A moderate shock wave shook the public debate in early April: in the “Varieties of Democracy” ranking (V-Dem) by the University of Gothenburg, Austria was downgraded from a liberal democracy to an electoral democracy. The media reception was published: Austria was only “minimally democratic” was the headline for Puls24. In the “Standard”, Hans Rauscher asks himself whether Austria is a “second-rate democracy”. Fritz Plasser, gray eminence of Austrian political science, called for a democratic reform package in an interview with the “Kurier”. The SPÖ joined the National Council with a motion for a resolution. The causes of the V-Dem’s downgrading were identified just as quickly: corruption, standstill in the Freedom of Information Act, transparency in party financing, political pressure on the judiciary, advertising scandal.
And yes: on many of these points things are really in a bad way in Austria. Only: It is questionable whether the Gothenburg democracy ranking can serve as proof of this. (Short transparency passage: The author of these lines is himself one of the more than 3,000 experts that the Gothenburg V-Dem Institute surveys annually – not for indicators of the democracy ranking.) Pages of the ranking authors say about Austria’s downgrading to electoral democracy relatively scarce, this by A spicy come about in the indicator for “transparent laws with predictable execution”.
In order to understand the downgrading more precisely, however, one must briefly empirically dissect the categorization into liberal democracies, electoral democracies, electoral autocracies and closed autocracies. A state can only be considered an electoral or liberal democracy if there are free, fair and democratic elections with sufficient free competition. Austria easily overcomes all of these hurdles in the “Varieties of Democracy” data (there was a temporary slump in 2016 – probably due to the problems with the federal presidential election).
To be classified as a liberal democracy there must also be safe and effective access to justice for both men and women, equality before the law, fundamental freedoms and a limitation of government powers by parliament and the judiciary. According to the ranking in Austria, there have even been substantial improvements in most of these sub-areas since 1955. Last but not least, a liberal democracy must have “transparent laws with predictable enforcement” – and here Austria did worse in 2021 than before. This sub-indicator is recorded on a five-part scale from “Transparency and predictability are practically non-existent” (0) to “Transparency and predictability are very pronounced” (4).
Most of the experts surveyed by the V-Dem Institute give Austria the highest value of 4. Since 2005, the value 3 has also been mixed in again and again, whereby the transparency of the laws and the predictability of the enforcement are only “quite strong”, not “very strong”. “. This is usually not caused by experts changing their assessment from one year to the next, but by interviewing new ones who see things a little more critically.
There are also fewer and fewer experts available: from 2005 to 2017 there were nine or ten, in 2021 only two (!). Of the eight experts who left, five only ever awarded the top mark of 4 – it was enough that one of the other two changed from 4 to 3, and Austria was already below the threshold for classification as liberal in the indicator “Transparent laws with predictable enforcement”. fallen democracy.
Corona laws improved
All of this, of course, does not necessarily mean that these assessments are incorrect. Especially during the corona pandemic, legislators and regulators as well as executive authorities have certainly not covered themselves in glory. However, these deficits should have been reflected in the 2020 ranking, if at all. If you believe the President of the Constitutional Court, Christoph Grabenwarter, then the legislation on Corona has “considerably” improved since then.
Overall, Austria’s downgrading to electoral democracy is due to poorer values for a sub-indicator that is based on a poor empirical basis of two expert assessments for the year 2021 in question. The empirical resilience of this classification can also be safely questioned: Fewer respondents means – as in population surveys – greater uncertainty in the measurement and therefore less certainty about the reliability of the results.
How well the data of the V-Dem Institute is highly valued in political science and the quality of the survey and documentation far outshines most of the rankings circulating in the media (the detailed analysis carried out above would not be possible at all with the predominantly existing indices due to a lack of data transparency), one can certainly ask the authors of the ranking why categorizations that are widely received in the media are published on the thin empirical basis of two expert assessments without warning.
Another problem is that rankings that translate continuously scaled index scores into fixed categories (liberal democracy, electoral democracy) can be misleading. In reality, the transition from liberal to electoral democracy is fluid. The example of Hungary shows that autocratization is a constant process and cannot be tied to a single event or step.
Finally, the reception of the “Varieties of Democracy” report in Austria shows that rankings and indices are often used to support one’s own political standpoint, even if the empirical connection between what an index measures and what, based on it, is processed as a political demand WILL, often barely exists. If you jump on this bandwagon, it can also become a political own goal in the medium term: Let’s imagine that the V-Dem establishment would return to the values of 2020 next year – Austria would be a liberal democracy again, no longer an electoral democracy. None of the problems that have been plaguing our political system for years – lack of transparency, business with friends and party affiliates, advertising and other forms of corruption, protesting the independence of the public prosecutor’s office – would not even begin to be solved.