Roadmap with pushpins spread out. Hand in the background with additional pushpin.

Paths to Democratic Resilience in an Era of Backsliding: A Roadmap for the Democracy Support Community

Understanding and Designing Resilience Interventions
December | 2023
Author
Managing Director Center for Applied Research and Learning
Cassandra Emmons, IFES Democracy Data Analyst
Author
Senior Democracy Data Analyst
Kyle Lemargie Headshot
Contributor
Senior Global Advisor, Democratic Resilience and Innovation
Contributor
Deputy Director, Center for Applied Research and Learning
TwitterFacebookLinkedin

Conceptualizing Democratic Resilience

Governance is an intricate, multifaceted system with integral (and sometimes mutually reinforcing) components. Drawing insights from the study of other complex systems, such as environmental ecosystems and information technology infrastructure, a system is considered resilient “if it continues to carry out its mission in the face of adversity.”32  Taking this definition as our starting point, we define “democratic resilience” as the ability to maintain democratic governance functions and principles, despite attempts by illiberal actors to damage or diminish vertical, horizontal, or diagonal accountability mechanisms that are core to democracy. Democracy’s stress tests can include those listed in Table 1, but they are not limited to those examples.

Democracy itself is a system that requires continuous care and maintenance; it is not an endpoint. Fostering democratic resilience is, thus, an ongoing process. It requires democratic systems and actors to build and sustain capacities to respond to and recover from crises, possibly by transforming themselves or innovating in permanent ways. Appropriate preparation, combined with learning, reduces the need for ad hoc interventions by democracy actors. Similar resilience cycles are used in other sectors but have been underutilized for the democracy and governance space. IFES applies these three parts of the resilience cycle depicted in Figure 1 to democracy support as follows:

Preparation. A resilient system is equipped to lessen the impact of a democratic backsliding episode by anticipating that such threats will inevitably materialize, and defenses will be tested. With appropriate long-term thinking, a democratic system can be designed to weather such shocks and enable resilience among the individuals who work within it. For instance, many democracies have built checks and balances across branches of government or chains of command into their constitutions to prevent system weaknesses. In other contexts, this is akin to avoiding single points of failure; if one defensive mechanism fails, another safety net is in place. An important element of preparation is identifying new and emerging threats. Even in non-crisis times, democratic actors should stay vigilant to detect attacks against accountability mechanisms, such as the proposal of anti-democratic laws, significant cuts in the budgets of independent agencies, changes in nomination procedures that might undermine the autonomy of independent institutions, or government deployment of surveillance against opposition actors without judicial review.

Response. When built-in checkpoints fail, it is imperative to respond to present threats. Resilient responses can take several forms: armoring against or withstanding the shock; absorbing fallout by activating relevant procedures; or adapting flexibly to the situation. To withstand attacks on an independent institution, for example, trusted democratic champions can sensitize their communities to the threat with information campaigns, rallying collective pushback against anti-democratic efforts to capture or control those bodies. Democratic systems can also absorb shocks such as corruption by applying a range of available sanctions — whether disciplinary, administrative, civil, or criminal. Where those options are unavailable or unsuccessful, democratic actors can find innovative ways to respond by adapting protocols, such as by establishing new information-sharing mechanisms to understand, monitor, uncover, and expose evolving cybersecurity threats. 

Recovery and transformation. Sometimes, crises have clear endpoints; in other cases, democratic backsliding is prolonged, but there are opportunities to win back some of the democratic ground that has been lost. During this phase, democratic systems should reflect on weaknesses exposed by the backslide to recover and, where necessary, innovate to transform points of failure for future resilience. Weaknesses in autonomy and accountability structures exploited during the backslide need to be addressed — even when they might also advantage the governing position of ascendant pro-democracy actors. Even mechanisms that functioned as envisioned may need adjustment considering recent experience. Legal and procedural reforms should include new rules, norms, or practices that reflect the lessons learned from the response phase. These newly transformed institutions become the intentional design in preparation for future shocks.
 

Designing Resilience Interventions

Building and maintaining democratic resilience is an ongoing process, but there are specific interventions that can be more influential before, during, and after moments of adversity.

