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What halts democratic erosion? The changing role of accountability



Worldwide, democratic erosion is on the rise, with incumbents slowly undermining the pillars of democratic competition such as political freedoms, clean elections, and a free press. While such gradual erosion frequently culminates in democratic breakdown, this is not always the case. How can accountability mechanisms contribute to halting democratic erosion before breakdown, even if they could not prevent the onset of erosion? To study this question, we use the V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index to systematically identify three recent cases – Benin (2007–2012), Ecuador (2008–2010), and South Korea (2008–2016) – where substantial democratic erosion happened but democracy did not break down. Studying these cases in depth we find that accountability mechanism – parliamentary and judicial oversight (horizontal accountability), pressures from civil society and the media (diagonal accountability), or electoral competition between parties and within parties (vertical accountability) – played a part in halting democratic erosion in all of them. They effectively halted erosion when institutional constraints – such as presidential term limits or judicial independence – and contextual factors – in particular economic downturns and public outrage about corruption scandals – worked together to create simultaneous pressures on the incumbents from civil society and from vertical or horizontal accountability actors.
What halts democratic erosion? The changing role of accountability
Melis G. Laebens*a, Anna Lührmannb
aDepartment of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Oxford, United
bV-Dem Institute/Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Worldwide, democratic erosion is on the rise, with incumbents slowly undermining the pillars
of democratic competition such as political freedoms, clean elections, and a free press. While
such gradual erosion frequently culminates in democratic breakdown, this is not always the
case. How can accountability mechanisms contribute to halting democratic erosion before
breakdown, even if they could not prevent the onset of erosion? To study this question, we use
the V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index to systematically identify three recent cases Benin
(20072012), Ecuador (20082010), and South Korea (20082016) where substantial
democratic erosion happened but democracy did not break down. Studying these cases in depth
we find that accountability mechanism parliamentary and judicial oversight (horizontal
accountability), pressures from civil society and the media (diagonal accountability), or
electoral competition between parties and within parties (vertical accountability) played a
part in halting democratic erosion in all of them. They effectively halted erosion when
institutional constraints such as presidential term limits or judicial independence and
contextual factors in particular economic downturns and public outrage about corruption
scandals worked together to create simultaneous pressures on the incumbents from civil
society and from vertical or horizontal accountability actors.
Keywords: democracy; autocratization; backsliding; democratization; accountability; South
Korea; Ecuador; Benin
* Corresponding author.
Worldwide, democracy is in a new recession. Unlike in past periods of global democratic reversal,
democracies today are tending to not break down abruptly. Rather, they are being gradually eroded
as incumbents slowly undermine the pillars of democratic competition, such as political freedoms,
civil society, a free press, and the rule of law.
While gradual change is pernicious because it can
be hard to detect and react to for voters, parties and the media, a slow process of democratic erosion
also provides opportunities for resistance.
Mechanisms of accountability can play a prominent role in defending democratic
institutions against governments’ attempts to undermine them. Accountability constrains the use
of political power.
Vertical accountability - elections and political parties - can help remove
from office incumbents who abuse their powers. Horizontal accountability enables other state
actors to oversee, sanction, and coordinate against the executive. Actors enforcing diagonal
accountability - the media and civil society - may mobilize against autocratizing incumbents and
provide information to other political agents.
How do these different mechanisms of accountability contribute to halting democratic
erosion, even when they were not able to prevent its onset? In this article, we address this question
by shedding light on three relevant cases where substantial democratic erosion occurred but was
halted before breakdown. Democratic erosion is a process during which incumbents who accessed
power in democratic elections gradually but substantially undermine democratic institutions.
systematically identify three cases of substantial democratic erosion that was stopped before
democratic breakdown using the concept of “autocratization episodes”
– periods of democratic
decline – and data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute.
We limit our study to the post-Cold
War era because democratic erosion has been a prevalent form of democratic reversal only in this
more recent period.
Studying three cases that experienced democratic erosion but have evaded breakdown
Benin (2007–2012), Ecuador (2008–2010), and South Korea (2008–2016) we find support for
the idea that mechanisms of accountability have helped to halt democratic erosion and we develop
hypotheses about why accountability mechanisms were effective in halting erosion, even though
they could not prevent its onset. We suggest that in the cases we analysed, erosion was halted
thanks to a combination of diagonal accountability pressures with either vertical or horizontal
accountability. In other words, democratic erosion could be halted when civil society successfully
mobilized to oppose the incumbent’s behaviour, and elites coordinated to sanction the incumbent
through the judiciary and the legislature, or at the ballot box. The moment in which accountability
pressures were successful in sanctioning the incumbent depended on the pre-existing strength of
democratic institutions, as well. In South Korea, with its “high-quality” democracy and relatively
strong democratic institutions, accountability mechanisms were triggered soon after the incumbent
abused her powers. In Benin and Ecuador, however, accountability mechanisms were only able to
work once the incumbent was politically weakened by contextual factors such as the end of the
incumbent’s constitutional term, economic downturn, or corruption scandals. We hypothesize that
in these “low-quality” democracies, changing circumstances gave accountability actors greater
leverage to sanction the incumbent.
Focusing only on cases without democratic breakdown allows us to study the
accountability mechanisms in detail, but we cannot draw cross-case causal inference about what
stabilized these democracies after periods of erosion. We do not aim to provide this kind of causal
explanation. Rather, our goal is to build theory by isolating the mechanisms by which
aggrandizement and abuse of power by incumbents was contained in our specific cases and thus
to generate insights about accountability as a possible source of democratic resilience in countries
that are experiencing democratic erosion.
The article proceeds as follows. We first define the problem of democratic erosion.
Following that, we review the literature and develop theoretical expectations concerning what
might halt democratic erosion. Then we discuss methods for identifying three relevant cases of
halted erosion and analyse them. Finally, we summarize our findings and conclude by discussing
their implications for understanding the current democratic recession.
The problem of democratic erosion
A slow but sustained decline in levels of freedom and democracy worldwide is driving widespread
Democratic reversal in today’s world where international norms favour democratic
multiparty elections is often gradual and results from piecemeal state actions that erode the
freedom and fairness of the democratic electoral process and its supporting institutions.
The threat to democracy has typically taken the form of a gradual concentration of power
in the hands of the executive branch, and especially its leader, at the expense of other branches of
government and of citizens’ rights. Bermeo calls this phenomenon “executive aggrandizement”,
emphasizing that as the incumbent leader gradually expands his or her powers in this way, he or
she also weakens the ability of the opposition to compete in elections, gradually making these less
free and less fair.
This process sometimes also involves the “strategic manipulation” of elections,
for example by excluding opposition candidates from the ballot, manipulating electoral rolls or
election rules, and using government resources for electoral campaigns.
We focus on these kinds of processes which, following Lührmann and Lindberg, we call
democratic erosion.
Building on their definition, we consider there to be democratic erosion when
a democratically elected incumbent substantially undermines democratic institutions (that is,
causes autocratization) by expanding or abusing their powers, but does not suspend or abolish
them altogether. We consider democratic institutions to have been substantially undermined – or
autocratization to have taken place – when there is a substantive decline in the extent to which the
regime fulfils the criteria for polyarchy proposed by Dahl – free, fair and consequential elections,
access to independent information, respect for individual freedoms of expression and association
and for the right to compete in elections, and universal suffrage.
