Author Archives: Erik

About Erik

Assistant professor at SITE, Stockholm School of Economics.

The Reversal of (What Little) Liberal Democracy (There Ever Was) in Turkey

Earlier this year, the University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem institute released a new database on democracy. As it turns out, this database yields some new insights on the timing of Turkey’s democratic erosion, a topic I’ve previously covered (herehere, here, here, here, and here).

Here’s how Staffan Lindberg, the director of the V-Dem Institute, described the database to the Washington Post:

“Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) represents a novel approach to measuring democracy. It is based on collaboration among leading scholars across the world and has two institutional homes: the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which also functions as the operational headquarters for the project’s many parts, and the University of Notre Dame in the United States. V-Dem differs from previous datasets by distinguishing among different principles of democracy (as discussed) and offering about 350 unique democracy indicators, 34 indices of various aspects of democracy such as freedom of association, and five main democracy indices for Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Deliberative, and Egalitarian democracy. These all cover 173 countries, measured annually from 1900 to 2012.”

Frankly, as a political economist (and all-out data nerd, for that matter) I have trouble expressing how exciting this is.

Of particular interest is the measure of liberal democracy, a topic of significant focus both globally (here, here) and specifically for Turkey (see here and here), but I’ll show graphs for the other main components of the V-Dem data as well.

Readers of this blog and my other work will be familiar with my skepticism of the prevailing narrative of the timing of and character of Turkey’s democratic erosion. As I wrote in a recent blog post:

“Given recent crackdowns on freedoms in Turkey, it might be useful with some perspective. Some in the media still seem to be pushing the talking point that Turkey’s “true oppression” began in 2013 after a corruption scandal, contrasting this period with that when AKP was a “beacon of light”, when Turkey was a “vibrant democracy”, and when “Erdoğan’s Turkey” was on the “right path.” Accepting this narrative is a convenient exit for analysts who have overestimated the degree to which Turkey’s democracy was improving during the last decade.”

As it turns out, the data recently provided by V-Dem has something to say about this. Continue reading

Has the AKP facilitated cronyism through public procurement reforms in Turkey?

This year will mark the three-year anniversary of the Gezi protests which swept across most of Turkey during the summer of 2013. Many things contributed to the protests, but a major a factor in galvanizing such a large segment of the population was undeniably widespread view of severe government overreach in how it used construction to remodel Turkey’s urban landscape after its own design. Several of the so-called ‘crazy projects’ have not only laid bare the degree of government control over construction projects but also that the winners of public procurement projects typically constitute a relatively new niche of business entrepreneurs with strong connections to the AKP. Moreover, it also points to the public procurement sector – and in particular the role of state discretion therein – as the main instrument for this phenomenon.

Today, there are a number of sources pointing to the degree of political connections of public procurement winners in Turkey; ranging from the data visualizations of Mülksüzleştirme Ağları) to rich descriptions of how the political connections of public procurement winners have changed over time in parallell with legal reform giving the government greater say in allocation of contracts. Examples of these include a recent book by Ayğse Buğra and Osman Savaşkan qw well as a forthcoming book by Esra Gürakar (quoted here in the Economist). There are also several informative longer news articles (for example, here, here, and here) on the topic. With the resurgence of conflict in the southeast of Turkey, there are some concern that the Turkish government would confiscate conflict-torn land for the purpose of urban transformation, a process that might very well see government-linked firms gaining most of the contracts.

This begs the question to what extent the increase in AKP-connected firms winning procurement projects is also due to AKP’s changes in the procurement law? Moreover, has this had any economic consequences?

