EIU report: 2019 a year of democratic setbacks and popular protest

2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protest. Image: Studio Incendo, Flickr/CC BY 2.0
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The twelfth edition of the Democracy Index covering 2019 that was published recently has concluded that global democracy is in its most fragile state since The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) first produced the study in 2006.

The Democracy Index attempts to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries, of which 166 are sovereign states and 164 are UN member states, by asking experts in each of the respective countries to report on a series of sixty democratic indicators. Each country is given a score based on these indicators and are placed in one of four categories, from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime”.

Some key findings:

  • The number of “full democracies” increased to 22, as Chile, France and Portugal moved up from the “flawed democracy” category.
  • Only 5.7% of the world’s population lives in a “full democracy” and more than one-third under authoritarian rule.
  • Nordic nations, Norway, Iceland and Sweden ranked the highest respectively, while the Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea were ranked lowest.
Democracy Index 2019 by regime type. Source: EIU

The report documents an effectively global deterioration of quintessential democratic components such as electoral processes and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government and political culture. In what can be seen as a direct consequence of the foregoing, political participation was the only facet of democracy that improved, with discontent citizens becoming more politically active. As DWB reported last year, the Index has found that political activism has grown significantly in recent times as a result of democratic setbacks.

Far from coming as a surprise, the report is further confirmation for political analysts that we remain firmly entrenched in what has been coined by commentator Larry Diamond as a democratic recession, observable in the in all corners of the world from China and Hong Kong, to Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Democracy Index 2019, global map by regime type. Source: EIU

Democratic decline in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa

According to the Democracy index, a sharp regression of democratic components in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa were the driving force behind the low global average score.

Although existing at opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean, similarities can be drawn from the difficulties facing the respective regions. A breakdown in electoral processes and attempts by governments to reduce and exclude political opposition were symptomatic of their democratic decline.

In Niger and Comoros, governing administrations implemented rules that excluded key opposition figures from standing in presidential elections. Similar restrictions on the ability for opposition political parties to take part in decision making and political debate have been implemented in Senegal, Benin, Rwanda and Zambia.

Latin America’s low score was epitomized by the October 2019 election and post-election fallout in Bolivia, which highlighted severe irregularities in the electoral process. These included the manipulation of the main opposition party by president, Evo Morales, and electoral fraud, designed to thwart defeat in the election. This resulted in large-scale national protests and violence, culminating in the army ousting the leader and his eventual exile from the country. Also, in Guatemala and Honduras, several presidential candidates were banned from standing in elections despite breaking no formal protocols.

In both Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the aforementioned attempts to restrict and eradicate political opposition and debate has increased popular dissatisfaction, undermining confidence in political institutions and perceptions of democracy. This has caused an increase in popular protest, with citizens demanding change.

The picture in the West

Although the report documents that the scores of most Western countries remained relatively stable, the polarization of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ – a theme that has intensified in the past decade – has continued, leading to an increase in “anti-establishment” organizations and political parties and a deterioration of quality debate based on policies and facts. A continuously increasing dependency on social media and other online platforms has resulted in further politically exacerbated fragmentation, which is as poignant in the within the walls of democratic institutions as it is within everyday public and private institutions.

One notable characteristic which has caused further disparity between the left and the right, as noted by Francis Fukuyama, is the shift from a left-right divide defined largely in economic terms toward a divide based on identity politics. As well as feeling aggrieved by economic decisions and the affect they have, people on both sides of the political spectrum in the developed world are now more dissatisfied that their (and their groups) identity is not being recognized by those in power and the society around them. Examples of this scenario can be observed in the recent political climate in the US, the UK, and several other European states, where identity politics is at the forefront of political debate and protest around several issues, including the 2020 US election and European Union membership.

Other regional outcomes

In MENA, popular unrest has also been visible, as citizens grow frustrated with the pace and direction of political developments. Corruption and economic stagnation are highlighted by the index as the main cause of dissatisfaction.

The report has concluded that Eastern Europe’s democratic malaise persists amid a weak political culture, difficulties in safeguarding the rule of law, endemic corruption, a rejection by some countries of “liberal” democratic values and a preference for “strongmen” who bypass political institutions, all of which creates a weak foundation for democracy.

Asian democracies had a tumultuous year in 2019. The biggest score change occurred in Thailand, whose score improved by 1.69 points compared with 2018, to 6.32, resulting in a rise of 38 places in the global rankings and a transition from a “hybrid regime” to a “flawed democracy”. The biggest democracy in the world, India, dropped ten places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking, to 51st place. India’s overall score fell from 7.23 in 2018 to 6.90 in 2019. The primary cause of the democratic regression was an erosion of civil liberties in the country.

China’s score fell further, as a result discrimination against minorities and intensified and digital surveillance of the population. Hong Kong slipped a further three places in 2019, from 73rd to joint 75th with Singapore out of 167 countries, amid a deterioration in political stability following a sizeable cumulative decline in 2015-18. The wave of often violent protests that grew from mid-2019 is largely a manifestation of pre-existing deficiencies in Hong Kong’s democratic environment.

Conclusion

The evidence documented in the Democracy Index serves as another reminder that democracy is in a vulnerable state. Structured, transparent political processes are backsliding, civil liberties are being reduced and trust in political leaders and institutions is arguably at an all-time low. However – as the report highlights – far from accepting the status quo, people are choosing to come together to protest against their government’s poor performances and demand transparency and accountability from those who lead them.

Ryan Whyte
Ryan is a graduate from The University of Edinburgh (Law LLB) and The University of Glasgow (International Relations MRes) currently based in Berlin.
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