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WORLD | 01-01-2023 04:34

Hauke Hartmann: ‘In the last decade we have seen authoritarian populism emerge with tougher autocracies’

Feature interview with German historian and political scientist.

German historian and political scientist Hauke Hartmann directs the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, which measures the quality of democracy, the market economy and governance in 137 developing countries. A specialist in Latin American and Caribbean studies, he highlights the peaceful transitions between the governments of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández while noting a moderate drop of marks under the current government.


Can you briefly explain to our readers what the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) consists of and how it is formed?

The BTI is a product of the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation, which is one of the biggest independent think tanks in Germany. Our task is to evaluate the quality of democracy, socio-economic development and governance in 137 countries. Two things make this so special. One is the integral evaluation of countries in a process of change towards a democracy based on the rule of law and a market economy flanked in social and political terms. And the other takes the index beyond numbers. Our reports on 137 countries are like an encyclopaedia of knowledge on the processes of transformation because in each BTI publication there are 5,000 pages of accompanying country reports giving the grounds for the points in our qualitative evaluations.


What is the practical importance of the BTI index?

It really depends on whom you ask. Many Northern Hemisphere countries like the United States, Britain or Germany use the BTI to evaluate countries to the south of them or to obtain information on how good their governments are or how solid their democracies are. They do so via other indicators which use our data, unlike the World Bank indicators for governance or the Transparency International index, since many indexes incorporate our data. 

But for me, as an index producer, the most important thing is what we are doing here and now, this dialogue about the results so that civil society can pick up our information to make comparisons with other countries to orient the reform of their governments and to engage in dialogue with us to see what can be done better. 


The BTI is based on a qualitative survey of experts in each country. How do you administer the subjectivity in these cases in order to minimise its incidence?

Firstly, none of the data we make available is subjective. We have seen in Argentina that the head of the [INDEC national] statistics bureau was fired because he did not supply the data when he had to. That is the case in many countries. You might debate the unemployment figures in the United States or the percentage of poverty in Egypt but the most important thing, perhaps, is how you handle the knowledge that such data are subjective by definition. 

In our case we are installing cycles of review at a national level and all the data coming from a country are revised from outside or vice versa. We have a regional coordinator who goes calibrating the results and looking at the quality of the reports. We have an independent investigative team which again analyses the quality of the reports and checks whether any data are missing. And we are installing our own process of interregional calibration to see that we are not discriminating against any region but that our information is indeed reliable, comparable and not based on subjectivity. But I assure you that at the end of the day, the subjective factor cannot be filtered out, neither in our index nor in all the others which only deal with numbers,  not reports. 


How do you guarantee the validity, reliability and comparability of the evaluation?

We feel relatively and comparatively safe but to be really honest, at the end of the day we have excellent reports and reliable data and we do that by constantly monitoring the process of evaluation. Thus we are not looking at the reports at the end of the process but also during it because all the information we require from our multidimensional indicators is supplied in order to be fed into the process and steer it a bit. And then, of course, after the process of analysis, the whole evaluation phase begins. Our standardised codebook has the questions  formulated so that all the authors can understand the next BTI, which will be the 10th. We have plenty of experience, for the last 20 years we’ve been working on how to improve our questions to receive better answers.


How do you determine whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy?

That’s a very interesting point in comparison with other democratic indicators which mainly centre on free and fair elections and a series of basic civil rights. For us it’s more complicated because we are seeing the start of a process of democratisation. Does the state measure up to having a political system? We look at the end of the process to see whether democracy is consolidating or showing signs of destabilisation. But we have established seven indicators for reference, among them, freedom of expression and assembly, the separation of powers, civil rights and, of course, elections in order to say that there are minimum standards for democracy which must be met. If a country fails in any one of these seven referential indicators, it cannot be considered a democracy. You cannot have democracy without such minimum standards as freedom of expression and the press.


You highlight the importance of discussing the results of the BTI index in every country. Do you propose this discussion as a way of generating democratic awareness in  society?

Absolutely, when you  begin making an index, you’re busy discussing the methodology and then comes the points system. But when you give yourself sufficient time, as I do heading the BTI, you discover that its real importance is as a tool for initiating dialogue and that also helps you to ask questions. Because when I come here to Argentina, I’m not an expert on this country but it helps me to discuss the findings for compiling the information which we can all use for the next round of our indices and perhaps to ask the correct questions. It also makes our partners think about what is really going on.


For the first time since 2004, the BTI is registering more autocratic states than democracies among the 137 developing countries studied with only 67 still democracies and the other 70 autocracies. Is autocracy or democracy the great conflict of our times?