In order to shed light on this, Esra Gurakar and myself have a new paper looking at the effect of state discretion in construction public procurement. Here’s the abstract:

“We investigate whether increased state discretion in public procurement auctions affect economic costs and facilitate favoritism using data from the Turkish construction sector between 2005-2011. After parliament passed a legal amendment to the existing procurement law in 2008, construction auction projects with an estimated cost above a specific threshold became eligible for an auction procedure giving the contracting authority greater control over participating bidders through so-called restricted auctions. Using several identification strategies including difference-in-differences, instrumental variables, and regression discontinuity design, we find that increased discretion in public procurement not only increased costs – in terms of both the winning bid and rebate value – but also increased the likelihood of the winning firm being politically connected to the ruling AKP. Moreover, our analysis further shows that among varying forms of political connections to the AKP, the increased costs are particularly driven by winning firms connected to the two most powerful elites within the AKP during this period, namely individuals in the top political leadership as well as those affiliated with the Gülen movement.”

A noteworthy component here is that the main policy shift we examine occurred back in 2008, around the time when most observers were more focused on portraying the country as a model of Muslim democracy than really trying to understand how reforms were serving to shift power from one poorly accountable center to another.

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Turkey’s Instruments of Repression and Declining Press Freedom

In the last post, I found that several Freedom House measures of basic freedoms have been deteriorating in Turkey for a long time, especially when it comes to freedom of expression.  Freedom House (hereby FH) also publishes specific measures of freedoms of the press (data available here), a component of the freedom of expression & beliefs score used previously. Similar to the Freedom of the World publication, FH use subscores to calculate aggregate press freedom scores that are then divided into three statuses, Not Free, Partly Free, and Free. And like the Freedom of the World status, Turkey’s press freedom status has been constant at Partly Free since 2005, only becoming Not Free in 2013 and thereafter.

There are three subscores for press freedom:

  1. A legal environment category focusing on the laws and regulations influencing media content and the government’s inclination to use these laws and legal institutions to restrict the media’s ability to operate:  legal and constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression; the potentially negative aspects of security legislation, the penal code, and other criminal statutes; penalties for libel and defamation; the existence of and ability to use freedom of information legislation; the independence of the judiciary and of official media regulatory bodies
  2. A political environment category, evaluating the degree of political control over the content of news media including editorial independence, access to information and sources; official censorship and self-censorship etc.
  3. An economic environment category. This includes the structure of media ownership; transparency and concentration of ownership; the costs of establishing media as well as any impediments to news production and distribution; the selective withholding of advertising or subsidies by the state or other actors; the impact of corruption and bribery on content; and the extent to which the economic situation in a country impacts the development and sustainability of the media.

In the below graph I show the combined press freedom score for Turkey, as well as its subscores for the legal, political, and economic environments. For the sake of brevity here, the focus is on percentile ranks and Turkey’s performance relative to the world distribution, with higher percentiles implying more freedoms.


The above graph shows a total Freedom of the Press score for Turkey that is stagnant up until 2009 and then starts to slide downwards. The legal environment subscore has been falling consistently since 2005 when it began around the 40th percentile. (This matches the timing of changes to the Turkish penal code, which according to analysts, made prosecuting journalists easier. (See for example here) In 2014, it had fallen to the 16th percentile, an absolutely abysmal deterioration. The political environment subscore was rising somewhat until 2008, and has been decreasing afterwards, from around hovering around the median country in the world to the 22nd percentile. The economic environment subscore has remained largely constant up until 2012, followed by a smaller, but not insignificant, ten-percentile drop.

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Turkey’s democracy is crumbling and has been for quite some time

Given recent crackdowns on freedoms in Turkey, it might be useful with some perspective. Some in the media still seem to be pushing the talking point that Turkey’s “true oppression” began in 2013 after a corruption scandal, contrasting this period with that when AKP was a “beacon of light”, when Turkey was a “vibrant democracy”, and when “Erdoğan’s Turkey” was on the “right path.”

Accepting this narrative is a convenient exit for analysts who have overestimated the degree to which Turkey’s democracy was improving during the last decade. They weren’t wrong then – instead it is Erdoğan who has recently taken an authoritarian turn. For the Gülenists and a number of established journalists in Turkey, who are among the lead protagonists in pushing these talking points, this narrative provides moral amnesty for their alliance with the AKP up until the two groups fell out over differences on policy and the allocation of power within the security establishment. It also provides cover for their past cheerleading of witch hunts against critical voices in the past (see here and here).

