6 - 7 October 2022

Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding

Conference by the Research Unit "Transformations of Democracy"


Liberal democracy is under siege around the world today. Freedom House recorded the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom in 2020. According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, autocratization accelerates with increasing limitations of freedom of expression and the repression of civil society. About one third of the world’s population lives in countries that are experiencing democratic decline. The risk of democratic backsliding, understood as the “[d]eterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance (…)” (Lust/Waldner 2018, 95), is now higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

However, there has been less attention to a second trend that is simultaneously unfolding globally: the rise of political violence, defined as any type of violence that is used to achieve political goals (and which we exclude crime-related violence). Cross-national data from V-Dem suggests that political violence has increased substantially over the last decade. Several watershed events such as the killings of the British MP Jo Cox and the German politician Walter Lübcke or the rising tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India show that this trend does not spare established democracies. The prevalence or threat of political violence has become so blatant that leading scholars of civil wars have moved their attention toward established democracies.

The simultaneity of democratic backsliding across many established democracies and the rise of political violence is worrying. First, political violence is undoubtedly antithetical to core principles of democracy. Juan Linz argued in 1978 that two behavioral attributes define democratic behavior: 1) accepting election results, and 2) eschewing political violence. Politicians, groups, and parties that engage or fail to distance themselves from violence are seen as anti-democratic. The rise of political violence may be a symptom or indicator of a democracy at risk.

Our conference seeks to bring together scholars to discuss the relationship between democratic backsliding and political violence in response to these dynamics. Although initial empirical findings show a strong correlation (e.g., Walter, 2022), the causal links between regime backsliding and political violence remain under-explored. Untangling the directionality of these two trends is critical. Among other things, we plan to discuss the following questions:

  1. What are the causes of political violence?

    • How does democratic backsliding provide openings for political violence?

    • When does societal polarization degenerate into political violence?

    • What is the role of political elites and social movements in inciting violence and backsliding?

    • Are there self-reinforcing path-dependent spirals of democratic backsliding and political violence?

  2. How does political violence affect democratic governance?

    • In what ways does violence threaten liberal democracy and its representatives?

    • Does political violence impede the democratic participation of certain groups within societies?

    • What can we learn from historical precedents of political violence in democracies?


The event is only open to WZB members. It will be held in English.

No registration is required.

For more information please contact Sebastian Hellmeier, sebastian.hellmeier [at] wzb.eu.