Protecting democracy: the relevance of international democracy promotion for term limits

Protecting democracy: the relevance of international democracy promotion for term limits

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Leininger Julia / Daniel Nowack
Briefing Paper 21/2021

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)


Dt. Ausg. u.d.T.:
Demokratie schützen: Die Relevanz internationaler Demokratieförderung für Amtszeitbeschränkungen
(Analysen und Stellungnahmen 6/2021)

The question of whether and how democracy can be promoted and protected through international support has recently gained relevance. On the one hand, the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan has reignited a public debate on the limits of democracy promotion. On the other hand, the need for international democracy protection is growing due to an increase in autocratisation trends worldwide. DIE research shows that it is possible to effectively support and protect democracy. In this context, both the protection of central democratic institutions, such as term limits for rulers, and the promotion of democratic forces that pro-actively resist attempts at auto¬cratisation are central.
Since 2010, autocratisation trends have been characterised by the fact that they often slowly erode achieved democratisation successes and consolidate autocracies. The circumvention and abolition of presidential term limits by incumbent presidents are part of the typical “autocratisation toolbox”. Term extensions limit democratic control and expand presidential powers.
Democracy promotion and protection play a relevant role in preserving presidential term limits, and thus in protecting democracy. They contribute towards improving the “duration” and “survival chances” of presidential term limits. The more international democracy promotion is provided, the lower the risk that term limits will be circumvented. For example, a DIE analysis found that a moderately high democracy promotion mean of $2.50 per capita over four years on average halves the risk of presidential term limits being circumvented.
Based on quantitative analysis and case studies, the following recommendations for international democracy promoters emerge:
• Use democracy promotion and protection in a complementary way. On the one hand, democracy must be promoted continuously, as the organisa¬tional and oppositional capacity of political and civil society actors can only be built up in the long term. On the other hand, democracy protectors must also react in the short term to political crises with ad hoc measures and diplomatic means.
• Democracy promotion is a risky investment that pays off. Whether it is possible to promote democracy in the long term and protect it from autocratisation depends above all on domestic forces and institutions. For them, too, political crises are open-ended. While inaction tends to play into the hands of autocrats, context-sensitive engagement at least offers the possibility of contributing to the preservation of democracy.
• Strengthen democracy protection through regional organisations. Regional organisations such as ECOWAS and the African Union offer regional political structures that can help with de-escalation and ensure credible commitments on the part of the incumbents. International donors could therefore coordinate with regional organisations in situations where democracy is at stake.

About the authors

Leininger, Julia

Political Scientist


Nowack, Daniel

Political Science


Further experts

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Fiedler, Charlotte

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Gitt, Florian


Grävingholt, Jörn

Political Scientist 

Gutheil, Lena

Cultural Anthropology 

Haug, Sebastian

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Morare, Ditebogo Modiegi

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Mross, Karina

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Olekseyuk, Zoryana


Saibu, Ghadafi

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Stewart, Benjamin

Social Science 

Volz, Ulrich


Wehrmann, Dorothea


Wingens, Christopher

Political Science