However, using standard measures of freedoms like those of Freedom House (hereby FH) suggest a different picture. In particular, Turkey was backtracking especially in freedoms of expression as well as political pluralism long before the corruption scandals of 2013, and these losses preceding 2013 often dwarf those occurring afterwards (at least so far).

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Kinky Voting and Turkey’s ‘Sultans of Swing’

There are several interesting phenomena evident in the last Turkish elections. Whereas my previous post dealt with a couple of these, in this one I want to focus more on a specific region of Turkey, namely the Southeastern provinces, sometimes also referred to as the Kurdish provinces. (There’s a discussion to be had about what distinguishes Kurdish- from non-Kurdish provinces, but for the below analysis, I will semi-arbitrarily include Diyarbakir, Sanliurfa, Bitlis, Bingol, Mardin, Mus, Agri, Igdir, Batman, Sirnak, Siirt, Van, and Tunceli in the group of Kurdish provinces).

As I wrote back in June, this region saw a significant voter swing from the AKP to HDP, going a long way to helping the latter over the ten percent threshold required for participation in the Turkish parliament. In the most recent election, some of these voters appear to have switched back. The upper panel of the below graph shows differences in the AKP vote share between both November 2015 and June 2015, as well as June 2015 and June 2011, for the Kurdish and Other provinces. In June 2015, the vote shift away from AKP for the region was almost twice as large in relative terms as that in the rest of Turkey, whereas in November 2015, the relative swing in favor of AKP was larger than for the rest of the country.

Another distinguishing factor of vote patterns in the Kurdish provinces is not only that the Kurdish provinces exhibit larger changes in turnout from election to election (see the bottom panel of the below figure) but also that whereas in the most recent election the rest of Turkey experienced an increase in turnout compared to June, the Kurdish provinces experienced a decrease. Still, even though the average change in turnout was negative, there is still plenty of variation (which can be seen from the red curves, compared to the blue curves, being “shorter and fatter”), and a significant number of the neighborhoods in the latter provinces experienced significant positive increase in turnout.

Undoubtedly, one possible explanation for the decrease in turnout and the increase in AKP vote share could be the ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.  The decrease in turnout could be due to safety concerns in conflict-affected areas, which might be more likely to affect pro-HDP neighborhoods, and might also be correlated with a shift to the AKP as a means to achieve stability for some.

In this case, we would expect an overall negative relationship between the change in turnout and the change in AKP vote shares between the November and June elections. As I showed back in June, the large increases then observed in HDP vote shares in provinces like Agri, Igdir, Mus, Batman, Diyarbakir etc, were also accompanied by substantial increases in turnout.

This relationship, however, changed in the November elections, as can be seen in the below graph which plots (local averages of equally-sized bins for) differences in party vote shares against differences in turnout between November and June.


The main thing to note is the apparent “kink” in the relationship for the AKP and HDP (and to a certain extent in the MHP) graphs. In both of these graphs, the slope of the line appears to change sharply at the zero turnout change point. For AKP, the party appears to benefit not only the larger the fall in turnout is, but it also larger the increase in turnout is. (The HDP graph has the almost exact inverse relationship, which is unsurprising since in the Kurdish provinces votes tend to go either to AKP or HDP and so a positive change in the former implies a negative change in the latter.)

Before I go any further with this, an important question to ask is why this might matter. It matters because this kink is not to be seen in the previous election, nor is to be seen for the rest of Turkey in either the current or past election. In order to demonstrate this, I below compare differences in AKP vote shares and differences in turnout for Kurdish versus the Rest of Turkey, for the November and the June election respectively. Also, to make the analysis somewhat more robust I use the residuals from regressing the difference in party vote shares on lagged levels of turnout, AKP vote share, and the log number of registered voters in a neighborhood. As before, each dot represents the local average of equally-sized bins.


