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Democracy in Crisis: Studies Show Continuing Global Trend Towards Autocracy

In the first months of the year, each of the leading democracy indices produce their annual reports containing updated rankings of the state of democracy across the world. This ‘democracy index season’ is led by three outlets: the V-Dem Institute, Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

As has become the norm over the past decade, these three reports each contain stark warnings about global democratic backsliding. V-Dem observes that ‘autocratisation continues to be the dominant trend,’ Freedom House identifies an ‘extensive’ deterioration in global freedom and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) describes a ‘general trend of regression and stagnation’ in global democracy. V-Dem’s numbers find that the average country score has fallen to the lowest level since 1998, while the EIU’s global average has reached a new low since its first report from 2006. Freedom House’s index also charts an 18th successive decline in global freedom.

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Larger Countries See Greatest Democratic Declines

These autocratising trends have tended to be more pronounced in larger countries, meaning that a higher proportion of the world’s population live under autocratic or semi-autocratic systems than these country averages would suggest.

V-Dem reports that a majority of the global population, 56% (or 5.7 billion people), live under countries classified as ‘electoral or closed autocracies’—up from 48% ten years ago. This is driven by countries with large populations such as China, Vietnam and Iran (as closed autocracies) and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Russia (as electoral autocracies). V-Dem reports that just 16% of the world’s population live in ‘electoral democracies.’ Indeed, while V-Dem’s average country score is at its lowest since 1998, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world has fallen to levels not seen since 1985.

Freedom House and the EIU report similar trends. In Freedom House’s report, 38% of the global population live in countries classified as ‘Not Free,’ 42% ‘Partly Free’ and only 20% ‘Free.’ More than 1 in 5 people in the world live in countries which registered an annual decline. Meanwhile, the EIU finds that 39% of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule against only eight per cent who live in full democracies, down from nine per cent in 2015.

What is driving these trends? The reports point to several explanations, often varying between countries. A wave of coups across west Africa has contributed to the notable decline in this region. Wars, notably between Russia and Ukraine or Azerbaijan and Armenia, have also slowed democratic gains or produced even greater levels of authoritarianism. Internal conflict in Myanmar and Sudan, both countries under military rule as a result of recent coups, have led to even worse social and political freedoms. Israel has similarly seen a general decline amid the ongoing war in Gaza, driven also by the government’s controversial judicial reform policies.

More broadly, corruption provides another explanation for declining democratic outcomes, as growing numbers of citizens in multiple countries lose faith in governing institutions and accept strongman leadership as a solution. Political polarisation, influenced by corruption as well as economic inequality, has contributed in some countries such as Brazil and the United States, often correlated with an increasing tendency to undermine the legitimacy of democratic outcomes.

The reports identify some important regional and continental divergences, indicating that movements in autocratisation or democratisation are driven by regional as well as global factors. For example, the move away from democracy has been accelerating in much of south and central Asia—with some exceptions. All three reports highlight democratic improvements in Thailand due to the country’s competitive parliamentary elections last year followed by a somewhat democratic transfer of power, albeit one which saw the military continue to exert significant influence.

Interestingly, the reports produced different analyses concerning Latin America and Caribbean regions. Whereas V-Dem reported divergent movements (Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic improving while El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru decline), Freedom House found no improvements in these regions.

The reports are generally agreed on the countries with the very worst democratic standards. Afghanistan, Belarus, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan fall at the bottom of each of the indices.

In addition, some of the worst conditions for democracy and freedom in the world are found in disputed and occupied territories. Of the three indices, only Freedom House provides ratings for these territories. Examining 15 such territories, Freedom House finds that only Northern Cyprus attains a ‘Free’ status; most of the others—Crimea, Eastern Donbass, Gaza, Indian Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, Pakistani Kashmir, South Ossetia, Tibet, Transnistria, the West Bank and Western Sahara—are firmly ‘not free.’ Many of these territories are subject to even worse conditions, including conflict and forced ethnic change.

European Democracy Under Threat

All three democracy indices continue to regard Europe, and Western Europe in particular, as the most democratic continent. As we are accustomed to seeing, the Nordic region provided the highest-rated country of each index: Denmark (V-Dem), Norway (EIU) and Finland (Freedom House). Freedom House classifies 81% of European countries, representing 82% of the population, as ‘Free’; the EIU identities 15/21 Western European countries as ‘full democracies; and V-Dem reports 96% of the population of Western Europe live in the top category, ‘liberal democracies,’ with the other 4% residing in ‘electoral democracies.’

However, Europe is far from immune from the autocratising trends outlined in the reports. In its ‘Western Europe’ region, V-Dem records declines in Austria, Cyprus, Greece and Portugal, while the EIU warns of high levels of dissatisfaction with European governing institutions. Moreover, democracy seems to be in worse health in eastern Europe. V-Dem’s figures indicate that the average level of democracy experienced by people in Eastern Europe has fallen to levels not seen since 1990, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This is largely the product of entrenched authoritarianism in Russia, the region’s most populous country, as well as in Belarus, but declines in other countries including Hungary, Serbia and Poland have also contributed.

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With some exceptions—notably Serbia—the Balkans have been a source of democratic improvements over the past year. Particularly significant increases were recorded by all three indices in Montenegro, in keeping with the general theme of smaller countries outperforming their larger counterparts. Since 2020, the once-hegemonic centre-left Democratic Party of Socialists (SPD-S&D) has been defeated—and accepted its defeat—first at the parliamentary and then at the presidential level. Montenegro demonstrates the importance of competitive elections and credible transfers of power in establishing strong democratic foundations. V-Dem also highlights democratic improvements in North Macedonia and Kosovo.

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2024 has been described as the ‘year of elections.’ Half the world’s population live in countries which have gone or will go to the polls this year. However, these reports clearly show many of these voters will be deprived the full opportunity to vote in free and fair elections. This is especially true in larger countries voting this year. India (population 1.4 billion), is only ‘Partly Free,’ an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ or a ‘Flawed Democracy.’ Pakistan (population 230m) is ‘Partly Free,’ an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ and ‘Authoritarian.’ Russia (population 140 million) is ‘Not Free,’ an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ and ‘Authoritarian.’ And so on. Of the larger states holding elections this year, only the United States and Indonesia—and arguably the European Union, though it does not receive its own score in any of the indices—tend to fall into more democratic categories. 

None of the reports suggest global democracy is in an unalloyed decline. There are always examples of countries undergoing slow democratisations, dramatic recoveries or, where democratic standards are entrenched, maintaining their high positions. The reports also cannot fully capture the efforts and prospects of activists or social movements resisting autocracy, oppression and corruption in their countries. Nevertheless, the direction of travel is clear. The twenty-first century assault on global democracy is now well into its second decade with no indication of an upcoming reversal on the horizon.