Because the preparation phase, by definition, does not involve an active threat, resilience efforts during this phase should identify and address vulnerabilities in the accountability architecture, prioritizing weaknesses that are more likely to be exploited. Continuous investments in building strong demand for democracy among the public and supporting the resilience of independent government agencies, CSOs, and the media can prepare countries and their citizens to avert serious threats to their democratic government. Table 2 lists examples of activities in the preparation phase.

TABLE 2: Selected Interventions During the Preparation Phase

Prepare Horizontal Accountability Mechanisms     Prepare Vertical Accountability Mechanisms    
 
Prepare Diagonal Accountability Mechanisms 
  • Support parliamentary capacity to engage in robust policy dialogue and debate
  • Encourage development of nomination processes and other procedures that preserve the autonomy of judicial bodies and independent agencies
  • Sharpen the institutional reflexes of government agencies through scenario planning, crisis management, and strategic communications
  • Formalize relationships (e.g., via memoranda of understanding) among independent agencies to enable collective resistance to political pressure
  • Build relationships among public institutions and technology companies to help protect public institutions from attacks and optimize performance and service delivery
  • Provide leadership skills training to sensitize public officials to their roles and responsibilities and help them identify, resist, and expose cooptation attempts
  • Support reforms to emergency powers laws to align with international standards, including sunset clauses and reporting mandates
  • Support judges to engage with peers in global or regional networks to share good practices and bolster support for their independence
  • Train election officials to conduct audits of core electoral systems (e.g., results management systems)
  • Build the capacity of EMBs to hold credible elections that lead to peaceful transfers of power
  • Develop a legal framework conducive to holding competitive elections, including campaign finance regulations and robust guarantees of freedom of association
  • Support local government officials to understand their roles and responsibilities, connect with their constituents, and deliver public services 
  • Increase representation by supporting the inclusion of diverse groups, including frequently marginalized communities, in political processes
  • Support the development of issue-based political party platforms that reflect constituents’ interests
  • Enable the professionalization of political parties to create a healthy, competitive political environment
  • Institutionalize inclusive post-election reviews to build resilience into the electoral process 
  • Build the capacity of citizen election observation groups to oversee election processes impartially and accurately using systematic, tested methodologies
  • Support legal reform to reduce ambiguity and prevent governments from attacking or limiting the ability of media and civil society to provide oversight
  • Engage in educational and outreach efforts to build and cement a democratic culture and demand for democracy among the public
  • Support the organization and professionalization of civil society groups that can help hold the government accountable
  • Support the professionalization of independent media outlets committed to unbiased reporting
  • Create space for active civil society engagement and media competition
  • Build skills in grant writing, data analytics, and writing among civil society actors to better advocate for their causes

 

Once a threat against specific accountability mechanisms is recognized as signaling democratic erosion, democratic breakdown, or autocratic deepening, appropriate responses can be chosen (see Table 3). That is, by identifying the context of a democratic backslide, the democracy, rights, and governance community can determine the types of resilience that are lacking and better target their interventions to support democratic champions. In so doing, we move away from the question of “what works generally?” in favor of asking “what works under these real-world conditions?”33 The most appropriate responses should be chosen and designed in collaboration with local actors, as they are best situated to understand the threats and articulate their specific priorities. 

TABLE 3: Selected Interventions During the Response Phase

Respond to Democratic Erosion Respond to Democratic Breakdown Respond to Autocratic Deepening
 
