The annual report of the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem) that was released in May 2017 concluded that “the average level of democracy in the world seems to have regressed back to, roughly speaking, where it was some 10 to 15 years ago.”
However, V-Dem researchers also argue that “alarmist reports about a global demise of democracy are not warranted” as “the average levels of democracy in the world are still close to their highest ever recorded level.”
Using its own data and evaluation, V-Dem’s 2017 annual report presents graphics and statistics on five indices of democratic performance in the areas of electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian democracy. The indices detail, among many others, a country’s electoral fairness, the strength of its checks and balances, its policies on freedom of association and speech, and equal protection under the law. Each section frames the contemporary state of the studied index with how global trends are changing by region, which countries are improving or declining, which sub-indexes are contributing most to any discussed changes, and further contextualizes the data with the socio-political occurrences.
Since 2013, more countries backsliding than advancing
Based on V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) that portrays the level of liberal democracy in the world, the report says that since 1978, democratic advances have persistently predominated over setbacks. According to V-Dem’s researchers, however, this trend reversed in 2013 when the number of countries with democratic backsliding started to outnumber the countries with significant progression.
The graph below details the backsliding and advancing countries across world regions based on global averages from 2006 to 2016. Countries above the black line have improved their level of electoral democracy and those below have deteriorated (0 being the lowest and 1 being the highest assessment on the LDI):
Overall, many of the countries advancing democracy in the last 10 years are found in Africa (blue dots). Asia Pacific (purple dots) is a second region where positive changes outweigh backslides. In several other regions of the world, the backsliders tend to outnumber the advancing countries. Significant cases of regression blight Eastern Europe and Central Asia (red dots) in particular. In Latin America, democracy’s progress and regression more or less even out. In the Middle East and North Africa region (orange dots), advances made during the the Arab Spring endure in Tunisia whereas most other countries and territories have reverted again and sometimes turned for the worse.
Glaring examples of recent backsliding have occurred in Thailand since their 2014 coup, in Poland since 2015 when the Law and Justice (PiS) party gained an absolute parliamentary majority, and Turkey, which has fallen from an undisputed democracy to an electoral autocracy in the span of 2006 to 2016.
The level of liberal democracy remained at a relatively stable and high level in Western Europe and North America (yellow dots). Although its score remains relatively high, only one country in this area registered a statistically significant decline: the United States.
The most comprehensive data on democracy
V-Dem was launched in 2011 and by now expanded their database to over 17 million points on 177 countries covering the period since 1900. V-Dem’s data is freely available on the internet and is often used by researches and institutions such as the World Bank, the European Commission and NGOs. The project is a worldwide collaboration of almost 3,000 scholars and experts headquartered at the V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg
Image: From the cover of V-Dem’s 2017 report. UNMIL Photo/Staton Winter, August 23rd, 2011, Monrovia, Liberia: A Liberian holds up his ink-stained finger, proof of his having voted in the national Referendum.