If these institutions are eroded
to such an extent that the country becomes classified as an (electoral) autocracy, we consider key
democratic institutions suspended or abolished.
Democratic erosion is a subtype of
autocratization processes. It starts in democracies and ends without causing a democratic
breakdown and is driven primarily by the democratically elected incumbent’s self-serving actions.
Excluding from our study autocratization processes that happen primarily for other reasons – such
as abuses by the judiciary or the legislature, civil unrest, or international interventions – allows us
to generate more precise theoretical insights.
Table 1 situates democratic erosion with respect to concepts used in some influential works
in the literature. Democratic erosion starts in democracies and is driven mainly by the incumbent,
who was elected democratically. This concept is similar to Bermeo’s notion of executive
Bermeo also uses the broader term democratic backsliding to denote all
processes of democratic decline occurring in democracies. Other concepts, such as
and democratic backsliding as defined by Lust and Waldner,
are broader and
capture any form of decline in the democratic qualities of regimes. In all concepts discussed here,
democratic breakdown may be included but does not have to be.
***Table 1***
How do democracies survive erosion?
Lührmann and Lindberg have pointed out that the majority of substantial processes of democratic
erosion culminate in democratic breakdown.
However, given the gradual nature of today’s
democratic declines, processes of erosion can sometimes be halted, and democratic breakdown
can be averted. How did some democracies manage to halt this process of gradual regime change?
Given the existence of many cases of ongoing democratic erosion in our contemporary world, even
among those democracies that were considered firmly established, there is both scholarly and
practical value in understanding how some democracies have survived a period of erosion.
Our research question is related to a broader question that has incited rich scholarly
discussion: What makes democracies resilient? Much of the research on this issue has focused on
the role of structural factors, particularly income,
but also the structure of the economy
ethnic, religious or political ‘subcultures’ among the country’s population.
Another branch of
scholarship has explored the importance of institutional design for overcoming the challenges that
democracies face. Parliamentary versus presidential forms of government, majoritarian versus
consociational institutions, unitary versus decentralized or federal administrative structures and
the features of party systems have been studied with respect to their contributions to democratic
stability and consolidation.
We propose a different approach to studying democratic resilience, one that focuses on the
mechanisms that stabilize democracy in the face of gradual attacks by incumbent leaders on
democratic institutions. Thus, instead of analysing the effects of particular institutional or
structural configurations on the survival of democracy, we study how democratic regimes survived
erosion brought about by incumbents abusing and expanding their powers. In so doing, our
approach is similar to that used by Linz in his classical analysis of democratic breakdown.
Linz analysed regime crises to describe the anatomy of democratic breakdown, we analyse a
particular kind of political crisis to shed light on how democratic regimes could avoid being
dismantled by incumbents, even when they have caused considerable damage to democratic
To generate insights into how democratic erosion can be halted, we turn to the incumbent’s
political environment and the probability that the incumbent’s behaviour will be sanctioned. While
incumbents’ normative preferences might be relevant for explaining why democracies are eroded,
they can rarely account for how democratic erosion is halted in the absence of a leadership change,
as preferences should be generally stable across time. The probability that the incumbent is
sanctioned, however, changes over time. Dahl argued that ruling elites allow democratization if
the costs of toleration are lower than the costs of suppressing the demand for democracy.
Extending this axiom to the context of democratic erosion implies that ruling elites in a democracy
weigh the cost of the status quo against the cost of engaging in democratic erosion. The cost of the
status quo is quite high for incumbents, since as Przeworski famously stated “democracy is a
system in which parties lose elections”.
At the same time, the potential costs of engaging in
democratic erosion may also be high for incumbents in democracies. They may not only lose
elections but also face impeachment, prosecution, jail, exile, and even threats to their lives as a
result of their actions.
Erosion may be costly for incumbents because democratic institutions disperse power,
make its exercise more transparent, and create a framework where those in power can be peacefully
replaced. We use Lührmann et al.’s framework of political accountability to discuss these
constraining forces. Following the general practice in the literature, they distinguish between
accountability mechanisms based on the spatial relationship between actors.
Their concept of
accountability is particularly helpful for our purposes for two reasons. Firstly, they emphasize that
what matters in practice are de facto constraints on governments and not just de jure rules, which
may not reflect what happens in reality.
Secondly, their threefold categorization of accountability
is useful for thinking about societal constraints on governments. In the classical political science
literature, we find mainly two subtypes of accountability: vertical (constraints from below) as
emphasized for instance by Schmitter; and horizontal accountability (constraints among equals),
which is at the heart of O’Donnell’s ideas about accountability.
Which sub-type of accountability
those constraints exercised by civil society actors belong to has been contested. O’Donnell argues
that “various social agents and demands” exercise a type of vertical accountability linking the state
to society.
Schmitter conceives of them originally in the realm of horizontal accountability, but
later proposes a third type of accountability mechanism (“oblique” in his words).
Such calls have
become louder in recent years.
In order to reflect that non-state actors have an important
intermediary role and support both voters (vertical) and legislators (horizontal) through the
provision of information (media) and sanctions (civil society protest), Lührmann et al. label such
forces as diagonal accountability. This distinction is helpful here, because the actions of civil
society are highly relevant for resistance to democratic erosion.
Building on this framework, we argue that three accountability mechanisms can impose
costs on incumbents, and thus prevent or halt democratic erosion. The first is vertical
accountability – the exercise of political rights in free and fair elections and within political
In this realm, the competition between parties in multi-party elections as well as intra-
party competition may halt democratic erosion by replacing in office incumbents and their parties.
Secondly, horizontal accountability mechanisms are designed to protect against abuses of
state power. These include controls by the judiciary and other independent institutions, and
legislative oversight.
The legislature, in addition to enforcing accountability to the public and to
the law, can also be a space for political elites to coordinate against a threat by one of them to
aggrandize. When political elites fear institutional capture by rivals who might exclude them from
power, they may defend democratic institutions because it is in their best interests to do so.
Finally, diagonal accountability refers to the ability of civil society actors and the media
to constrain governments.
They can use a broad range of actions to challenge autocratization
For example, journalists may uncover corrupt and undemocratic behaviour by state
officials, and civil society actors can mobilize against such action through mass protests or other
forms of citizen engagement.
We argue that such mechanisms could, at least sometimes, contain destabilizing forces and
avert breakdown in three different ways. Firstly, government officials should take the potential of
being sanctioned into account and refrain from democratic erosion in the first place, or stop such
processes before sanctioning mechanisms kick in. This deterrence effect is difficult to observe, as
accountability mechanisms should work to prevent erosion. Secondly, these officials may
underestimate the strength of accountability mechanisms and be sanctioned for democratic
erosion. Thirdly, incumbents engaged in democratic erosion may reverse their behaviour if their
power vis-a-vis “accountability actors” changes over time. We use the shorthand term
“accountability actors” to designate people, groups or organizations who, in a particular context,
pressure and constrain the incumbent through either of the accountability mechanisms.
