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Two key issues

  1. Contemporary democracies tend towards gradual and legally disguised erosion rather than sudden democratic breakdown (e.g. through a coup). While scholars agree that this seems to be the case, we lack the tools for properly understanding this kind of gradual change (maybe see my concept note on historical insitutionalism)
  2. There is disagreement about how strong this current wave of autocratization is. While some compare it to the 1930s, others suggest the world has become more democratic, developed and emancipated than ever before.

The concept of autocratization

Autocratization is a matter of degree and can occur both in democracies and autocracies. It is democratization in reverse and describes “any move away from [full] democracy” (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019, p. 1099). It can be decomposed into the following phases:

The third wave is real and endangers democracies

”Huntington conspicuously identified three waves of democratization and two waves of reversals” (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019, p. 1102).

An autocratization wave is defined as “the time period during which the number of countries undergoing democratization declines while at the same time autocratization affects more and more countries” (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019, p. 1102).

A key characteristic of the third wave stands out: Almost all autocratizing countries are democracies - and not autocracies as during the first two waves. What is unsettling about this distinction of the current autocratization wave is that, historically, “very few autocratization episodes starting in democracies have been stopped short of turning countries into autocracies.” (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019, 1108).

While the first and second waves of autocratization were dominated by “classic” tactics (e.g. military coup [39%], foreign invasion [29%] and autogolpes), the third wave is chiefly driven by democratic erosion [70%], i.e. a tactic used by incumbents where they first access legal power and then gradually, but substantially, undermine democratic norms without actually abolishing the key democratic institutions such as the parliament.

The third wave is gradual

In this third wave of autocratization, the autocratization rate, i.e. a measure of how fast democratic traits decline, is much lower than in previous waves:


Lührmann, A., & Lindberg, S. I. (2019). A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New about It? Democratization, 26(7), 1095–1113.