In November 2017 the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) based in Stockholm published its first report on “The Global State of Democracy” (GSoD) (Democracy Without Borders reported). Simultaneously, it launched a research project under the name of “The Global State of Democracy Indices”, to serve as the main evidence base for future GSoD assessments. It provides data on 158 countries for the time between 1975 and 2017, analyzing trends in five main attributes of democratic performance (representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration and participatory engagement) as well as their various sub-attributes.
The main findings of the project’s first update have now been published and conclude that democracy’s global rise has come to a halt. This conclusion is particularly alarming, as the 2017 GSoD had been relatively optimistic in its assessments of global democratic trends as compared to other reports. It highlighted the long-term positive trend in democratic development and warned against over-dramatizing any downwards trends. The new data from the October 2018 Indices, however, falls in line with the more worrying conclusions of reports such as Freedom House’s 2018 report Democracy in Crisis and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index: Free Speech under Attack.
Civic space and established democracies as main concern
In concrete terms, according to the GSoD Indices there are now more countries experiencing democratic decline than countries experiencing gains. The area that has seen the most dramatic decline across all regions is linked to civic space (34 declining, 10 advancing in 2017). Fundamental rights have been compromised by a significant downwards trend in civil liberties, for which the report identifies declines in freedom of expression as a major cause, followed by freedom of association and assembly. Media integrity, a crucial component of checks on government, has declined at a similarly concerning pace (33 declining, 10 advancing in 2017), as has civil society participation.
What the report highlights as particularly worrying is the regional breakdown of these trends. Major aspects of democracy have been on the decline since 2007 in those regions with traditionally high performance on democratic measures. Europe has experienced ‘downward pressure’, a decrease in regional averages, in all main attributes of democratic performance. With Turkey, Poland, Romania and Ukraine it further includes four of the 12 countries experiencing decline in the largest number of attributes in the last five years.
North America as a region has faced downward pressure in all main attributes apart from participatory engagement, including a statistically significant decrease in impartial administration, driven by recent events in the USA. Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered from similar pressures. Even though, thanks to their high starting point, many of these countries remain high-performers on many attributes, the recently consistent downwards trend is unprecedented in its form.
Amidst this troubling situation, some findings give reason for a slightly more optimistic outlook. As regions, Africa and Asia have continued through recent years to improve their overall democratic performance, even though they do remain located in the category of low-level democratic performance. Gender equality stands out as a subcomponent that has improved considerably across the world, almost doubling its global score in the last 42 years. Further, the authors highlight that the long-term trend from 1975 to 2017 remains a positive one. Today, “democratically, the world is faring better than it did in the 1970s and 1980s”.
Re-establishing democracy’s status in the world
Still, recent downwards trends are deeply concerning. Between 2014 and 2017 we have seen, for the first time since 1975, two or more consecutive years of a greater number of countries in democratic decline than in expansion. Worse, these trends have penetrated established democracies through the process of “modern democratic backsliding”. The attack on democracy by its democratically elected leaders through legal means, and the gradual weakening of the civic space are new and serious challenges to democracy. It is imperative, in particular in those countries, that downward trends are halted and reversed if the global belief in the resilience and promises of democracy, and its superiority as a societal model is to be preserved. The global agenda for the “renewal of representation” to address “the threats and opportunities created by populism” that International IDEA recently proposed together with several partners is a first step towards this objective.
Image: From the cover of the first 2017 GSoD report