Accountability actors may emerge on the political scene or become stronger with changes in the
political context. For instance, strong economic growth may have enabled democratic erosion by
boosting the incumbent’s popular support and decreasing the cost of autocratization. If economic
growth stops, the incumbent may face greater pressure from opposition parties and from civil
society. We would expect erosion to stop after such a change in the political environment
strengthened accountability pressures. In the second and third scenarios described here,
accountability mechanisms may contribute to the end of democratic erosion even when they could
not prevent its onset.
We use this framework to understand how erosion was halted in cases where incumbents’
efforts to undermine democratic institutions initially caused autocratization but were then upended.
We study within-case variation over time in order to identify some of the accountability-related
factors that change the “costs” of democratic erosion to incumbents.
Accountability: constraints on the power to erode democracy?
Incumbents who seek to weaken the constraints set in place by democratic institutions are likely
to face opposition from a range of diverse agents mentioned above. However, these need not be
motivated only by a commitment to democracy and its institutions. Some who hold positions from
which they can constrain the incumbent may also be concerned with their personal or their group’s
advancement. For example, judges may think the rule of law is important, but put their personal
careers or the future of their institution first. Elected politicians similarly may not only seek to
defend their ideological principles or realize their policy goals but may also want to ensure the
continuity of their political careers. Voters, in turn, may prioritize partisan loyalties and economic
outcomes, and hence tolerate power abuses.
This multiplicity of interests and goals in practice complicates the realization of
accountability pressures because it provides the incumbent with the possibility of dividing and co-
opting potential opponents. Combining co-optation and repression, incumbents may successfully
evade and undermine accountability oversight and sanctions and cause democratic erosion.
Figure 1 illustrates this interactive process. Particularly in “low quality” democracies, where
democratic institutions and supporting civil society structures are already weak (for example due
to corruption or a repressive legal framework, or because civil society and media organizations are
dependent on the state), it is relatively easy for incumbents to weaken accountability pressures by
exploiting the diverse interests of accountability actors.
As erosion advances, it will become even
harder for accountability actors to gather information, to publicly voice criticism of the
government, to coordinate their actions, and to compete in elections. Over time, incumbents can
also use their position and powers to reform institutions (such as term limits or judicial checks) in
ways that further weaken accountability pressures. As a result of these feedback mechanisms,
democratic erosion is often a slippery slope.
Nevertheless, our theoretical framework suggests two scenarios in which democratic
erosion can be halted. The first is a miscalculation scenario, where attempts to evade accountability
mechanisms eventually fail and are sanctioned. The second is a power balance mechanism, where
incumbents who previously had the political power to neutralize accountability pressures lose
some of their sway and become vulnerable to sanctioning. Both institutional rules and external
factors may play a part in changing the power balance (see Figure 1). For example, evading
accountability is likely to be easier for incumbents who enjoy strong popular support and a good
economic record. High courts may be less willing to constrain popular incumbents who have a
prospect of remaining in power.
Similarly, members of the ruling party may be less likely to
oppose the incumbent when they expect him or her to stay in office.
Besides boosting public
support for the incumbent, good economic performance may also make it easier for the government
to co-opt elites, who are likely to disproportionately benefit from economic expansion. Because
such contextual factors like economic growth can change considerably over time, they may
account for why accountability mechanisms would not prevent erosion but could ultimately halt
it. In what follows, we employ this framework to study the cases where democratic erosion
happened but was halted before breakdown.
***Figure 1***
Research design and case selection
We conduct theory-building case studies with the aim of revealing how accountability mechanisms
halted democratic erosion, even though they could not prevent its onset. We therefore need cases
where the outcome of interest is clearly present.
In order to identify such cases, we use the
Episodes of Regime Transformation (ERT) data.
It permits the identification of all cases of
autocratization of democracies in the period from 1990 to 2019 that were halted before breakdown.
Autocratization is operationalized as a decline of more than 10% of the value in V-Dem’s Electoral
Democracy Index (EDI) over a year or an unbroken period of time.
The EDI reflects Dahl’s
polyarchy concept: universal suffrage, officials elected in free and fair elections, alternative
sources of information and freedom of speech as well as freedom of association.
The index ranges
from 0 to 1, with higher values indicating greater proximity to Dahl’s concept of polyarchy.
measure regime type using the Regimes of the World classification, which classifies those
countries as democracies which somewhat fulfil Dahl’s criteria.
In total we find 61 episodes of autocratization of democracies since the end of the Cold
Thirty-six of them (59%) actually led to the breakdown of the democratic regime. Using
the episode dates identified in the ERT, and qualitative sources, we classify another 14 episodes
as still ongoing (23%).
Only in the remaining 11 cases (16%) did the autocratization episode halt
before leading to democratic breakdown. Among these 11 cases of halted autocratization, we only
find three unambiguous cases of democratic erosion driven primarily by incumbents who
undermined democratic norms: Benin (2007–2012), Ecuador (2008–2010), and South Korea
(2008–2016). In the other cases, we consider that autocratization was primarily the result of
different challenges, such as ethnic and religious conflict, civil unrest, international involvement,
or state capture.
We therefore do not select them as case studies.
***Table 2***
Table 2 provides descriptive information about our three cases. In Benin, President Yayi
Boni repeatedly attempted to punish and undermine the political opposition, while also trying to
extend his term of office. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa used his popularity to enhance his
powers, undermine institutional oversight mechanisms, and weaken the opposition. South Korea
had a substantially higher level of democracy prior to the onset of democratic erosion (EDI score
of 0.86 compared to 0.71 for Benin and 0.76 for Ecuador). Nevertheless, President Park Geun-hye
and her party violated citizens’ rights to privacy, media freedom and administrative impartiality
for electoral and financial gain. In the following, we provide a structured-focused comparison of
democratic erosion in these cases and how it was eventually halted.
Empirical analysis
In the following, we analyse each case with a view to identifying the factors that helped to halt
democratic erosion. We address the following questions in each case study:
- What did the executive do to undermine democracy?
- Why did accountability actors not prevent democratic erosion earlier?
- How did accountability actors manage to halt democratic erosion?
- What changed and helped to activate accountability?
We use academic and news sources to analyse the cases. We also discuss declines in the V-Dem
component indices (Clean Elections, Freedom of Speech and Alternative Sources of Information,
Freedom of Association) which form the Electoral Democracy Index and which therefore led to
the episode being classified as democratic erosion. Finally, we summarize the empirical findings
with a view to distilling hypotheses about how democratic erosion can be halted.
Benin (2007–2012)
What did the executive do to undermine democracy?
In 2006, the year before democratic erosion began, Benin had an EDI score of 0.71. By 2012, it
had dropped to 0.59. Yayi Boni came to power in 2006 as an independent candidate promising
change and economic revival, in a context where the political class had been discredited due
economic stagnation.
His proposal to reform the constitution met with strong opposition,
resulting in the formation of an opposition coalition in 2009.
They accused Boni of corruption
and launched a legislative impeachment procedure in 2010, which failed because the opposition
did not have the necessary majority.
