Graduate Melis Laebens: Beyond Democratic Backsliding: Executive Aggrandizement and its Outcomes

Melis Laebens
October 3, 2023

PhD Program graduate Melis Laebens of the Central European University has a new paper published through the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenberg entitled “Beyond Democratic Backsliding: Executive Aggrandizement and its Outcomes.”


Executive power grabs and resulting democratic backsliding have become a major concern for scholars and the public alike. Although a growing number of cases are studied under these headings, we do not have globally applicable measurement criteria for observing executive aggrandizement, i.e. attempts by democratically elected incumbents to concentrate power. Our conceptual net tends to be either too wide, lumping together all forms of democratic regression, or too narrow, limiting our attention to particular mechanisms through which incumbents subvert democratic institutions. This article conceptualizes executive aggrandizement as an attempt by a democratically elected executive leader to weaken both electoral (vertical) and horizontal accountability without altogether suspending democratic institutions. Using selected V-Dem indicators and secondary sources, I identify 26 cases of executive aggrandizement in democracies worldwide from 1989 to 2019. Descriptive analysis shows considerable variation in the consequences of executive  aggrandizement for the democratic regime and for the incumbents who engaged in it. Only a minority of these cases resulted in democratic breakdown due to incumbent takeover, while a majority ended with the incumbent being forced out of office either via democratic institutional procedures or otherwise. This article lays the ground for explaining the causes and outcomes of executive aggrandizement.