The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) released their annual Global State of Democracy report on November 2, 2023. The intergovernmental institute based in Stockholm describes the current global state of democracy as «complex, fluid and unequal». According to their assessment, democracy continued to contract across all regions of the world in 2022.
With 85 countries almost half of the 173 states covered in the study suffered a decline in at least one key indicator of democratic performance in the past five years, the institute says. They note further that 2022 was the sixth year in a row that countries with net declines outnumbered those with net advances, the longest streak of declines since 1975 when International IDEA’s records start.
Representation, rights, rule of law and participation
In the new study, International IDEA no longer provides regime classifications on an overall basis as they did previously. Instead, the strength of democracy in individual countries is now ranked within four separate categories of performance: representation, rights, rule of law, and participation. Data provided online shows the performance of individual countries, regions or the world overall using an index for each of these areas while a value of at least 0.7 means high-performing, 0.4 to 0.69 mid-range performing and 0.39 and below low-performing.
Each category witnessed broad declines in every region, except for participation, which showed more positive outcomes.
Representation, as a measure of democracy, exhibited particularly poor performance across the globe. International IDEA defines representation as an «aggregate measure of the credibility of electoral processes, the effectiveness of legislatures and the quality of local democratic representation.» In Africa, the low levels of representation can be attributed to the ongoing surge of coups d’état in countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as civil conflict in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan.
Rights did not experience equally significant declines as representation but rather stagnated at a low level across the globe. Nevertheless, many countries saw declines in civil liberties such as freedom of expression. This is particularly apparent in Asia and the Pacific, with countries such as Australia, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines, facing deteriorations in freedom of the press.
Rule of law reflected a mixed picture globally, with contraction and expansion across its component factors and in all regions. Europe demonstrated major discrepancies between different countries. While Central Europe scored second-highest in terms of Rule of Law, many typically «strong» European democracies, including Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, showed deteriorating performances. Within these countries, predictable enforcement as a measure of rule of law was commonly in decline.
Nevertheless, the news is not all bad. The report finds that participation has been on the rise. This follows from numerous examples of citizen participation across the globe, from the mobilization and subsequent electoral victory of the Thai opposition, to the resistance committees established in Sudan. Africa in particular demonstrated strength in participation, with nine African countries being included in the top 50 countries in levels of participation. Globally, Zambia, Kenya and Colombia made the largest advancements in participation between 2021 and 2022.
A central theme throughout the report is the growing importance of so-called «countervailing institutions» to strengthening democracy. Countervailing institutions, according to International IDEA, are institutions that help keep the government in check and balance its power. This includes state institutions such as those that are part of the legislative and judicial branches, as well as actors outside of the government, such as civil society organizations, popular movements or independent media.
Countervailing institutions vary in appearance across regions. In the Americas, constitutional frameworks have acted as significant countervailing institutions, while in Asia the Pacific, anti-corruption commissions and civil engagement have played large roles in safeguarding citizens› democratic rights.
A common pattern observed is the prominence of supranational institutions, such as the African Union in Africa, the inter-American human rights system in the Americas, and the European Union (EU) in Europe. The EU has acted as a countervailing institution by holding its own Member States accountable for breaching democratic principles. For instance, the EU has frozen billions of euros in funding for Hungary and Poland, as a punishment for their violations in the fields of rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, however, these actions taken by the EU have not resulted in significant changes thus far.
To strengthen democracies, the report highlights the need to recognize how democracy may be shifting. Traditional checks and balances in government are no longer necessarily the primary means of balancing power according to this assessment. The report says, for instance, that legislatures in many cases “have proven unable to check the executive by exercising oversight”. Instead, additional countervailing institutions such as courts or “fourth-branch” institutions have risen to play a critical role. These entities may lack the required support or protection to operate effectively in service of strengthening democracy. “Maintaining and growing the independence of these institutions is of critical importance going forward, especially in the face of increasing state capture around the world”, is one of the report’s important conclusions.