  Horizontal Accountability   
  • Support judiciaries to defend their independence against attacks from the executive, including through improved strategic communications and integrity training
  • Defend the mandates of independent institutions in the face of proposed checks on their power, including through public campaigns, legal advocacy and court challenges, and activation of established relationships with other constitutionally independent institutions 
  • Support consistent application of existing laws and timely sanctions against perpetrators of anti-democratic actions in public offices, including corruption and manipulation of the civil service
  • Activate transnational judicial networks to support national responses to attacks on the judicial branch
  • Seek to deploy full international election observation missions to the next scheduled national or key local election 
  • Provide ongoing technical assistance to EMBs to overcome operational challenges and threats that could jeopardize the integrity of elections 
  • Call for the activation of intergovernmental organizations’ suspension and other sanctioning mechanisms, particularly when there are high levels of malign foreign interference 
  • Identify potential champions in remaining institutions to build inter-institutional and possibly international coalitions that might foster democratic reforms
  • Produce and disseminate compelling information campaigns to counter regime narratives that normalize unconstrained executive power
  Vertical Accountability   
  • Support political parties to develop strong, inclusive, issue-based platforms that reflect people’s needs and interests, increasing pluralism and reducing the appeal of populist narratives
  • Provide leadership skills training for pro-democracy political leaders (e.g., in ethics, risk management, consensus building, dialogue and negotiations, mediation, inclusion, and crisis management) 
  • Directly aid pro-democracy movements, engaging marginalized voices in particular
  • Support advocacy against laws and other measures designed to repress political opposition
  • Support initiatives that reduce tensions between political parties and that could lead to violence (e.g., codes of conduct, dialogue, mediation teams or committees)
  • Enable the continuity of government service provision, including through direct aid
  • Provide guidance for domestic observers in planning missions and crafting public statements that support accountability and transparency without exacerbating tensions
  • Support networks of individuals in the diaspora (“drained brains”) to stay engaged in their home countries’ political futures
  • Ensure the availability of independent analysis on how elections are being subverted as a counterpoint to non-critical regime narratives and the reports of “zombie” observer missions
  • Create opportunities for individuals in the diaspora to gain professional experience in election administration, building leadership capacity to support future transitions and maintain relevance and credibility with citizens still inside the country
  Diagonal Accountability   
  • Sponsor innovations in communication platforms, tools, and strategies to help civil society and the media share threat intelligence and monitor, uncover, and expose threats to democracy
  • Provide legal defense resources for journalists and civil society targeted by SLAPPS to engage in strategic litigation
  • Offer media training to build public understanding of the role and value of an independent court system
  • Support CSOs to coordinate and build regional networks to foster peer-to-peer exchange, elevate their voices, increase their mobilization strength, and build solidarity
  • Provide digital security and/or cyber-hygiene training for civil society advocates and independent journalists
  • Support the enfranchisement of out-of-country voters (including refugees and exiles) to maintain political engagement
  • Provide media literacy trainings and support to advocates in using digital techniques to counter disinformation and protect civil society, media, and the broader public from disinformation and manipulative narratives
  • Collaborate with academic institutions that may be granted wider space for debate, dialogue, and research to impart information on democracy and critical thinking skills to youth
  • Consult the diaspora community to identify immediate needs and raise awareness of and advocacy for international responses

 

 

 

When there is a window of opportunity for democratic renewal or building back better — whether in autocratic countries or in democracies experiencing erosion or breakdown — the democracy, rights, and governance community should also be prepared to support and capitalize on those opportunities. Recovery need not mean a full return to the status quo; it can require standing up new or transformed resilience measures in addition to restoring elements that have been lost. This phase relies on innovation as well as reflection. Table 4 provides examples. 

