democracy in Africa