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Democracy Splutters

Good Day-to-day Governance Under Pressure

February 15, 2019 | by CHRISTOF SCHILLER

"...a decline in governments’ ability to clearly communicate their policies to citizens". Photo by Alice Donovan Rose via unsplash.com

Issues like globalization, social inequality and climate protection top the global to-do list. But can OECD and EU countries rise to these challenges amid political polarization and declining democratic standards?

Eroding standards of democracy and growing political polarization are severely hampering the implementation of sustainable reforms. This is one of the main findings in the Sustainable Governance Indicators’ (SGI) 2018 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation. SGI is an international monitoring tool, which sheds light on the future viability of all 41 countries in the OECD and European Union. On the basis of 140 indicators, we assess democratic standards, the quality of governanceand reforms in the areas of economics, social affairs and the environment. More than 100 international experts are involved in our cross-national survey.

The most recent study highlights how waning standards of democracy and growing political polarization hamper sustainable reform. Governments in countries including the United States, Hungary and Turkey are deliberately stoking social tensions rather than seeking consensus.

The report showed that the quality of democracy in many Western industrial nations is waning amid declining democratic standards in 26 of 41 countries surveyed, compared with similar data from four years earlier. “Even within the OECD and the EU, the model of liberal democracy is subject to growing pressure – in some countries this means that even central democratic and constitutional standards such as media freedoms are already severely damaged or undermined,” it found.

Compounding this worrying trend, the study’s authors identified a simultaneous decline in governance standards, with many countries losing ground on key measures of good governance.

Governance standards under pressure

Analyzed in terms of governance and the quality of policy outcomes, the Nordic countries, Switzerland and Germany continued to rank highest, although climbing partisan polarization threatens their progress on reforms.

In contrast, democracy and standards of governance took a big hit in Hungary, Poland, Mexico, Turkey and also in the United States. The world’s largest national economy slid nine places in terms of democracy and quality of governance, while Poland plummeted 29 places regarding democratic standards.

These findings underline that the model of liberal democracy is also coming under increasing pressure in the OECD and the EU – and in some countries, has already been heavily damaged.

In countries like Poland, Hungary and Turkey for instance, citizens’ trust in their government has grown even while democratic standards were sinking. Thus, fundamental democratic values don’t seem to be sufficiently anchored in the population’s political consciousness.

Polarization continues apace

Meanwhile, with the rise of populist parties in almost all the countries, the cleft between “the left” and “the right” has increased – and a number of governments are seeking to entrench conflicts within their respective societies rather than solving them.

Our findings also show that in Hungary, Poland, or Turkey, for example, those in power are deliberately circumventing legally established consultation procedures or excluding key actors in the decision-making process.

There has also been a decline in governments’ ability to clearly communicate their policies to citizens, as many governments increasingly find themselves caught in a permanent election campaign mode. Governments no longer explain their objectives coherently, and they loose their ability to build a consensus around facts. In the end, the implementation and quality of long-term political solutions suffer – a worrying reality, given that polarization looks set to continue in the foreseeable future.

Christof Schiller works as project manager for the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project. He is also an associated Fellow at the Potsdam Center for Policy and Management.

First published in Social Europe.

Photo attribution: Unnamed picture by Alice Donovan Rouse via Unsplash.

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