Here, it is clear how the slope changes only for the Kurdish provinces, and how it is the neighborhoods with positive turnout change that exhibit a peculiar slope; in November they exhibit a positive relationship with the change in AKP vote shares, whereas in June it was negative.

One possibility could be that this reversal of the slope does not represent a kink but rather some non-linearity that may have come about for a number of reasons that are unknown, yet completely innocuous. Moreover, the non-Kurdish provinces suggest that a non-linear relationship per se is not necessarily something strange. So how do we know this is actually a real “abnormal” kink and not just some “normal” non-linearity.

Fortunately, we can test for the presence of a kink at zero turnout change using Regression Discontinuity methods, which have relatively recently been extended to allow for discontinuous changes in the first derivative of the outcome (rather than the level of it). This can also easily be implemented with local linear RD models with optimal bandwidths using the methods and tools developed by Calonico, Cattaneo, and Titiunik (hereby CCT, see here, and here).

Using RD shifts the focus entirely on the cutoff, which in this case is the zero turnout change, and allows us to answer the question of whether an infinitesimal change in the “running variable” (here the change in turnout) results in a discontinuous change in the first derivative of the outcome variable.

(Note that whereas RD designs are usually employed to infer causal effects, here I’m merely interested in whether the first-derivative changes in a statistically significant way.)

Below, I show a simple RD kink plot with data in bins and a quartic polynomial fit on each side of the zero turnout change cutoff.


The slope appears to change discontinuously at the threshold, and formal testing using CCT’s rdrobust command in Stata results in a statistically significant estimate of 2.6 (the left-hand slope is -0.26 and the right-hand slope is 2.35). On the right-hand side of the cutoff, this represents a large effect, as a one percentage point increase in the difference in turnout corresponds roughly to a 2.4 percentage point increase in the difference in AKP vote share.

Sure, this may seem odd, but why would this necessarily imply anything irregular? And is there a way to link this analysis with that in my previous post?

The previous post focused on the last digit distributions of party counts, and one of the main findings in that last digit distributions changed character in the Kurdish provinces between the November and June elections. One interpretation (although there may be other ones too) of this is not just that these last digits are from different distributions, but also that this implies manipulation.

So a logical follow-up related to the above analysis is whether we can observe a discontinuous jump in the distribution of the last digit at around zero turnout change. Similar to the outcome in the past post, I use the mean of the last digit, with the difference here being that the outcome variable is the neighborhood-level average of the party vote count’s last digit across all ballot boxes within that neighborhood. And as this mean should arguably be flat, I look for the existence of jumps in the level as opposed to the first derivative as above.

Below, I illustrate the RD design for discontinuous jumps in the last digit for AKP and the HDP’s vote counts for November and June respectively. Under each graph, I also show the RD estimate and its associated standard error and optimal bandwidth used in the estimation (again using the rdrobust command).

In this case, and as opposed to that in the previous post, the test is not whether the last digit distribution changes across time but whether it changes at zero turnout change in each of the November and June elections respectively. The stipulated assumption here is therefore that, absent manipulation, we should not observe any discontinuous jumps at the cutoff around zero turnout change.


As can be seen form the above figures, the AKP last digit exhibits a statistically significant jump around the cutoff in the November election, with an estimate of around -0.7. which corresponds to roughly an 18 percent change relative to the mean just to the left of the cutoff. Again, this is a rather significant effect even in terms of magnitude.

In the June elections, the AKP last digit also exhibits a negative RD estimate although it’s somewhat smaller in magnitude. As for the HDP, there is no statistically significant jump at the cutoff and estimates tend to be much closer to zero. Consequently, to the extent that a discontinuous jump here implies manipulation of votes, it’s only occurring for the AKP’s votes.

