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EIU 2023 democracy report: regression in an age of conflict

From the cover of the Economist Intelligence Unit's "Democracy Index 2023" report

The 2023 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index reports continued overall democratic stagnation and regression in a period characterized by growing geopolitical confrontation and the apparent powerlessness of democracies to stop violent conflict and war.

The state of national democracy worldwide

According to the 2023 Democracy Index 7.8% of the world’s population in 24 countries live in a “full democracy”, 37.6% in 50 countries in a “flawed democracy”, 15.2% in 34 countries in a “hybrid regime”, and 39.4% in 59 countries in an “authoritarian regime”. The global average score in 2023 fell from 5.29 to 5.23 compared to 2022, marking the lowest score since the index was started in 2006, and confirming “a general trend of regression and stagnation in recent years” according to the Economist’s researchers.

Greece was one of only four countries globally which registered an upgrade of classification, stepping up from “flawed” to “full democracy” after continuous efforts by Greek authorities to facilitate diaspora voting. With Chile on the other hand dropping down to “flawed democracy”, the total number of countries classified as “full democracies” remained the same. Papua New Guinea and Paraguay moved up from “hybrid regimes” to “flawed democracies” and Angola from “authoritarian” to “hybrid regime”.

Regime type assessments made by the Economist Intelligence Unit from 2006 to 2023. Data assembled by DWB.

Regional developments

From a regional perspective, western Europe, containing 15 of the 24 “full democracies” worldwide, was the only region to improve its average score, up from 8.36 in 2022 to 8.37 in 2023, thus overtaking North America (US and Canada, dropping from 8.37 to 8.27) as the highest ranked region. The worst performing regions were the Middle East and North Africa (down to 3.23 from 3.34) and Sub-Saharan Africa (down to 4.04 from 4.14), with Mauritius (8.14) standing out as the only “full democracy”. Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the eighth successive year of democratic decline, with an average score of 5.68 in 2023 compared to 5.79 in 2022.

Particularly noteworthy were deteriorations in the subregion of Central America, experiencing the biggest regression of all subregions, driven by declines in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. A notable exception in this subregion is Costa Rica, which remains at a high 8.29 since 2022, and other than Uruguay the only country in Latin America to be classified as a “full democracy”. The region of Asia and Australasia, containing five “full democracies” (Australia, Japan, New Zeeland, South Korea & Taiwan), went down from 5.46 to 5.41 while the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia went down to 5.37 from 5.39.

Top 10 upgrades and downgrades in the 2023 report. Source: Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2023 report

The need for a reformed international order

A special essay included in the report provides a discussion on the evolution of war and peace in the post-World War II era, the relationship between peace and democracy, and geopolitical drivers of global conflict.

While post-Cold War conflicts have decreased compared to 1946-1991, recent years show a rise in conflicts, with 2022 seeing the highest combatant deaths since the 1980s, the report says. This suggests an era of increasing danger. The report argues that there is evidence that supports the “democratic peace” theory, which claims democracies are less prone to war, leading to the conclusion that the promotion of democracy could help bring about a more peaceful world.

While the democracy-peace link is evident, oversimplification may ignore other conflict drivers beyond democracy’s absence. Not only can lack of democracy heighten conflict risk, but rising conflicts might also weaken democracies. These conflicts, driven by geopolitical dynamics, signal a destabilizing global order and the looming threat of major power clashes. The report poitns out that “the contours of a future major war are already visible.”

The report argues that a reluctance on the part of the United States and Western powers to help reform the international system contributes to polarization and conflict. For too long, necessary changes to international institutions have been neglected, the essay points out. The international political system needs to be reorganised, the essay notes, and the most powerful states need to “relinquish” their “near-monopoly over decision-making”. This could be done while “the values of democracy and freedom” are upheld and without appeasing autocrats or violators of international law.

How the report measures democracy

EIU’s Democracy Index has been published annually since 2006. It makes an assessment of the state of democracy in 165 independent states and two territories, only microstates are excluded. Each country receives a score on a scale from 0-10 based on a range of indicators within five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government, political participation; and political culture. Based on the average score the measured countries end up in one of four categories: “full democracies” (with a score of 8+ to 10); “flawed democracies” (6+ to 8); “hybrid regimes” (4+ to 6); and “authoritarian regimes” (0 to 4). The level of democracy in organizations of transnational governance, such as the European Union or the United Nations, is not covered.

Petter Ölmunger
Petter is chair of Democracy Without Borders Sweden