I would say that it has always been THE great conflict but it’s very visible now that the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which you have emblazoned in your newspaper building, has gone into retirement – a marvellous triumph but just one moment in time. And when we look back at the processes of transformation worldwide in the last 10 years, we see authoritarian populism and harsher autocracies. We see a certain decline in the democratic quality of a stable democracy like Brazil, for example – they run a very real danger of damaging their own democratic system. So the last 10 years have not been good ones for democracy.


According to your vision, what is the cause of the strengthening of autocratic systems and the erosion of democratic norms?

If we look back on the last 20 or 30 years of globalisation and hyper-globalisation, which, of course, have had an enormous socio-economic effect in reducing poverty until the last couple of years when the pandemic interrupted that trend, inequality has increased dramatically at the same time. Of course, people start asking their political systems to tackle this issue of social inequality, which has not been tackled properly. But that is only one factor. Also in times of globalisation, who is making the decisions, the national population, the regional population or the global population? Are those decisions always democratic? What do you do in times of hypercommunication when you are suddenly faced with information to which you did not have access previously? What is going on with the telephone revolution in Africa? And what has happened to the social networks of the Arab world which played such an important role in the revolutions of the Arab Spring? These are all factors generating discontent and disruption in the system, which could be positive for bringing authoritarian regimes to an end but may also destabilise democracy. And we see that in many democracies which we once considered stable like Hungary, Poland or India, this disruption is reaching a point where it is really challenging the democratic system.


What is your opinion on the democratic transition in Argentina?

It might surprise you to hear this but Argentina has been an atypically positive case in recent years because the polarisation so evident in this country in reality ended after the elections. The last two changes of government, from Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner to Mauricio Macri and from Macri to Alberto Fernández, were amazingly peaceful and constructive. And that in itself, I believe, is an achievement for a society like the Argentine, which is pretty polarised to start off with.


On September 1 there occurred an event [the attempted assassination of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner] which marks a before and after for Argentina’s return to democracy since 1983, the first incidence of political violence. How do you analyse this milestone in this country’s history with respect to the strengths and weaknesses of democracy?

It was a very symbolic and serious incident. I think everybody is glad that nothing happened. I definitely do not want to take anything away from the importance or gravity of that incident because it could have been much worse. This is, of course, an alarming signal that the level of political violence, even in a stable country like Argentina, is increasing. 

I recall that Raúl Alfonsín also suffered an assassination attempt two years after his presidency. So I understand this to be a singular event. I would say that Argentine society reacted in solidarity with Cristina [Fernándeez de] Kirchner and the entire political spectrum condemned this attack. That solidarity could also have a stabilising effect. Again, I’m glad that nothing more happened. 


The independence of the three branches of government is one of the factors you bear in mind for measuring governance and the strength or weakness of democratic institutions. In the case of Brazil, for example, with the conviction of Lula for corruption followed by his release, or in Argentina with the trials of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, do you see justice in Latin America becoming politicised?

Taking politics into the courtroom in Latin America also has an inverse effect on the judicial branch, which sometimes plays a very positive role in the defence of democratic interests, at the same time giving the right dimensions to decisions which the political sphere has not managed to make, as in the case of Brazil. I would say that the temptation to overstep its own limits and also affect other institutions is always there, of course. 

You are certainly right in singling this out as a special problem in Latin America although at the same time we also have it in Europe, in Poland and Hungary, and many other parts of the world, in reality. I would say that 15 or 16 years ago when we published the first editions of BTI, we always warned that the erosion of the rule of law is only the first step in democratic decline and that sooner or later it will also affect the rights of participation. I believe that still to be true although our focus is now on democratic defects on a much greater scale than the rule of law. But the breakdown of the separation of powers is always the first incursion for the processes of autocracy.


Another relatively recent and increasingly evident phenomenon in Argentina is the penetration of drug-trafficking into the political and judicial spheres with its epicentre in the city of Rosario. Do you evaluate this factor when measuring the independence of the branches of government and is this also appearing as something new in other countries? 

I think that this is a serious problem at regional level. Various democracies have fallen into virtual warfare like Guatemala or Nicaragua while México has declined dramatically in recent years due to the destabilisation which accompanies drug-trafficking. Argentina’s worries about this type of destabilising factor gaining ground are understandable but I’m not familiar with the situation in Rosario. I really cannot pretend to be an expert in this but I can certainly say that it is reflected in the BTI as to how the strength of drug-trafficking gangs and cartels affects the state monopoly of the use of force, as well as the independence of the judicial branch, whether it is free of corruption. But we also analyse the protection of civil rights because that is an enormous factor, as we see in Mexico, where people can no longer be sure of their lives in areas controlled by drugs. I celebrate the awareness of this and the alert being sounded to counter it because once it spreads, it will destabilise the institutions.


