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Who is Entitled to Assess Internal Democracy?

As stated in section 4.2, one of the meanings of democratic deficit is associated to the fact that not all countries are democratic, or at least not sufficiently democratic. When membership of IOs is discussed, internal issues also become of external concern. A country can be accepted in an IO on the grounds of its internal constitution: the EU, for example, does not accept member countries that practise the death penalty. The problem is that perceptions of how democratic a country is are inevitably subjective, and assessment is often used as an international political tool.

Experts in politics and international relations can help. Major efforts have been made to classify political regimes and to generate new metrics (for critical reviews see Munck 2009; Coppedge and Gerring 2011). The standard exercise is Polity IV, a source of information which allows one to detect to what extent democracy has progressed in a political regime. Figure 4.1 reports the evolution of political regimes since the end of World War II. The left-hand vertical axis shows that, since the end of the Cold War, the number of democracies has doubled, while authoritarian states have constantly been reduced. There is still a large intermediate category, anocracies, which have not yet democratized. In spite of the existence of different regimes, democracy can be said to exist in the majority of countries, and this number is increasing.

Political regimes are not considered on a binary scale only, but on a continuous scale. As most of the attempts to quantify democracy within countries, Polity IV provides a metric in which individual countries are attributed a score from -10 (total lack of democracy) to +10 (total achievement of democracy). Taking into account the average scores achieved by the monitored countries, we have calculated the average democratic score for all countries

Global Trends in Internal Political Regimes 1946-2014

Figure 4.1. Global Trends in Internal Political Regimes 1946-2014

Source: Elaboration of the authors on Polity IV data. Polity IV mean is the average of the scores achieved by countries from -10 to +10. Total number of countries in 2014: 167.

monitored (Polity mean), as indicated by the right-hand vertical axis of Figure 4.1. It emerges that the quality of democracy, measured as the total of the scores achieved by internal political regimes, has increased: while it was as low as as -2.5 in the mid-1970s, it is above +4.0 by the 2010s. The year 1990 appears as the crucial year in two different respects since it is the moment at which: (i) democracies outnumber autocracies; and (ii) the average score for all countries monitored starts to become positive.

We may rightly challenge the definitions adopted to classify political regimes. All classifications, including Polity IV, are debatable. If we go beyond the dichotomy of democracy/non-democracy and we try to place individual political regimes on a scale, some results will surprise us. The reader may be puzzled to discover that, according to Polity IV, in 2014, Mongolia gets a score of 10, while France and Belgium get respectively 9 and 8; that Venezuela has a score lower than Colombia; that Cuba gets a -7 while Haiti a 0. Once the data for individual countries are scrutinized, people unexperienced in the art of quantitative comparative politics may become sceptical about the possibility of classifying with one single number the political regime of a country. These classifications should be taken as first approximations for the study and understanding of politics. In particular:

i) Rather than using a single value for a whole political system, it would be better to provide a battery of indicators able to inform on a variety of dimensions.[1] In some countries, the critical obstacle to a proper democracy is a badly functioning judicial apparatus; in other countries it is the lack of effectiveness of government actions; in others there are serious problems of discrimination towards ethnic minorities. By using a single aggregate parameter, the possibility of understanding each political system is reduced, as are the possibilities to learn from good practice. This is the line pursued by Coppedge and Gerring (2011), which has begun to be implemented by the Project Varieties of Democracy (see

ii) These quantitative assessments generate a dangerous attitude in politicians and academics, pundits and journalists, namely to believe that there is a unique model of democracy that can fit all countries and all situations. This approach is paradoxically the most anti-democratic, since it empowers external agents to decide what democracy should be internally. On the contrary, democracy is essentially a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. Successful democracy building in Eastern Europe, Latin America, South East Asia, and Africa have all seen the active involvement of citizens to develop their own institutions, and this has often involved the generation of new forms of democracy. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the regime change in the early 1990s followed procedures that were not undertaken in consolidated democracies and that are at odds with the traditional understanding of the judicial power in liberal democracies. But the innovative form of reconciliation substantially helped the transition and the consolidation of the new regime, up to the point that in less than twenty years, the process has become a standard of reference for many other such transitions.

iii) The metric provided, not only by Polity IV, but also by other exercises such as Freedom House, implicitly assumes that there is the possibility to achieve a zenith of democratic practice. Some countries are likely to change regimes. For example, the analysis of a country such as Turkey helps to identify the major changes in political regimes that have taken place in the last decades. But if we look at a consolidated democracy such as the United States (the nation in which the majority of these data are generated), the metric provides much less interesting results. Since 1946, the US is coded as a full democracy with a score equal to 10. There are at least two problems with such an assessment. First, this would imply that democracy in the US has not progressed in seventy years. This is hardly the case: civil liberties have considerably increased over that period. This leads to a second problem: if it is assumed that there is a 'ceiling' of democracy, this means that the final level of democracy can be dictated in advance. But this is very much against the very nature of democracy, which should be interpreted as an open system able to identify new challenges and able to achieve new targets (Archibugi 2008, Chapter 2).

In consolidated democracies, the attitude persists that these regimes provide the benchmark against which others should be measured, and are in no need of further improvement. Again, this is based on a misunderstanding, since democracy is an open regime which is able to continuously improve its operation in terms of increased participation, more effective decision-making, deeper accountability, and greater political equality among its members. Not all political regimes could claim to be democratic, and some regimes are certainly more democratic than others. But appropriate procedures should still be found to assess differences in political regimes and to identify the most suitable democratic form for each of them.

These issues should be carefully considered when IOs or other independent organizations provide an assessment of the democratic regime of countries. There is no case in which the membership of an IO has been officially accepted or denied because of the classification provided by Polity IV or similar exercises, although they may be influential in policymaking. Besides the metrics, it seems particularly relevant to assess not only how a political regime does correspond to a standard notion of democracy, but also to what extent there is a genuine commitment to progress, in each historical condition, in the direction of democracy.

Recent attempts are more pluralistic in nature and, rather than providing a single metric, suggest that individual countries can be assessed according to a range of criteria. This is now the approach followed by Varieties of Democracy, co-hosted by the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, USA (see and, for the intellectual justification, Coppedge and Gerring 2011). Even if much less established than traditional exercises such as Polity IV and Freedom House, this approach seems much more fruitful, especially for the operation of IOs, since it will enable us to apply a battery of different criteria to: (a) indicate the weaknesses of individual countries;

(b) provide the opportunity to learn from other nations' experiences; and (c) suggest reform and chances to be introduced in member countries.

  • [1] For qualitative rather than quantitative attempts to assess the quality of democracy, seeBeetham, Bracking and Kearton 2002 ; Morlino, 2004.
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