Economist’s global democracy rating hits a new low in 2021

A protest in Myanmar, October 2021. Due to a military coup, the country experienced one of the sharpest democratic declines worldwide in 2021. Image: Unsplash/@kidzz

The 2021 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index found the worst state of global democracy in the 16 years the index has been produced — even worse than in 2020, which had previously set the low mark.

As was the case that year, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the economy and on personal liberties, exacerbated the trend away from democracy. According to the new annual assessment just 45.7% of the world’s population lives in a democracy — a significant tumble from 49.4% one year earlier. Just one out of 15 people lives in a full democracy, while more than one in three live under authoritarian rule.

The share of people living in a democracy dropped from 49.4 to 45.7 percent

Democracy Index 2021 by regime type. Source: EIU

The Democracy Index ranks the state of democracy in 165 independent states and two territories using five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. In all, the 2021 index ranked 21 countries as “full” democracies, 53 as “flawed” democracies, 34 as “hybrid” democratic/authoritarian states, and 59 as “authoritarian” regimes. In 2020, there were 23 full democracies, 52 flawed democracies, 35 hybrid states, and 57 authoritarian regimes. The average global score in the 2021 index fell from 5.37 in 2020 to 5.28. In 2019, it stood at 5.44.

EIU 2021 ratings per country. Chart: statista.com

Norway is once again ranked the world’s most democratic country, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland (seven of the top 10 are in Western Europe). North Korea was ranked the least democratic in 2020, but Afghanistan and Myanmar ranked lower in 2021, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic rounding out the bottom five. Afghanistan, Myanmar and Tunisia had the biggest declines compared to 2020.

Chile and Spain were downgraded from full to flawed democracies in 2021,  a category that includes countries like Argentina, India, and the United States. Three Eastern European nations — Moldova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia — joined their ranks, rising from the ranks of hybrid states. Three nations — Haiti, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Lebanon — were downgraded to authoritarian status.

None of the world’s 10 most populous countries is ranked a full democracy

Among regions, Latin America saw the biggest overall declines, with the Economist Intelligence Unit citing the rise of populist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador for the change. Coups in Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, and an attempted coup in Niger, drove down Sub-Saharan Africa’s already abysmal overall scores, ending a hopeful period in which coups had become less common in the region.

Among the world’s 10 most populous nations, none was ranked a full democracy, while four (Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the United States) were ranked flawed democracies. Two — China and Russia — were ranked authoritarian states. Among the world’s 10 largest economies, five — Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom — were rated as full democracies.

The Economist Intelligence Unit devoted particular attention in this year’s report to China, the largest and most powerful authoritarian state. The report bluntly states that “a consensus has emerged that the Western democratic capitalist model faces a challenge from China that is at least comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union during the 20th century,” with China’s authoritarian model of economic success at the cost of personal freedoms setting a model that other rising nations might adopt.

Peter Orvetti
Peter Orvetti is a writer, intelligence analyst, and world federalism advocate residing in Washington, D.C.

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