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Democracy faces “perfect storm”, says new report of International IDEA

From the cover of “The Global State of Democracy” 2021 report of International IDEA

Last week, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), a leading intergovernmental organisation in the field of democracy support, published its annual report on “The Global State of Democracy” (GSoD). 

The report notes that “democracy is at risk. Its survival is endangered by a perfect storm of threats, both from within and from a rising tide of authoritarianism.”

According to the assessment, for the fifth consecutive year the number of countries leaning towards autocracy in 2020 outnumbered those going in the opposite direction. In total, it found 20 countries moved in the direction of autocracy compared to only 7 that improved in a democratic direction. The study says that “democratic backsliding” has become a serious problem in some of the world’s largest countries including Brazil and India. Alarmingly, it includes the United States, a longtime international beacon of democracy, in this list for the first time.

Countries moving towards authoritarianism, and towards democracy
Countries moving towards authoritarianism, and towards democracy. Source: GSoD 2021.

While democratic systems across the world came under severe pressure in 2020, some countries stopped being democracies altogether. This was the case in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Myanmar and Serbia. In Mali and Myanmar, the change in regime type was due to military coups.

Over the past five years, the total number of countries classified as democracies by International IDEA declined from 104 to 98 out of a total number of 165 included in their assessment.

Number of democracies by year, 2015-2020
Number of democracies by year, 2015-2020. Source: GSoD 2021.

Democratic governments embracing authoritarianism

The continuing proliferation of COVID-19 forced democratically elected governments to impose autocratic-style state of emergencies, lockdowns and restrictions on movement and free speech to protect public health or battle the spread of disinformation. While many of these measures were indeed necessary, they contributed greatly to the wave of “democratic erosion” witnessed across the world. According to the report, at least 64 percent took action considered disproportionate in response to the crisis.

These impositions may represent an existential threat to democracy, the study argues. According to International IDEA’s Secretary-General Kevin Casas-Zamora, “The political flaws and social fault lines revealed by the pandemic will drive more people towards populist and authoritarian leaders that seldom deliver durable solutions for the concerns of citizens”.

Map of regime types
Population-weighted map of regime types. Source: GSoD 2021.

However, a number of democracies adapted quickly to the situation by accelerating the development of new practices, like digital voting. Other countries such as Sweden and the United States made democracy a foreign policy priority. The Summit for Democracy which is due to be hosted by US President Biden next week intends to promote multilateralism and help to push back against the advancing tide of authoritarianism.

Integrity of democratic elections increasingly questioned

The unprecedented challenge of the pandemic has been accompanied by often baseless questions surrounding the integrity of the electoral process, especially in the United States. The report notes that these allegations have had a “spillover effect” to other countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Myanmar.

However, the report says that a total of 10 democracies have actually witnessed a decline in “clean elections” – that is the extent to which an election is free and fair – in the last five years. This deterioration has been mirrored by a significant decline in civil liberties, especially freedom of expression. Worryingly, the number of democracies that achieved advances in the quality of their electoral processes have been overtaken by the number that have suffered declines.

Number of democracies with statistically significant advances and declines in Clean Elections in the previous five years, 1980 - 2020
Number of democracies with statistically significant advances and declines in Clean Elections in the previous five years, 1980 – 2020. Source: GSoD 2021.

A parallel decline in the supportive infrastructure needed for credible elections, has added additional pressure to both new and old democracies around the world, especially in Serbia which went from being a democracy to a hybrid regime in 2020.

In countries where clean elections and democracy are largely absent – such as Belarus, Cuba, Eswatini, Myanmar and Sudan – pro-democracy movements have braved repression and in others civic activism has been used to tackle pressing issues such as climate change. More than 80 countries have experienced protests and civic action of different kinds, the report notes.

While the report paints an alarming picture of global democracy, it also suggests how governments all over the world can arrest this “democratic backsliding”. By working together to support more sustainable social contracts and institutional political reform, for instance, they may halt the gradual creep of authoritarianism and reverse democratic decline. Let’s hope next month’s Summit for Democracy will contribute to this. 

Colm Lehane
Colm Lehane is a communications and media professional who currently works as a Content and Social Media Consultant with Democracy Without Borders. He holds a Master's Degree in Government and Public Policy from University College Cork.