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V-Dem report: Global democracy has fallen to 1986 level

Demonstrators in solidarity with protesters in Iran call for the overthrow of the regime for Women, Life, Freedom in Washington D.C., October 29, 2022. Image: Shutterstock/Phil Pasquini. Licensed for use on this website.

In its recent Democracy Report 2023 which looks at the development of democracy and autocracy worldwide, Gothenburg-based V-Dem Institute finds that the average level of democracy a global citizen enjoys has fallen back in the previous year to that of 1986. The study says that 72% of the world’s population now live in autocracies, an increase of 46% from ten years ago and 2% compared to their 2022 report.

The primary dataset V-Dem uses includes over 60 indices and 500 indicators, such as free and fair elections or the level of political and civil rights. The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and climate change created new challenges for democracy.

The report comes to the alarming conclusion that the number of closed autocracies now surpasses that of liberal democracies for the first time since the 1990s. It has climbed from a low of 22 in 2012 up to 33 in 2022 while liberal democracies declined from a peak of 44 in 2009 to 32 today. In addition, V-Dem counts 56 electoral autocracies and 58 electoral democracies.

Number of countries (left panel) and the share of the world’s population (right panel) by regime type. Source: V-Dem Democracy Report 2023, figure 4.

According to the new V-Dem data, a record number of 42 countries is currently autocratizing, harbouring 43% of the world’s population. Many autocratizing countries are influential regional and global players and economically powerful, making this trend even more worrying. The region that has been affected most is Asia Pacific, but all the world’s areas have seen democratic declines and autocratization over the past 10 to 15 years.

On the other side, there are still democratizers in the world, although their numbers have declined from 43 around 20 years ago to 14 today, and they only host about 2% of the world’s population. Moreover, they tend to be small countries. 

Autocratization often continues after democratic breakdowns, taking countries further into the direction of harsh dictatorships. Eight democratic countries made U-turns, drifting into a period of autocratization and then managed to revive democracy.

Freedom of expression and democracy are intimately linked, and it has been getting worse in 35 countries over the past ten years. The erosion of democratic institutions and low-quality elections often follows attacks on free expression. Disinformation and toxic levels of polarization reinforce and worsen autocratization. Democratizing countries reduce both disinformation and polarization, which may be critical to democratization and democratic resilience.

The report has a new section about the “economic balance of power” between autocracies and democracies. The share of world GDP that autocracies account for has increased significantly, more than doubling since 1992 when the Cold War had just ended. This results from autocracies like China increasing their economic strength and from more countries shifting to autocracy.

Furthermore, according to V-Dem, the global balance of power in trade is shifting in favor of autocracies, too. The share of world trade between democracies is decreasing, from 74% in 1998 to 47% in 2022.

V-Dem produces the most significant global dataset on democracy, with over 31 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2022. It builds this year on an assessment of over 4,000 scholars and other experts from over 180 countries.

Francesca Braga
Francesca Braga is an international human rights lawyer and researcher specialized in international criminal law and human rights law. Her current research focuses on serious human rights violations against vulnerable groups.