A survey across 55 democratic countries carried out on behalf of the French think tank Fondation pour l’innovation politique in collaboration with six other groups in 2021, published last month, concluded that democracy continues to enjoy substantial support. But the poll also shows that in 14 countries the idea of a political system led by a “strongman” received majority approval. Half of the people surveyed find it likely that “another World War breaks out in the coming years.”
Overall, the poll included 39 questions exploring who democracies are afraid of, what they are afraid of and general views on democracy and freedom. The survey further polled European respondents on views related to the European Union (EU).
Who are democracies afraid of?
A global average of 60% of respondents are worried about China’s “posture on the international stage” with high numbers not only in Canada (78%), United States (72%) or Brazil (55%) but also in the Asia-Pacific region, in particular Japan (88%), South Korea (81%) and Australia (77%). Across European countries, views are divided, ranging from 14% in Montenegro to 74% in the United Kingdom and 75% in The Netherlands.
A global average of 52% of those polled consider Russia’s international posture worrying. The report points out that fear is particularly widespread among Georgians and Ukrainians and prevalent among the Dutch, Brits, Finns, Danes and Swedes. In NATO countries, concern about Russia and China on average are shared by 66% each.
According to the survey, the United States is viewed as the world’s most influential power, with 70% of respondents selecting this country over other options. The study points out that 43% are concerned by the power of the United States but that this figure dropped by 13% compared to a similar poll in 2018.
Majority believes a new World War is likely
The report points out that the prospect of “another World War” breaking out “in the coming years” is considered “likely” by an average of 50% of respondents. Highest belief in the possibility of a new global conflict was found in Indonesia (66%), Mexico (60%), United States (59%), Lebanon (58%), Australia (57%), Ukraine (55%), Croatia and Cyprus (54%).
The study expresses surprise that “despite international turmoil”, in comparison an average of only 38% in EU countries and NATO (without the United States) believe that a global conflict is likely and that “some countries, despite being geographically exposed to a historically belligerent power, strangely seem to be even less worried”, like in the cases of Estonia and Finland (both 24%).
What are democracies afraid of?
The respondents were asked to indicate their level of concern on a range from very worried to not worried at all on a number of topics. On average, without India factored in, the study identified the following main sources of fear with people responding “very worried” or “worried”: rising cost of living (90%), economic crisis (89%), crime (89%), political extremism (85%), social inequalities (85%), unemployment (84%), terrorism (83%), breakdown of public social programs (83%), government debt and deficits (82%), climate change (81%), war (76%), immigration (63%) and islamism (59%). In a separate question, the survey found that fear of interference by foreign powers in election campaigns is massive. On average, 88% considered this an important threat to democracy.
Based on these numbers, the report points out that “democratic societies are more afraid of personal difficulties in the immediate future than they are of a Third World War”, referring to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and rising global poverty.
The democratic idea prevails, but not everywhere
In the survey, respondents were invited to say whether each of six regime types represented a good or bad way of governing. Out of these six options, the representative democracy model (“having a democratic political system with an elected parliament that runs the government”) was the most widely supported (81%), followed by the direct democracy model (70%) defined as “having citizens decide what is best for the country, rather than the government”.
On average, 62% supported “Having experts decide what is best for the country, rather than the government” and 43% agreed that voting rights should be tied to “a sufficient level of knowledge.” Further, an average of 36% approved of “Being led by a strongman who does not have to worry about parliament or elections” and 25% “Having the armed forces govern the country”.
Importantly, the idea of an authoritarian strongman enjoys majority support in 14 of the 55 countries covered in the survey, the highest figures being found in India (72%) with North Macedonia, Lithuania, Tunisia, the Philippines, Ukraine and Moldova following in a range between 60 and 70%. In India, a similar percentage of 72% agreed that it would be good if the armed forces were governing the country.
The performance of democracy, voting and freedom
On average, without India, 50% of respondents believe that democracy works poorly in their country. Variations were very big from country to country, though, ranging from 14% in Switzerland to 90% in Lebanon. Out of eleven options, corruption was rated by nearly one in two respondents (47%) as the biggest threat to democracy. The study further found that “a significant minority” of 29% believe that “voting is pointless because politicians do not care about the will of the people”, compared with 71% who believe that “voting is worthwhile because elections can make a difference.”
Faced with the challenge of Covid-19, the study finds that citizens “reclaim their attachment to the ideals of freedom”. Only a minority of respondents are willing to scale back their freedom in exchange for greater efficiency. The respondents on average believe in the importance of the ability to protest (83%), the ability to take part in the decision-making process (95%), the ability to vote for the candidate of one’s choosing (96%), having the right to say what you think (96%) and having freedom of the press (94%). In countries that have less democratic regimes or that are struggling to adopt democracy, respondents aspire to more freedom.