One mechanism which could drive the above result that comes to mind is if the AKP, for a subset of neighborhoods, was able to “add” AKP voters in such significant numbers so as that all of the neighborhoods in which this occurred resulted in positive turnout relative to the June election. If, in turn, these were manipulated votes and their numbers decided by an individual as opposed to a random process, this could explain the jump in the last digit distribution at the cutoff.

Nonetheless, as with the previous statistical analysis of Turkish election I’ve done on this blog, the by now usual disclaimer applies: these statistical relationships could be considered consistent with some form of voter manipulation, but they are by themselves not necessarily proof of it. And just because I have not been able to imagine any more innocuous explanations for these kinks and jumps doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Digit Tests and the Peculiar Election Dynamics of Turkey’s November Elections

Sunday’s elections in Turkey were a landslide for the ruling AKP. Its vote share rose nearly 9 percentage points from what it received in June. One interpretation is that AKP’s political strategy since its summer defeat has paid off, a chilling evaluation of one that has at times seemed both divisive and violent, not to mention authoritarian.

As in last elections, much of the change in voting seems to have occurred among nationalist as well as Kurdish voters, with this election seeing a difference of priority among them. Whereas June’s election was HDP’s to win, this one appears to have been to a large extent the nationalist MHP’s to lose. As the below figure shows, plotting the difference in vote share between November and June, the AKP’s gain appears to come predominantly at the expense of MHP. In some other cases, the vote swing seems to be driven by voters in Kurdish provinces leaving HDP for AKP (likely the poor and pious I have discussed in this blog before).


Part of the story could be explained by turnout. After all, several provinces show significant changes in turnout compared to the June elections. Several Kurdish provinces like Agri, Batman, Hakkari show substantial reductions in turnout, likely a result of the ongoing conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state.turnoutprov

Election night was particularly embarrassing to Turkish pollsters who in unison (almost, at least) were predicting a repeat of the June elections. In fact, using the mean and standard deviations of this sample of pollsters, predictions were off by an incredible 4.9 standard deviations.

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How Turkey’s Institutions and the AKP’s political ambition prevents peace with the Kurds

By now several articles have described the connection between the end of the PKK talks, the military intervention against both the Islamic State and the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK), as well as the recent political pressure on the Kurdish party HDP. (In addition to my own post, see also here, here, and here). But beyond the recent resumption of violence, there is a broader link between the persecution of the Kurdish political movement and the PKK talks that remains relatively unexplored (with a few exceptions, see for example this article by Jake Hess from 2012, and this article by Alex Christie-Miller from 2010).

In retrospect, the cyclical crackdowns on the Kurdish political movement (in which I include both banned organizations like those of the PKK, as well political parties like the DTP, BDP, and now HDP, who share similar goals as the PKK but pursue them through politics rather than violence), have often coincided with disappointing election results for the AKP in the Kurdish region.

Seen in this light, recent pressure on HDP politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ are less a sign of an acceleration in Turkey’s authoritarian turn than a foreseeable outcome of AKP’s long-running political strategy for the Kurdish problem.

Undoubtedly, the AKP has in many ways pulled ahead of the curve on Kurdish cultural rights. Nevertheless, the AKP period has concurrently witnessed extensive repression of Kurds. Separate from military engagements, there’s also been recurring persecution against Kurdish political activists, brutal responses to demonstrations, controversial air strikes against civilians, systematic abuse of children by security forces, party closures, removing the right to stand for public office, and frequent ultranationalist rhetoric by the AKP leadership.

So then, what explains why the AKP has on one hand appeared willing to pursue some reform for Kurds, yet on the other has facilitated extensive repression against them? Or, in other words, how did the AKP lose its position as the party that “represents the Kurds”. To understand this, it’s important to first go through what’s at stake in the negotiations themselves.

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Bombing the PKK: It’s the (domestic) politics, stupid!