Faced with an electoral challenge, Boni resorted to
manipulating electoral rolls in the run-up to the 2011 presidential election. Through the creation
of a digital voter registry, the government excluded hundreds of thousands of voters residing in
opposition strongholds.
This was reflected in a large drop in the Clean Elections Index. In
addition, there were delays in elections, particularly the 2013 municipal elections, which were only
held in 2016.
Boni won re-election in 2011, and the opposition led a wave of protests.
In his second
term, he started to criminalize his opponents, undermining political freedoms and the rule of law.
Patrice Talon - a wealthy businessman and former ally of the president - was arrested because of
alleged assassination and coup attempts targeting the president, and the government ignored court
orders against his detention.
Thus, Benin registered minor declines in the Freedom of Association
and Alternative Sources of Information Indices.
Why did accountability actors not prevent democratic erosion earlier?
Despite forming an electoral coalition for the 2011 presidential elections, the opposition became
fragmented again thereafter. Meanwhile the media lacked the autonomy and the professionalism
to constrain the government even before Boni’s presidency.
Although civil society actors,
notably public sector unions and members of the judiciary, voiced opposition and successfully
mobilized, their actions had a limited capacity to constrain the government. Banégas attributes this
to a failure of collective action and a lack of credible leadership in a context where most in the
opposition had, at some point or other, been associated with the regime.
How did accountability actors manage to halt democratic erosion?
The legislative and municipal elections in 2015 were considered free and fair, because the
opposition parties in parliament forged a new electoral code establishing an independent electoral
commission and revising the controversial digital voter registry.
The mobilization of civil society
to support and legitimize the electoral process also contributed to the success of these elections.
The opposition won a majority of seats in the legislature. The president declared he would not seek
a third term, supporting the candidacy of his prime minister instead.
What changed and helped to activate accountability?
The government’s political appointments to the courts, its punishment of individual judges, and its
push for constitutional changes that would allow for a third presidential term, led to broad-based
popular mobilizations in 2013 and a general strike in 2014.
Boni’s attempts to nationalize and
control major sources of economic rent, most notably the cotton exports and the black market for
smuggled oil, fuelled factional rifts inside the ruling coalition, particularly with the powerful cotton
magnate Talon, while also causing economic disruption and instability.
These miscalculations
by the government, the related economic troubles and corruption scandals, combined with the
efforts of the judiciary,
of civil society and of parliamentary elites to protect the country’s
constitution and secure a free and fair electoral process, culminated in defeats for Boni in the 2015
parliamentary and the 2016 presidential elections.
Benin’s democracy survived this democratic erosion episode, but by 2019 it was again in
distress due to the new President Patrice Talon’s aggrandizement and repressive policies.
Ecuador (2008–2010)
What did the executive do to undermine democracy?
In 2007, the year before democratic erosion began, Ecuador had an EDI score of 0.76. By 2010 it
had dropped to 0.59. Rafael Correa was elected president in 2006 following a long period of crisis
and political instability that led voters to reject the country’s political parties.
Correa launched a
constitutional process after his election. To be able to disband the sitting congress and elect a
constituent assembly, he maneuvered to have a number of legislators and judges impeached.
resulting constitution established a framework with vast executive powers and weak independent
checks on the president’s powers.
Correa used these powers and his persistent popularity to
establish hegemony over the country’s political institutions and civil society. From 2007 onwards,
the Alternative Sources of Information, Freedom of Assembly, and Clean Elections measures all
registered decline. Through a constitutional referendum held in 2011, Correa expanded his
influence over judicial appointments and placed new restrictions on private media.
After winning
a large majority of the seats in the legislature in the 2013 elections, Correa was able to further
increase his powers, for example by creating a supervisory body allowing him to sanction
opposition media, and eliminating term limits for the president.
Why did accountability actors not prevent democratic erosion earlier?
Despite the fact that Correa’s actions and growing powers undermined the rule of law and fair
political competition, his popularity remained high throughout these years thanks to economic
growth and high public investment and spending financed by a large inflow of oil rents. Meanwhile
Correa’s growing formal powers, his political influence over the judiciary and the bureaucracy,
and the support of the ruling party in the legislature weakened horizontal accountability.
important civil society organizations like unions and indigenous organizations were divided and
while independent media and opposition activists were weakened through legal
sanctions, criminalization, and personal attacks by the President.
How did accountability actors manage to halt democratic erosion?
As falling oil prices dragged the country into an economic slowdown and Correa’s popularity
started falling, large and sustained mobilizations erupted in 2015. Although the presidential term
limit had been abolished via a constitutional amendment approved in the legislature, Correa
decided not to run in the 2017 election.
But he did not intend to give up his political influence
and wanted his vice president and close friend Jorge Glas to succeed him in the presidency. As
Glas was very unpopular due to his involvement in corruption, Correa had to endorse Lenin
Moreno, vice president in his previous administration.
Glas was placed on the ticket as vice-
A few months after being narrowly elected, Moreno brought corruption charges against the
vice president and other Correa appointments in the judiciary and the comptroller’s office. This
led to a split in the party (which was taken over by Moreno) and criminal investigations against
many from the Correa group, including Correa himself, who was abroad at the time and eventually
became unable to return to Ecuador due to criminal charges.
Correa later received a prison
What changed and triggered accountability mechanisms?
The worsening economic prospects of the country, the sustained civil society mobilization against
corruption and against the re-election of Correa, and the public’s rejection of Glas - whose
corruption had become irrefutable once the Odebrecht investigation
was made public by
American and Brazilian prosecutors - brought on Correa’s demise. Moreno’s decision to turn
against Correa was likely motivated, at least in part, by political calculations. Moreno faced a debt
crisis compounded by shrinking rent revenues and sought to strengthen his position by distancing
himself from Correa.
Correa’s exit from office and the Moreno government’s reversal of some of Correa’s
institutional reforms stopped the process of democratic erosion. While some of Ecuador’s
democracy scores improved after the government’s break with Correa, the Moreno government
continued to use a plebiscitarian style and extensive executive discretion.
South Korea (2008–2016)
What did the executive do to undermine democracy?
In 2007, the year before democratic erosion began, South Korea was classified as a liberal
democracy with an EDI score of 0.86. By 2016, South Korea’s EDI score had dropped to 0.7. V-
Dem indicators show adverse change in how free and fair South Korea’s elections were as well as
in press freedoms (media censorship, harassment of journalists, and media manipulation) and
freedom of academic and cultural expression. The drop in the press freedom indicators largely
reflects a surveillance scandal that surfaced in 2010. The government allegedly used intelligence
agencies and an “ethics commission” to illegally monitor citizens – in particular, journalists – and
influence public media.
Furthermore, ahead of the 2012 elections, the National Intelligence
Service secretly posted comments in online forums favouring the candidate of the ruling party -
Park Geun-hye.
She is the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, who acceded to power in
a military coup in 1963. She won the elections and was later involved in a major corruption scheme
involving abuse of power, state funds and undue pressure on journalists.
Her government also
excluded thousands of artists from government support programmes for political reasons.
Why did accountability actors not prevent democratic erosion earlier?