During the government of Mauricio Macri, Argentina improved its marks in the BTI index but nevertheless remained at the same level as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s second term on the economic front. How do the results of the 2022 index compare with the Macri government?

That comparison is a bit unfair because only three months after Fernández took office, the pandemic began. I would say that he reacted admirably and resolutely, it was a very good government. Nevertheless, that was diluted in the process and it could be reasonably argued that the lockdown was too long and too strict – it really blocked socio-economic development. So we have seen a decline in Argentine development on the economic side but also the velocity and intensity of the programmes of reform were not of his volition but came from the circumstances with which he had to deal. But on the other hand, of course, we are also seeing a divided government with two different political camps in the administration, which does not make decision-making much easier. In a word, the BTI points have dropped moderately between Macri and Fernández.


In this region, Chile and Uruguay are examples of solid consolidated democracies. Could you explain to our readers the strong points of these democracies?

To start off with, the rule of law, strongly anchored in the democratic development of these countries, gives them a foundation and makes them trustworthy and transparent. In weaker democracies one of the problems is that you have both official and unofficial systems. In Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica, the institutions retain their nominal value, representing what they say they represent and anchoring the democratic process. But that is not everything. I think that the capacity for constructing consensus in these societies has been exceptionally strong and we have seen, for example, Uruguayan President Lacalle Pou cooperating with and consulting his predecessors, integrating them into the decision-making process. But we could see the same when Mauricio Macri invited his successor Alberto Fernández to a working breakfast in order to have a transitional period without problems. I think that there are also signs of the political camps uniting in Argentina.


What are the future challenges for democracies in the region?

Nowadays I see a very strong erosion of conservatism in Latin America, which is being supplanted by figures like [Rodolfo] Hernández in Colombia or [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil. By conservative I mean simply defending the status quo, which is indeed also a radical policy. You cannot do that in times of glaring injustice, you cannot simply defend the status quo all the time. So the people pick more radical options in order to achieve political change. For now this seems to benefit the left as has been made pretty clear by Colombian voters, for example – given the choice between Hernández and [Gustavo] Petro, they chose Petro. And we have seen the same thing in Chile and are likely to do so again in Brazil this month. But the left also needs to reorient itself to be more inclusive. There has to be more bridges, as in the positive cases of Uruguay or Chile. There has to be cooperation between the centre-left and the centre-right, expanding the frontier zone between them as much as possible in order to really build up stable ground. That will be the biggest challenge which goes beyond the political lines according to which we are  accustomed to think.


How will the expectations of the different social sectors play out in the evolution of democracies?

Again the problem is when people are disillusioned with the solutions presented by the state and start entering into identity politics based on ethnic, religious or other grounds. The problem is the need to understand that we are really looking for solutions for the role of society and this might sound like that fairy tale of ‘Let’s talk to one another and we’ll find a solution.’ But it really is a need because otherwise you will not stop the trends towards  polarisation which, as we commented, stem from globalisation. Again there is hyper-communication and hyper-globalisation with a greater dependence on what happens in other parts of the world and this is creating social pressures which we will not overcome [and far less climate change] if society does not sit down together to discuss this. Petty group interests will therefore really have to think out of the box.


As a final question, in countries with societies as polarised as Argentina’s today, a political agreement between the ruling and opposition parties for the sustainability of policies in the medium and long term is indispensable. How do you proceed from the thought to the action?

I think we are seeing the first steps. I repeat, I’m very hopeful about Argentina. If I remember correctly from our country report, the Macri administration put a lot of effort into outreach. Then the Fernández government wavered a bit between staunch Peronism and outreach. This is a difficult process, that’s absolutely clear. But there are vested interests in keeping the system as polarised as it is so that those interests must also be tickled. On the conservative side, certain segments of the business lobby do not want to approach the Peronists too much while among Macri’s following, there is an aversion to organised labour. But both these interests must be understood as being legitimate while at the same time their obstructionism needs to be discussed and that requires more openness from the other side. I don’t know if that exists, I certainly hope it does because that would provide the solution of the middle ground uniting and trying to resolve the ancient problems which in reality are blocking the high potential which Argentina still has at the end of the day.


Production: Melody Acosta Rizza and Sol Bacigalupo.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.


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