Inadequate understanding of democratic backsliding delays countervailing action


Academic and policy communities have often focused their attention on the causes of democratic backsliding at the expense of understanding the process. But far less attention has been paid to the sequencing, effects, and motivations of closing that can occur in full and partial democracies, according to Geoffrey Macdonald, the Principal Researcher for Democracy and Governance at the International Republican Institute, and David Sands, a Program Director in IRI’s Middle East and North Africa division. Inadequate understanding of the indicators and process of backsliding delays countervailing action as the process unfolds, they write for Open Democracy:

As the recent history of Venezuela shows, neither domestic opposition nor the international community are always able to push back on the retreat from democracy….In an attempt to confront this challenge, the International Republican Institute [IRI – a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy] has developed an analytical framework that captures the various facets of backsliding, which we believe will help implementers to better identify warning signs and craft mitigating responses in countries experiencing democratic regression….Our approach expands upon the focus of closing space researchers – which has often centered on political opposition and civil society groups – to include five additional categories: economic nationalization, digital suppression, media control and manipulation, ideational and cultural control, and the suppression of individual rights. This framework (developed as part of a USAID-funded research project) highlights the extent to which backsliding is a multidimensional and interactive process, comprised of diverse tactics that target an array of democratic actors, opening up possibilities for improved engagement by implementers and more effective interventions.

How can these guidelines help implementers? Macdonald and Sands ask:

  • First, by developing early warning signs of closing space, implementers will be better positioned to support local actors before situations reach a crisis point.
  • Additionally, a more holistic understanding of backsliding can help implementers craft programmatic responses that can support the efforts of grassroots actors and opposition groups who typically become the targets of closure.



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