Democratic erosion in South Korea was relatively mild. It was mainly caused by the ruling party
using state resources illegitimately to limit press freedom and give an advantage to the ruling party
in online discussions. Since these were mainly clandestine activities, those perpetuating them
possibly thought they could evade sanction. Indeed, there were no electoral sanctions in the 2012
elections for several reasons. Firstly, the information about the involvement of the intelligence
agency in the electoral process was disputed publicly by a leading police officer shortly before the
election, leading voters to be ‘confused’ about what to believe before election day.
This might
have been aided by a highly restrictive campaign environment in South Korea, which does not
allow ordinary citizens to talk about their preferred candidate.
Secondly, the opposition did not
unite early enough behind one candidate.
Due to both factors, the 2012 election could not halt
democratic erosion. However, after the election, the prosecution found evidence of the
involvement of the intelligence service in the election campaign.
How did accountability actors manage to halt democratic erosion?
In fall 2016, public prosecutors uncovered President Park Geun-hye’s involvement in corruption,
and media reports about the scandal sparked mass protests calling for her removal. According to
Shin and Moon “[i]n the eyes of much of the public, [Park Geun-hye] stood condemned as a figure
who had violated democratic principles and regressed toward practices that smacked of the
country’s authoritarian past”.
In 2017, pressure from mass protests forced South Korea’s
parliament to impeach Park Geun-hye, and in April 2018 she was sentenced to jail for 24 years on
corruption charges.
What changed and helped to activate accountability?
The corruption scandal swayed popular opinion against the President.
The decisive action of both
the legislature and the judiciary is an indication for the strength of South Korean institutions of
horizontal accountability, which were not affected severely by democratic erosion. However,
observers agree that the country’s political parties and parliament initially hesitated and only
pursued the impeachment process as a result of the mass protests.
Thus, popular protest played
an important role in ensuring accountability.
In the theory section, we discussed three mechanisms that could halt democratic erosion: (1)
vertical accountability, (2) diagonal accountability, and (3) horizontal accountability. Vertical
accountability refers to pressures coming from competition between parties and inside ruling
parties. Diagonal accountability involves pressures exerted by independent media and civil society
activities such as protests. Finally, horizontal accountability refers to legislative and judicial
checks on executive power. Table 3 summarizes to what extent these mechanisms were relevant
for halting democratic erosion in the three cases studied.
***Table 3***
Using structured-focused comparisons of three rare cases where democratic erosion was
halted, we can advance hypotheses to explain how democratic erosion stops. Table 3 shows that
all accountability mechanisms could play a role in halting democratic erosion. Diagonal
accountability - and in particular pressure from civil society - was important in all cases. While
protests and civil society pressures are by themselves not sufficient to halt democratic erosion,
they might be necessary for other accountability mechanisms to be effective. To have an incentive
to check on the incumbent, and to successfully sanction incumbents either electorally (vertical
accountability) or through institutional checks and balances (horizontal accountability), elites must
often be pressured by civil society mobilization.
All civil society mobilizations may not be equally effective in triggering accountability
mechanisms, however. In the absence of a cause that is widely perceived to be legitimate,
incumbents may succeed in marginalizing and criminalizing anti-government protests. This does
not imply that if grievances are widespread and severe enough, democratic erosion will always be
halted. Whether or not an accumulation of grievances and related mobilizations trigger
accountability partly has to do with the strategy of the opposition.
The political strength of the
incumbent, for example the extent to which the ruling coalition is cohesive, can also affect the
The role of mass mobilizations in triggering or supporting vertical and horizontal
accountability mechanisms gives a clue as to how accountability actors could halt democratic
erosion, even though they were unable to prevent its onset. When low economic performance or
corruption scandals – contextual factors we highlighted in the theory section - reduced support for
the government, the opposition obtained opportunities to sanction incumbents. In Ecuador as well
as Benin, economic crisis and disruption weakened the incumbent’s support. In South Korea, the
President was at the centre of a major corruption and power abuse scandal. Corruption allegations
affected the incumbent’s support in Benin and Ecuador as well.
Our cases show that the institutional framework was also a dynamic factor. Sometimes,
accountability actors successfully changed the rules in their favour. In Benin, a new electoral law
became a turning point. But even where the rules did not change, their political impact could
change over time. This was the case with presidential term limits. Although they were present at
the beginning of the term, they only became a constraint for incumbents as their term limit was
approaching. At that point, the constitutional limit provided a common cause for different
accountability actors to mobilize and coordinate around.
The role of the contextual factors identified above were not identical in all our cases,
however. These served as “triggers” for accountability mechanisms in Benin and Ecuador, but not
in South Korea. In Benin and Ecuador, whose democratic institutions were not strong to begin
with, democratic erosion could be halted only thanks to a shift in the political power balance
between the government and its opposition, which allowed the latter to activate the mechanisms
of accountability that the incumbent had thus far successfully neutralized. In South Korea, where
democratic institutions were much stronger to begin with, accountability mechanisms worked even
in the absence of such a shift and despite the fact that the incumbent obtained re-election. This was
thanks to judicial independence and the legislature’s ability to impeach the president, and to civil
society pressure.
The above leads us to three observations concerning how and why democratic erosion
processes may be halted, even after having caused significant democratic erosion. Firstly, in “high-
quality” democracies where incumbents attempt to evade accountability by abusing power
covertly, accountability mechanisms may fail to prevent abuses and yet eventually sanction them.
Secondly, in relatively “low-quality” democracies where a weaker institutional environment
allows incumbents to openly evade accountability using co-optation and repression, incumbents
may nevertheless be sanctioned when a decline in their popular support (usually caused by
economic downturns and corruption scandals) strengthens accountability actors by boosting and
focusing the latter’s efforts to sanction the incumbent. Thirdly, in either case, accountability actors
may need to work together to successfully sanction incumbents. In particular, broad-based civil
society mobilization may be needed to trigger and/or complement actions by political elites who
try to constrain incumbents through institutions of horizontal accountability or at the ballot box.
Based on these observations, two hypotheses may be advanced. Firstly, accountability
mechanisms are more likely to halt democratic erosion if the popularity of the incumbent decreases
substantively (for example, due to economic crisis or corruption scandals) and/or if the incumbent
is approaching the end of their constitutionally allowed term. Secondly, broad-based anti-
government mass mobilization can enhance the probability that opposition emerges or strengthens
in legislatures or within ruling parties, helping to constrain the incumbent and halt democratic
Our article presents an analysis of three systematically selected episodes of democratic erosion
that were halted before democratic breakdown (Benin 2007–2012, Ecuador 2008–2010 and South
Korea 2008–2016). Based on our study of the role of three accountability mechanisms - vertical,
horizontal, and diagonal - in these cases, we highlight two dynamics that could address the puzzle
of why accountability actors helped to halt autocratization even though they could not prevent it.
Firstly, contextual factors affecting the incumbent’s popularity, such as economic performance or
corruption scandals, as well as an approaching term of office limit, may change the balance of
power between the incumbent and accountability actors, setting sanctions in motion. Secondly, for
democratic erosion to be halted, civil society mobilizations (diagonal accountability pressures)
against the government may be needed to trigger or support other accountability mechanisms. In
all our cases, multiple accountability mechanisms involving pressure from the public and from
political elites worked together to avert further democratic decline.