Table 4: Selected Interventions During the Recovery and Transformation Phase

Recover from Democratic Erosion or Transform    
 
Recover from Democratic Breakdown or Transform    
 
Recover from Autocratic Deepening or Transform
 
  Horizontal Accountability   
  • Support the creation of new institutions to fill oversight gaps, and reforms that bolster the autonomy and accountability of existing institutions 
  • Develop clear regulations, laws, and sanctions against corruption in public offices 
  • Equip civil servants, including judicial officers, to understand and implement legal, regulatory, and sanction measures to ensure consistency and avoid perceptions of bias
  • Adopt new parliamentary structures, rules, and procedures that protect effective debate, enable passage of legislation, and secure oversight functions 
  • Revise politically compromised selection processes for independent institutions
  • Establish internal mechanisms to improve judicial administration and address corruption in the judiciary (codes of conduct, training, and independent budgets)
  • Socialize governing institutions to their requirements, rights, and avenues for action under international law commitments, and support their efforts to realign domestic laws and the constitution with such agreements
  • Develop the capacities of sub-national tiers of institutions such as EMBs to safeguard electoral integrity throughout the institutional hierarchy
  • Gather lessons learned and, through strategic planning and institutional support, build on them to support stronger local detection and response mechanisms
  • As appropriate, support the restoration of institutional mandates and autonomous functions of independent agencies
  • Provide technical assistance for (special) elections to replace appointed seats in legislatures with elected seats, and for convening broader electoral system reform discussions
  • Support courts to facilitate transitional justice and/or dismantle undemocratic legal structures put in place by the previous autocratic regime
  Vertical Accountability  
  • Support advocacy to repeal repressive laws and other measures designed to censor or limit civil liberties 
  • Address needed institutional reform and rebuild institutional credibility for EMBs 
  • Collaborate with political parties to draft election codes of conduct to ensure buy-in at all levels
  • Support an inclusive legal reform process to unwind legal and extra-legal measures that damaged the party system and hindered competitive elections
  • Encourage legislative reform to expand voting opportunities and enable broad participation
  • Identify key service provision gaps during breakdown episodes and devise alternative delivery protocols for future crises
  • Support broad-based, inclusive consultations on drafting or amending the constitution
  • Sponsor initiatives to support youth to be positioned as political leaders in future democratic openings
  • Provide guidance for redrawing and reapportioning electoral districts according to international best practices 
  • Convene stakeholders to address unusual party registration or dissolution articles in the electoral legal framework
  Diagonal Accountability   
  • Support new research, civil society monitoring, and reporting initiatives in areas exploited by illiberal actors to heighten future detection capabilities
  • Support civil society and media to identify and counter misinformation, including in ways that align with institutional communications strategies 
  • Support civil society and the media to build capacity to gather information, investigate and document abuses, and safely expose wrongdoing by anti-democratic actors to build demand for accountability
  • Establish formal dialogues with civil society actors and government institutions in the building back process 
  • Mediate conversations with fragmented segments of society to find common ground 
  • Support the reintegration of the diaspora to build back a strong civil sector
  • Promote new and re-emerging independent or opposition voices in local media 
  • Establish academic opportunities through international networks that introduce students to alternative worldviews
  • Partner with new or re-emerging CSOs for new on-the-ground activities 

 

Moving Forward

This paper set out to refocus the international democracy support community’s efforts in the present era of backsliding. It articulates the ways that illiberal actors work cooperatively and creatively to dismantle the accountability architecture that is core to democracy systems. The paper offers a practical definition of democratic resilience and a straightforward framework that distinguishes among democratic erosion, democratic breakdown, and autocratic deepening and the specific threats posed to accountability structures in each of these contexts. This nuanced look at backsliding lends itself to matching appropriate resilience-enhancing interventions to the threats at hand. 

This framework offers a starting point for choosing interventions that are most likely to succeed based on the backsliding context and the impending or ongoing threat to accountability mechanisms. With this framework, we seek to shift the question from whether support is feasible or desirable in a backsliding context to how the international community can best support a democracy that is encountering any form of backsliding. For example, how can we more effectively enhance the resilience of a democracy’s horizontal accountability structures — its inter-institutional checks and balances — when there are signs that judicial independence is eroding? How can we build the resilience of vertical accountability structures, such as by (re)establishing a viable, competent opposition, in the face of autocratic deepening? 

Our key takeaway is that an effective approach to supporting local democracy champions should employ resilient design principles appropriate to the relevant stage of the resilience cycle: preparing the democratic system for shocks and stresses; responding to crises while maintaining government’s core functions; and — when opportunities arise — recovering and transforming to be more resistant to similar incidents in the future. 

Despite some bright spots, the anti-democratic challenges of the day are not fading. Defenders of democracy stand the greatest chance of success if we work simultaneously to bolster the democratic accountability architecture that is targeted by autocrats and to disrupt and diminish the impact of autocratic agendas. This paper suggests more than any one actor in the international democracy community can implement. Successful democratic resilience building will require the international donor and diplomatic community, intergovernmental institutions, and technical assistance providers to coordinate interventions to best support local democracy champions.
 

Footnotes

32

Firesmith, D. (2019). “System Resilience: What Exactly is it?” Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute Blog (November 25).

33

Buril, F. (2022). “Why We Should Stop Asking ‘What Works in Democracy Assistance’.” IFES Blog (March 9).