The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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Lords reform is back on the agenda: what are the options?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgSince December’s general election, proposals for Lords reform have abounded – emerging from both government briefings, and proposals floated during Labour’s leadership contest. Meg Russell, a well-established expert on Lords reform, reviews the wide variety of options floated, their past history, and their likelihood of success – before the topic may get referred to the government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission.

Reform of the House of Lords is a perennial in British politics. Elections come and go, political parties often make promises to reform the Lords, and generally political obstacles of various kinds – or simply just other political priorities – get in the way. As indicated below, and chronicled in my 2013 book The Contemporary House of Lords, some proposals still under discussion have been mooted for literally hundreds of years. Occasionally breakthroughs occur: significant reforms included the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 (which altered the chamber’s powers), the Life Peerages Act 1958 (which began moving it away from being an overwhelmingly hereditary chamber), and the House of Lords Act 1999 (which greatly accelerated that process, removing most remaining hereditary peers). Since this last reform there have been numerous proposals, through government white papers, parliamentary committee reports and even a Royal Commission (which reported in 2000), but little actual reform. The last major government bill on Lords reform — abandoned in 2012 — was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Its sponsor, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, no doubt came to agree with renowned constitutional historian Lord (Peter) Hennessy, who has dubbed Lords reform the ‘Bermuda Triangle of British politics’.

Nonetheless, following December’s general election the topic is firmly back on the agenda. The Conservative manifesto flagged it as a possible matter for discussion by the promised Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights (which is yet to be established). Various proposals from the government side have been floated in the media – the most eye-catching perhaps being a suggestion that the House of Lords might move to York. Meanwhile, other Lords reform ideas have featured in debates during the Labour Party leadership (and deputy leadership) contest. As often occurs, the topic has also been made salient by concerns about new appointments to the chamber. Continue reading

FOI and the Bin Laden photos

Given the apparent refusal by the US government to release the photographs of Bin Laden’s body, one obvious route to obtain them may be through the  Freedom of Information Act.

The nature of the pictures and circumstances around there non-release raise all sorts of interesting legal problems. This article by Dan Metcalfe, former Director of Information at the US Department of Justice, looks at what may happen if the FOI route is tried. It raises an interesting possibility that release by a legal ruling may well suit the administration.

‘ I found this in the work I did over the years, that when the information at hand is of such sensitivity that  another country or group would react to its official disclosure, it can be better if it is seen to be ordered by a court rather than undertaken unilaterally by the head of the nation.

In short, by deciding to go with even a meritless legal defence, the Obama Administration would gain the advantage of being able to say, “We tried, but our legal system is what it is” — and that would be that’.

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research, a multi-disciplinary and multi-method conference will be hosted by Rutgers University-Newark. This conference is co-sponsored by:

• Rutgers School of Law-Newark (primary sponsor)
• Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information –CELE-, School of Law, Palermo University, Argentina
• The Constitution Unit, University College London, UK
• Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions
• School of Public Administration, Renmin University of China
• School of Public Administration and Public Policy, Kookmin University, Korea
• School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers-Newark, USA

The purpose of the conference to bring together scholars from a wide range of fields including sociology, anthropology, political science, public administration, cultural studies, political economy, journalism, technology, and law who study issues of governmental transparency. This is the first large meeting of its kind to bring together leading scholars from throughout the world to collectively advance our understanding of the impact and implications of transparency policies that involve governments, either directly or indirectly. This includes policies on access to information held by and about governments, transparency relationships between government entities, transparency relationships between governments and private and non-profit entities, and access to information held by government about individuals.

The conference committee has put together an excellent program. Professor Christopher Hood, the Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls College Oxford, is the conference keynote speaker. The keynote speech is sponsored by Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions. Marco Daglio, Head of the Public Service Delivery Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development will present an overview of the OECD’s Open Government Project. Martin Tisné, Program Manager of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, will present an assessment of which areas of inquiry related to transparency and accountability deserve increased scholarly attention. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative is a donor collaborative that includes the Ford Foundation, Hivos, the International Budget Partnership, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Institute, the Revenue Watch Institute, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

We received over 270 paper proposals from scholars from around the world. A total of 115 of these proposals were accepted. Concurrent panel topics include fiscal transparency, municipal transparency, accountability, corruption, whistle blowing, regional overviews, theoretical foundations, institutional forces, and freedom of information laws and implementation. Five organizations (Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Open Society Foundations Human Rights Governance and Grants Program, Open Society Foundations Latin America Program, Open Society Foundations Rights Initiatives, Right to Information Fund, and World Bank Institute) have agreed to provide support to fund a total of 29 individuals from developing countries. The organizing committee is very grateful for their support of these scholars. We have individuals presenting their work from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.

The conference will take place at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University-Newark. On the evening of Wednesday, April 18th there will be reception at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). The following evening, Thursday April 19th, the conference participants will have dinner at the Newark Museum. The dinner will begin with a cocktail reception outside (weather permitting) and a gallery viewing of the American wing and the Victorian Ballantine House—a National Historic Landmark. The dinner will be in the Museum’s central atrium. For more information on the conference schedule and how to register for the conference visit