Our study focused on ‘positive’ cases, where democratic erosion was halted before complete
breakdown, and was not designed to test the hypotheses mentioned above. Future studies with
theory-testing research designs are needed to assess the extent to which the hypotheses we propose
are sustained beyond our cases. The fact that staunch opposition from civil society was able to help
halt democratic erosion in the cases we studied but failed to do so in others - such as Turkey or
Venezuela - calls for further investigation of the conditions under which such mobilizations may
serve as triggers for accountability mechanisms.
We thank Ana Good God, Ana Laura Ferrari and Sandra Grahn for their skillful research assistance
and participants at the Berlin Democracy Conference (11/2019) and the APSA conference (2020)
as well as Staffan I. Lindberg and Wolfgang Merkel for their helpful feedback on an early version
of this paper. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful suggestions that have helped
improve the article, and Katherine Stuart and Marcin Ślarzyński for their careful reading and
This research was supported by the Swedish Research Council [grant number 2018-016114], PI:
Anna Lührmann and European Research Council, Grant 724191, PI: Staffan I. Lindberg, V-Dem
Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden as well as by internal grants from the Office of the
Vice-Chancellor, the Dean of the Department of Social Sciences, and the Department of Political
Science at the University of Gothenburg.
Notes on contributors
Melis G. Laebens is Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow in Politics in Nuffield College and in the
Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her work
has focused on contemporary democratic backsliding and incumbent takeovers as well as on party
politics and partisanship with a focus on Turkey, Ecuador and Poland,.
Anna Lührmann is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University
of Gothenburg and Senior Research Fellow at the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute. Her
research on autocratization, elections and democracy aid has been published among others in
American Political Science Review, Democratization, Electoral Studies, International Political
Science Review, and the Journal of Democracy.
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Although the rule of law is not an explicitly necessary condition for polyarchy according to Dahl’s
definition, the de-facto protection of individual civil and political rights is closely related to the rule of
law, understood here in the “minimal” sense as a body of law that meets certain procedural and formal
criteria for its creation and enforcement (See Morlino, “Two ‘Rules of Law,’” 48-9). As Morlino notes,
the extent to which civil and political rights are enforced is a key indicator when assessing democratic
Lührmann, Tanneberg and Lindberg, “Regimes of the World.”
Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding.”
Lührmann and Lindberg, “Third Waveand Cassani and Tomini, “Revisiting Concepts.”
Waldner and Lust, “Unwelcome Change.”
Lührmann and Lindberg, “Third Wave.”
Lipset, “Social requisites of democracy;” Cheibub et al. "Makes democracies endure."
Boix, “Democracy and Redistribution.”
Dahl, Polyarchy and Beissinger, “Ethnicity and Democracy.”
Linz, “Perils of Presidentialism;" Lijphardt, "Consociational Democracy;" Norris, Driving Democracy;
Sartori, Parties and Party Systems.
Linz, Crisis, Breakdown and Reequlibration.
Dahl, Polyarchy, 141.
Przeworski, Democracy and the Market, 10.
See Lindberg, “Mapping Accountability.” Schmitter (in “Ambiguous virtues,” 52-54) acknowledges
that the spatial distinction is the most common one, but also proposes a temporal distinction in relation to
policy and electoral cycles.
Lührmann et al., “Constraining Governments,” 3.
Schmitter, “Ambiguous Virtues,” 53; O’Donnell, “Horizontal Accountability.”
O’Donnell, “A Response,” 68.
Schmitter, “The limits,” 60; Schmitter, “Ambiguous Virtues,” 53.
Goetz and Jenkins, “Hybrid Forms of Accountability;” Malena and Forster, “Social Accountability.”
Schedler, Diamond, and Plattner, The Self-Restraining State.
O’Donnell, “Horizontal Accountability.”
Goetz and Jenkins, “Hybrid Forms.”
For excellent overviews of such actions, see Grimes, “Contingencies of Societal Accountability” and
Malena and Forster, “Social Accountability.”
Achen and Bartels, Democracy for Realists; Graham and Svolik, “Democracy in America?”
Diamond and Morlino, “The Quality of Democracy.”
Linz, Crisis, Breakdown and Reequlibration.
Helmke, Courts Under Constraints; Chavez, Ferejohn, and Weingast, “Theory of Independent
McKie, “Term Limit Contravention.”
Mahoney and Goertz. “A Tale,” 239.
Edgell et al, “Episodes of Regime Transformation,” based on V10 of the V-Dem data (Coppedge et al.,
“V-Dem Dataset v10”).
Replicating our analysis using the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) rather than the EDI leads to a
similar set of cases with some differences, which we discuss in the Appendix.
Dahl, Polyarchy.
Autocratization episodes may start with a relatively small decline on the EDI (0.01) and end with an
increase in the EDI (greater than 0.02) or four years of stagnation in the EDI fluctuations of at most
0.01. For details, see Lührmann and Lindberg, “Third Wave,” 7.
Lührmann, Tannenberg, and Lindberg, “Regimes of the World.”
In two cases Turkey (2007-2011) and Turkey (2013-2019), and Venezuela (1999-2001) and
Venezuela (2003-2019) we consider two episodes of autocratization to be part of a single process. Thus,
the episode in Turkey (2007-2011) is considered to have ended in breakdown, even though democracy
only broke down during the later episode (2013-2019).
Either these episodes had 2019 as the ending year or, even though the coding rule suggested that the
autocratization episode ended in 2017 or 2018, we were not able to identify a significant change or
resolution that would lead us to consider the episode as having really ended.
Autocratization was related primarily to international conflict (Georgia 2006-2010), a coup attempt
(Venezuela 1992), ethnic conflict (North Macedonia 2000, Bosnia and Herzegovina 2013-2015),
communal violence (India 2002-2010), or gang violence and crime (Honduras 1998-2006) in other cases.
In Moldova (2012-2018) we consider that autocratization was largely driven by an oligarch’s attempt to
capture the state. Finally, although Mali (1997-1998) comes up as an episode of autocratization that
halted before breakdown, we could not identify democratic erosion there. The episode seems to have been
driven by fluctuations in the EDI in the immediate aftermath of the transition to democracy.
George and Bennett, Case Studies.
Mayrargue, “Boni, un Président Inattendu?”
Souaré, “The 2011 Presidential Election,” 74.
Reuters “Benin Parliament Rejects Impeachment,” August 20, 2010.
Souaré, “The 2011 Presidential Election,” 85.
Laleyè, “The Waiting Game.”
Jeune Afrique, “Présidentielle Béninoise,” February 22, 2011.
Banégas, “Benin: Challenges for Democracy,” 449-50.
Ibid., 455.
Ibid., 451-2.
Ibid., 453.
EISA, “The Conduct of the 26 April 2015 National Assembly Election: A Test of the Capacity of the
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Tyson Roberts, “Here’s Why Benin’s Election Was a Step Forward for African Democratic
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Laleyè, “The Waiting Game,” 8.