Below is a couple of assorted thoughts on what lies behind the recent decision to resume bombing the PKK by the Turkish government. (It’s all my own opinion, obviously):

There seems to have formed another “narrative” on why Turkey is engaging militarily along its borders at this time, here expressed by a recent Guardian editorial:

The Turkish government may thus have acted now because it feared an outbreak of hostilities between the PKK and Isis on Turkish soil after a suicide bombing attack earlier this week, attributed to Isis, which killed 32 people in a town near the Syrian border. That was followed by PKK attacks on Turkish police, supposedly for failing to protect Turkish Kurds.

There is another reason too, which has less to do with ISIS-PKK fighting spilling over into Turkey, and more to do with strategic political calculations of the AKP government.

Despite the clear threat of ISIS in Turkey, the Turkish government continues to see political Kurdish organizations, whether they are peaceful or violent, as greater threats. A key reason for this is that empowered political Kurds could seek to devolve power away from Ankara to the provinces, something that unites most Turkish political elites as threatening national integrity and security. My opinion is that it is less an inherent dislike for Kurds that drives state repression of this minority than the state’s fear for the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power a leveled playing field for the Kurds would have.

The Turkish government’s accommodation of ISIS in Syria so far follows mostly from the rise of the Syrian Kurds, the PYD/YPG. Its animosity toward Assad also increased after the dictator pulled back from Kurdish areas of Syria, effectively leaving the field open for the Kurds. Having an organization largely indistinguishable from the terrorist-designated PKK running your border checkpoints is undoubtedly a problem, but perhaps more so is how the Syrian Kurds’ political ascent has affected the PKK’s outside option in its talks with the Turkish government.

The “peace talks”, “solution process”, “Imrali process”, or whatever you want to call the talks between members of the PKK and those of the Turkish government, was always an asymmetric engagement and, at best, a long shot. What should have been a broad discussion of political enfranchisement has many times seem to focus more on what would befall PKK leaders and the circumstances of Ocalan’s imprisonment. From the Turkish side, talks appear mostly as means to disarm PKK, negotiating surrender, rather than anything else. But more striking is perhaps how the regional environment has changed since the talks started. When the peace talks started in the late 2000s, PKK had its back against the wall, squeezed between Turkey, Iran, the KRG in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and a Europe that then still saw Turkey as promising and ripe for EU talks.

The peace talks seem to have started when the PKK’s outside option – continued warfare – was at its worst. At that point, one can imagine that any negotiated deal would have resulted in rather modest concessions from the Turkish government, causing similarily modest political costs among the AKP’s more nationalist Turkish base. Furthermore, relatively weak Kurdish political parties made sure PKK was the main spokesperson for Turkey’s Kurds. As such, in 2009, the political gains involved in resolving its most serious conflict likely outweighted its political costs.

With the Syrian civil war, Assad’s pulling back from Kurdish areas, and the rise of the Syrian Kurds, the PKK’s outside option improved markedly. With its success in Syria, PKK was no longer in such a bad state, with military successes in Sincar, and even greater political successes in its cooperation with US forces in beating back ISIS. Undoubtedly the terms demanded by the PKK likely swung into red territory for the AKP. To make things worse, the electoral success of the Kurdish party HDP made things even more complicated as the AKP would now have to negotiate with two organizations, each looking to claim specific concessions and each wanting to be seen as the main spokesperson for Turkey’s Kurds. But most damaging, the surge in “political Kurdishness” caused direct political harm to AKP in the last election, as HDP climbed above the ten percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation, scuttling an AKP supermajority in parliament and its plans for an executive-presidential constitution. As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, a large share of this surge came from Kurds previously voting for the AKP.

Bombing PKK camps in Iraq is unlikely to destroy the organization, or to weaken it to levels it can’t recuperate from. Turkey has witnessed multiple rounds of mass incarceration of Kurdish activists (recently in the KCK trials), and bombed Qandil mountains as recently as in 2011. The Turkish government probably knows it can’t defeat PKK military, so then why is it resorting to violence then?

