V-Dem report 2021: Global wave of autocratization accelerates

16 Oct. 2020, Bangkok, Thailand: Thousands of democracy protesters seized Pathumwan Intersection. The police used crowd control and high-pressure water tanks force to seize it back. Image by Kan Sangtong. Licensed for use on this website: Shutterstock.com

Autocratization continued across the world and went “viral” in 2020: The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen is down to levels last found around 1990. This is one of the main findings of this year’s report of the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The study also provides insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on democratization worldwide.

Autocratization continues

According to V-Dem, 25 states are in democratic decline. In contrast, the number of nations in democratization has fallen to 16. Only 4% of the world’s population live in these countries, whereas 34% live in countries that are drifting towards autocracy. Ten years ago, only 6% of the world’s population lived in autocratizing countries.

Autocratizing vs. democratizing countries, 1972-2020. Source: V-Dem report 2021, p. 15

Looking at the countries which declined the most during the last decade, Poland and Hungary, two EU member states, are at the top of the list. With countries like Turkey, Brazil, or India, important G20 states follow. The study explains that autocratization typically follows a similar pattern. Ruling governments first attack the media and civil society, and polarize societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information, and then undermine formal institutions. On the positive side, smaller countries have made democratic progress. Tunisia and Armenia are the two best performers in the last ten years.

The state of liberal democracy in 2020. Source: V-Dem report 2021, p. 12

Only 14% of the world’s population now lives in a liberal democracy

Electoral autocracies continue to be the most common regime type. 87 states, in which a total of 68% of the world’s population lives, are classified as electoral or closed autocracies according to V-Dem (62 electoral autocracies and 25 closed autocracies). In comparison, ten years ago around 48% of the world’s population lived in such autocracies. At the same time, the number of liberal democracies has fallen from 41 to 32 nations in the last decade, making up 14% of the world’s population. 19% of the world’s population, or 60 states, lived in electoral democracies in 2020. The sharp increase in the proportion of the population living in autocracies is related to the fact that India, home to 1.33 billion people, has turned into an electoral autocracy. The report shows, however, that all world regions are affected by the decline of liberal democracies. 

Liberal democracy index, global and regional averages, 1972-2020. Source: V-Dem report 2021, p. 13

Threat to freedom of expression intensifies

Around the world, freedom of expression and freedom of media are increasingly under threat, V-Dem says. In 32 countries, freedom of expression has been declining substantially and significantly, compared to only 19 in 2017. Repression of civil society also intensified in the year under review. Over the past decade, the research institute recorded a significant deterioration in 50 countries. While the large number of pro-democratic civic movements and mass mobilization were a ray of hope in last year’s report, mobilization now eroded to the lowest level in over a decade.

The effect of COVID-19

This year’s report also highlights the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for the development of global democracy. In the course of fighting the pandemic, many countries violated democratic principles. Although most democracies acted responsibly in the face of the crisis, the Swedish research institute records major violations of international norms in nine democracies and moderate violations in 23 democracies. Media freedom also came under pressure in relation to the corona pandemic. Two-thirds of all countries restricted media freedom. 31% of nations have or had emergency measures in place without a time limit. However, it remains to be seen whether the global pandemic will have a long-term effect on the development of democracy.

To reverse the decline of democracy across the world, a club of democracies could play a crucial role, argued Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of Democracy without Borders, in an opinion piece at Al Jazeera.

The studies of the V-Dem Project are based on the assessment of over 3,000 local experts around the world, who together compile nearly 30 million data points concerning democracy, human rights, civil society, and others.

Stefan Kalberer
Stefan studies European Global Studies (Master) in Basel and is a board member of Democracy Without Borders Switzerland