Banégas, “Benin: Challenges for Democracy,” 454-6.
Ibid., 452.
Duerksen, Mark. “The Testing of Benin’s Democracy,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, May 29,
Conaghan, “Ecuador,” 262-4.
Ibid., 271.
Polga Hecimovich, “La Presidencia del Ejecutivo Unitario,” 109.
Polga-Hecimovich, “Estabilidad Institucional,” 144.
Basabe-Serrano and Martínez, “Ecuador: Menos Democracia”; de la Torre and Ortiz Lemos, “Populist
Polga Hecimovich, “La Presidencia del Ejecutivo Unitario.”
Martínez Novo, “Collaborations and Estrangements.”
Basabe-Serrano and Martínez, “Ecuador: Menos Democracia,” 155-7.
de la Torre, “Ecuador after Correa,” 80.
Labarthe and Saint-Upéry, “Leninismo versus Correísmo,” 39.
León Cabrera, “Ecuador’s Former President Convicted,” April 7, 2020.
Odebrecht is a Brazilian construction giant, which was systematically bribing officials to obtain public
sector contracts across Latin America and the Caribbean. An investigation by the US Department of
Justice unearthed ample evidence of corruption across the region. See Shiel and Chavkin. “Bribery
Division: What is Odebrecht? Who is Involved?” June 25, 2019.
Labarthe and Saint-Upéry, “Leninismo versus Correísmo,” 34.
Burbano de Lara and de la Torre, “The Pushback.”
New York Times, “South Korea Scandal,” April 9, 2012.
Cho and Kim, “Procedural justice,” 1185. BBC News, “South Korea’s Spy Agency Admits Trying to
Influence 2012 Poll,” August 4, 2017.
Hyun-Soo Lim, “A Closer Look.”
New York Times, “6 Ex-Officials in South Korea Are Sentenced for Blacklisting Artists,” July 27,
Cho and Kim, "Procedural Justice and Perceived Electoral Integrity,” 1186. “Prosecutors Detail
Attempt to Sway South Korean Election”, November 21, 2013.
Cho and Kim, "Procedural Justice and Perceived Electoral Integrity,” 1187. Fish, “Internet censorship.”
Kim, “The 2012 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections”, 20.
New York Times, “Investigators Raid Agency of Military in South Korea,” October 22, 2013.
"South Korea After Impeachment," 119.
BBC News, “South Korea's Ex-Leader Jailed”. April 6, 2018.
A Gallup poll showed an approval rating of only 5% for the President in early November 2016.
Shin and Moon, “South Korea After Impeachment,” 130; Turner et al. “Making integrity institutions
work”, 980.
Gamboa, “Opposition at the Marginsand Cleary and Öztürk, “Opposition Strategies.”
Table 1. Concepts of democratic decline.
Democratic Erosion
(also used in Lührmann/Lindberg 2019)
(Elected) incumbents
Executive aggrandizement (Bermeo 2016)
(Elected) incumbents
Democratic Backsliding (Bermeo 2016)
Autocratization (Lührmann/Lindberg 2019)
Autocratization (Cassani/Tomini 2020)
Democratic Backsliding (Waldner/Lust 2018)
Figure 1. The interaction between the executive and accountability actors.
Table 2. Selected cases of democratic erosion.
in EDI
President Boni curtails media and quality of
elections and criminalizes opponents.
President Correa weakens checks and
balances, undermines electoral opposition,
pressures media and civil society.
South Korea
Government limits media and academic
freedom, right to privacy and administrative
Notes: EDI = V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index (0=not democratic; 1= fully democratic; see Coppedge et al., “V-
Dem Dataset v10.”); * Before onset of autocratization episode.
Table 3. Mechanisms resolving episodes of democratic erosion.
ruling party
between parties
South Korea
Note: A “x” marks primary importance of this factor; a “(x)” secondary importance and no mark implies a low
... 7 Spearheaded by a collegial body of scholars, including the political scientists Staffan Lindberg, Anna Lührmann, and many other collaborating researchers, the team has since applied this excellent resource to exploring what they term "autocratization," producing a wealth of academic articles and reports on the subject in just the last few years. 8 In the framing of this large research agenda, democratic backsliding is largely the result of the weakening of institutional constraints on politics that liberal, counter-majoritarian institutions such as independent judiciaries, civil society protections, and media freedoms provide. ...
The question of authoritarianism in America has become a hot-button issue in our era of political discontent. A great deal of ink has been spilled by Left and Right on the rise of authoritarian threats in recent years—from Trumpian populism to Covid bio-surveillance—and many prominent social scientists have made strident arguments about democratic “backsliding,” “erosion,” “autocratization,” and similar dan­gers to the health of the American republic. Much of this has been couched in rather hyperbolic language, yet good, sane research on the subject also exists and competes for attention among the policy-minded set. For the purposes of this essay, we can bracket questions of whether or not these arguments have been convincing. Instead, it may be more illuminating to focus on the common analytic problem shared by most of these discussions of backsliding and regime threats—an insufficiently fleshed-out account of what authoritarianism in modern America would look like in real terms. Backsliding arguments have usefully pointed to “democratic norms” as an important element in the breakdown of political legitimacy. But translating legitimacy crises into fully authoritarian regimes does not happen automatically, as assumed or implied by much of the “decline of democracy” literature. This is especially true for work written to reach audiences beyond the confines of academia. Many of the bad rehashes of “It Can’t Happen Here” have been just that—pale imitations mixed with a curious wish-casting for a wave of anachronistic fascism to sweep the country.1 In this article, I seek to partially rectify this failing by providing genuinely plausible, if speculative, accounts of what an American authoritarianism would involve, detailing two primary departure points on a hypothetical regime change trajectory: the endpoint of a process of gradual decay and the downstream outcome of a sudden regime break, respectively. It is less interesting for our purposes here to assess how that decay metastasizes or in exactly what way the regime break happens, but more to describe what settles in the aftermath, say, six to eight years later—illustrating what a stable or consolidated authoritarian America would look like. If we are serious about assessing the nature of an actual American authoritarian regime, the academic literature on comparative authoritarianism, although sometimes misapplied when translated into a popular context (and more often simply ignored), provides a good baseline sense of where political matters would most likely end up. Embarking on this dour thought experiment, what we will find is that rather than any concern over bare “minority rule” or incipient, interwar-era style fascism, scenarios of a truly authoritarian turn for the American polity involve either the popular establishment of an electoral authoritarian regime or the sudden crash into a far more unstable tutelary military regime by way of a genuine coup d’état. As Americans, when we think and worry about the collapse of our long-standing democratic polity, we should keep such potential realities in mind, and eschew distraction by more illusory fantasies.
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We are pleased to present the Democracy Report 2022 from the V-Dem Institute. Our report comes during challenging times as the world is facing a war in Europe, rising tensions in the East Asia-Pacific region, a return of military and other coups, and new heights of polarization across many societies. It is our hope that the Democracy Report 2022 will contribute to a greater understanding of the global challenges to democracy.