The likely target here is instead the HDP. By striking hard at the PKK, the Turkish government is pressuring the HDP to pick a side. Either it denounces PKK to end violence, risking political blowback among its Kurdish base, or it adopts a more pro-Kurdish rhetoric, risking the ire of the Turkish public as well as the judiciary, which has a long history of banning Kurdish parties and politicians. The strain could furthermore risk breaking the HDP party, with its more pro-PKK members leaving to pursue its goals elsewhere.

As coalition talks to form a new government are stalling, Turkey may soon see another round of elections. If the current conflict results in HDP polling below the ten percent threshold, this could leave the field open for an AKP supermajority, an Erdogan presidency, and a new era of political AKP dominance in Turkish politics.



The Staggering Economic Costs of the Syrian Civil War

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of statistics about the economic consequences of the Syrian Civil War, much of it disturbing evidence as to the scale of the suffering. For example, one report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) published in March 2015 claimed that Syria had lost more $119bn in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since the outbreak up until 2014, and that “total losses” amounted to $220bn when comparing to a scenario without the conflict. For a country whose GDP in 2007 was valued at $40bn, this represents an enormous dollar loss in Syria’s output.

Another report, published by UNWRA, made the claim that

“[e]ven if the conflict ceased now and GDP grew at an average rate of five per cent each year, it is estimated that it would take the Syrian economy 30 years to return to the economic level of 2010”.

These are all striking ways of describing the economic costs of the Syrian conflict. At the same time, neither the UNWRA report nor the SCPR is very specific about how it arrived at these quoted estimates and so I felt the urge to take a stab at this in my own way, while also expanding the alternative “non-crisis” scenarios a bit more.

As for GDP, there’s a disclaimer to be made about it only being just one measure – an imperfect one, at that – of economic output, and as for measuring living standards, its per capita variant is but one of many candidates, but as GDP remains the quintessential summary of an economy’s productive capacity, it is the focus of this blog post.

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Which country has the most illiberal democracy in the world?

The most recent edition of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World noted a “disturbing decline in global freedom in 2014.” A driver of this appears to have been not necessarily a shift to totalitarian dictatorships, but a more relative illiberalization of democracies. For example, in one NBER working paper, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman note that:

“in recent decades, a less carnivorous form of authoritarian government has emerged, one better adapted to the globalized media and sophisticated technologies of the 21st Century. From the Peru of Alberto Fujimori to the Hungary of Viktor Orban, illiberal regimes have managed to consolidate power without isolating their countries from the world economy or resorting to mass killings.”

Economists Dani Rodrik and Sharun Mukhand further point out the relative scarceness of liberal democracies around the world. In November 2014, Joseph Stiglitz told an audience at the Central European University that “[t]he conscious development of a learning society, essential for shared prosperity, can only be achieved in a liberal democracy”. 

So what is a liberal democracy? The answer to that question is could probably fill a bookshelf by itself. The simplest definition, as given by Wikipedia is the following:

“Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, i.e. protecting the rights of the individual, which are generally enshrined in law.”

Rodrik and Mukhand tie this a bit more to matters conducive to economic development:

“Liberal democracy rests on three distinct sets of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. The first set of rights protects owners and investors from expropriation. The second ensures that groups that win electoral contests can assume power and choose policies to their liking – provided these policies do not violate the other two sets of rights. Finally, civil rights guarantee equal treatment before the law and equal access to public services such as education.”

These sound like fairly straightforward definitions, but when it comes to measurement, it quickly becomes complicated. Freedom House, for example, explicitly calculates values for “political rights” and “civil rights” for all individual countries each year, yet these are also measures used for “democracy”, not just “liberal democracy”. So is more “democracy” the same as more “liberal democracy”? (Also, for measures of “expropriation” from other sources it is not always clear if it’s from the perspective of a foreign investor or a domestic one.)

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