On the occasion of this year’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit, the sixth Democracy Perception Index was published by Latana in collaboration with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation. The 2023 annual study of public opinion on democracy-related matters covers views on the state of democracy, on democratic threats, global politics and democracy under COVID.
When we see the earth from space, international borders disappear like a mirage while mountains and canyons that are formidable on the surface become absorbed into the image of a perfect sphere. In a comparable though subtler way, the perspective offered by the 2023 Democracy Perception Index reminds us that the roughly eight billion people who share this planet have remarkably similar aspirations for how their communities should be governed. Human beings, across a stunning variety of geographic, cultural, and economic backgrounds, seek fair and equal treatment, regard the right to think and speak freely as essential, and aspire to live in a society where they can hold their leaders to account through transparent and competitive elections. While 84% of respondents say that “it’s important to have democracy in their country,” the same figure as last year, these crucial elements of personal freedom, equality before the law, and government accountability at the ballot box enjoy even higher support: “over 90% say freedom of speech, fair elections and equal rights are important to have in their country – a result that is similar in most democratic and non-democratic countries.”
Over 90% support freedom of speech, fair elections and equal rights
Of course, the first photographs of the earth from space were incomplete and partially distorted. The same limitations apply to current attempts to catch a glimpse of how democracy is perceived. Surveying public opinion on a planet where so many remain patently unfree to express their opinions must yield an incomplete and partially distorted picture, and this should be acknowledged more than it is in the Democracy Perception Index.
The report does provide data on the perceived democratic deficit in the 53 countries surveyed. In terms of desire for more democracy, as last year, 41% on average believe that there is not enough democracy in their country. In 15 countries, a majority believes so, with almost 75% in Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria. Paradoxically, respondents from China, which has one of the worst freedom scores in the world and where democracy is non-existent, once again are among those most satisfied with “democracy in their country” (73%). Last year, the reported noted in this regard that in “some countries surveyed the government plays an active role in shaping public opinion and/or has policies in place that restrict freedom of speech around certain topics. This can have a strong influence on the survey results.” Unfortunately, a similar note is missing from the 2023 edition.
Economic inequality biggest threat to democracy?
The data suggests there is a broad consensus that economic distortions such as steep income inequality, corruption, and the power of transnational corporations constitute the most imminent danger to democracy on earth. In a period when the free flow of capital around the world is taken for granted, while the human rights of migrants and refugees are increasingly abused, it is perhaps not surprising that an overwhelming 69% of respondents decry economic inequality as the single biggest threat to democratic rights. Of particular concern is the pervasive power of transnational corporations: “In most democracies, a majority of people (60%) say that the influence of global corporations threatens democracy in their country.”
If people expressed broad agreement on these economic issues, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which began in February of 2022, has proven to be more divisive. Respondents in most western nations expressed strong support for Ukraine while people living in China and many countries in the global south were less inclined to break economic ties with Russia. When confronted with a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the respondents were divided in a similar fashion, with people living in Western Europe and North America most willing to cut economic ties with Beijing over such an invasion.
On the issue of climate change, only 15% of respondents globally ranked it as their top issue of concern, although 32% did rank it among the top three crises facing the world today. A closer look at the data, however, indicates a correlation between higher levels of democracy and greater concern about the climate crisis. This would suggest that an expansion of democratic rights around the world could strengthen support for cooperative efforts to address this accelerating crisis. While it would be absurd to expect uniformity of opinion among the billions of people on this planet, a definitive majority have called for curbing economic inequality and checking the power of transnational corporations, and these steps will likely prove essential to protecting our common habitat.