Contemporary autocratization is typically the result of a long sequence of events and gradual processes. How can democratic actors disrupt such autocratization sequences in order to enhance democratic resilience? To address this question, this conclusion presents an ideal-typical autocratization sequence and entry points for democratic resilience. It builds on the findings of this special issue, extant research and a novel descriptive analysis of V-Party data. In the first autocratization stage, citizens’ discontent with democratic institutions and parties mounts. Remedies lie in the areas of a better supply of democratic parties and processes as well as in civic education. During the second stage, anti-pluralists–actors lacking commitment to democratic norms – exploit and fuel such discontent to rise to power. In order to avoid the pitfalls of common response strategies, this article suggests “critical engagement”, which balances targeted sanctions against radicals with attempts to persuade moderate followers; and has the aim of decreasing the salience of anti-pluralists’ narratives by means of democratic (voter) mobilization. Thirdly, once autocratization begins, weak accountability mechanisms and opposition actors enable democratic breakdown. Thus, resilient institutions and a united and creative opposition are the last line of democratic defense. © 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
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This article analyses the state of democracy in 2020. The world is still more democratic than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but a trend of autocratization is ongoing and affecting 25 countries in 2020, home to 34% of the world’s population. At the same time, the number of democratizing countries has dwindled by nearly half, reducing to 16 countries, home to a mere 4% of the global population. Freedom of expression, deliberation, rule of law and elections show the most substantial net declines in the last decade. A major change is that India, formerly the world’s largest democracy, turned into an electoral autocracy. The V-Dem data suggests that direct effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on levels of liberal democracy were limited in 2020. Still, the longer-term consequences may be worse and must be monitored closely. Due to the pandemic and state restrictions on the freedom of assembly, mass mobilization declined to its lowest level in over a decade, yet the decline in pro-democracy protests in 2020 may well prove to be short-lived once the pandemic subdues.
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Accountability—constraints on a government’s use of political power—is one of the cornerstones of good governance. However, conceptual stretching and a lack of reliable measures have limited cross-national research on this concept. To address this research gap, we use V-Dem data and innovative Bayesian methods to develop new indices of accountability and its subtypes: the extent to which governments are accountable to citizens (vertical accountability), other state institutions (horizontal accountability), and the media and civil society (diagonal accountability). In this article, we describe the conceptual and empirical framework underlying these indices and demonstrate their content, convergent, and construct validity. The resulting indices have unprecedented coverage (1900–present) and offer researchers and policymakers new opportunities to investigate the causes and consequences of accountability and its disaggregated subtypes. Furthermore, the methodology provides a framework for theoretically driven index construction to scholars working with cross-national panel data.
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Less than 30 years after Fukuyama and others declared liberal democracy’s eternal dominance, a third wave of autocratization is manifest. Gradual declines of democratic regime attributes characterize contemporary autocratization. Yet, we lack the appropriate conceptual and empirical tools to diagnose and compare such elusive processes. Addressing that gap, this article provides the first comprehensive empirical overview of all autocratization episodes from 1900 to today based on data from the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem). We demonstrate that a third wave of autocratization is indeed unfolding. It mainly affects democracies with gradual setbacks under a legal façade. While this is a cause for concern, the historical perspective presented in this article shows that panic is not warranted: the current declines are relatively mild and the global share of democratic countries remains close to its all-time high. As it was premature to announce the “end of history” in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy” now.
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Populist successions are uncertain. Populists, like democrats, see voting as the only legitimate path to power. Yet populist leaders position themselves as liberators of the nation and the people, and hence above such constraints as term limits or the alternation of power. This article analyzes how Lenín Moreno, the handpicked successor of Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, unexpectedly broke with his mentor, took over his party, worked to depoliticize the institutions of justice, and championed a new constitutional barrier to Correa's hopes of permanent reelection. Will Moreno be successful in leading a transition from Correa's autocratic regime?. © 2018 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press.
In recent decades, prominent national leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez gained power through democratic institutions, only to undermine those institutions once in office as part of a broader effort to consolidate authoritarian power. Yet attempts at “executive aggrandizement” have failed in other countries, with varying consequences for democratic institutions. We develop an agency-based perspective to enhance the understanding of aggrandizement and to explain when it results in democratic breakdown. Relying on comparative case studies of five countries—Bolivia, Ecuador, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela—our analysis suggests that the contingent decisions of opposition actors during the process of aggrandizement have a significant effect on regime outcomes. Irregular opposition attempts to remove incumbents from office, which are especially likely after electoral defeats, contribute to democratic breakdown. More moderate responses to aggrandizement, on the other hand, help the opposition actors to buy time until the next election, hence offering the possibility for democratic survival.
Is support for democracy in the United States robust enough to deter undemocratic behavior by elected politicians? We develop a model of the public as a democratic check and evaluate it using two empirical strategies: an original, nationally representative candidate-choice experiment in which some politicians take positions that violate key democratic principles, and a natural experiment that occurred during Montana’s 2017 special election for the U.S. House. Our research design allows us to infer Americans’ willingness to trade-off democratic principles for other valid but potentially conflicting considerations such as political ideology, partisan loyalty, and policy preferences. We find the U.S. public’s viability as a democratic check to be strikingly limited: only a small fraction of Americans prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices, and their tendency to do so is decreasing in several measures of polarization, including the strength of partisanship, policy extremism, and candidate platform divergence. Our findings echo classic arguments about the importance of political moderation and cross-cutting cleavages for democratic stability and highlight the dangers that polarization represents for democracy.
The chapter examines the relations between intellectuals, nongovernmental organizations and social movements as well as the production of knowledge under the semi-authoritarian or “hybrid” regime of Rafael Correa (2007–2017) in Ecuador. The regime kept a democratic facade holding elections and following some basic rules of democracy, while simultaneously manipulating the public sphere, civil society, and social movements through a combination of co-optation, division, and repression strategies. The chapter focuses on the regime’s attempts to manipulate public debates and civil society as well as on society’s diverse responses to these strategies.
Since presidential term limits were (re)adopted by many states during the third wave of democratization, 221 presidents across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have reached the end of their term(s) in office. Of these, 30% have attempted to contravene term limits, resulting in either full abolition, one-term extensions, or failure. What explains these divergent trajectories? I argue that trends in electoral competition over time best predict term limit outcomes, with noncompetitive elections permitting full abolition, less competitive elections allowing for one-term extensions, and competitive elections leading to failed bids. This is because electoral trends provide informational cues to the president’s co-partisan legislators and constitutional court judges (the actors who ultimately rule on constitutional term limit amendments) about the cost/benefit analysis that voting to uphold or repeal term limits would have on their own political survival. These findings suggest a linkage between political uncertainty and constitutional stability more generally.
We explore what can be learned from authoritarian backsliding in middle income countries about the threats to American democracy posed by the election of Donald Trump. We develop some causal hunches and an empirical baseline by considering the rise of elected autocrats in Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary. Although American political institutions may forestall a reversion to electoral autocracy, we see some striking parallels in terms of democratic dysfunction, polarization, the nature of autocratic appeals, and the processes through which autocratic incumbents sought to exploit elected office. These processes could generate a diminished democratic system in which electoral competition survives, but within a political space that is narrowed by weakened horizontal checks on executive power and rule of law.