Is democracy really in a worldwide decline?


What is the state of democracy around the world? asks Mélida Jiménez, a program officer in International IDEA’s Democracy Assessment, Analysis and Advisory unit. Many observers have been sounding alarms about a global wave of populism that has surged through Europe and the Americas. Others worry about recent erosion of democratic safeguards in particular countries like Poland, Hungary and Venezuela. Headlines announce crises in corruption, migration, conflict, security and elections. But is democracy really on its last legs? she ponders in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

Maybe not. Data from the Lexical Index of Electoral Democracy show that in 2016, no less than 68 percent of the world’s countries — home to 62.2 percent of the world population — government power is determined by genuinely contested elections. That’s actually an increase from 62 percent in 2006. What’s more, 56 percent of the democracies established after 1975 have not seen democratic reversals. No country with over 40 years of electoral democracy — with the prominent exception of Venezuela — has slid back into nondemocratic governance. Democracy remains the most widespread and legitimate form of government.

“Looking through this complex viewfinder, the GSoD Indices show that democracy has made considerable progress since 1975 — and the world continues to see stable levels of democracy,” adds Jiménez , a contributor to the Global State of Democracy Indices.

But the IDEA report – The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience – warns that governments are at a “critical juncture,” The Guardian reports:

Since 1975, the number of countries with fair democratic systems has more than doubled, from 46 (30% of countries) to 132 (68% of counties). More nations now hold elections than ever before. But progress has slowed over the past decade and, in some countries, it has halted completely, according to a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International Idea).

The study warned that democracies face new threats such as the rise of populism, immigration, growing inequality, and the emergence of technologies that can be manipulated by governments. The reluctance of politicians to respect election results or hand over power peacefully was also identified as an increasing challenge.

In the decade leading up to 2015, democratic systems were significantly undermined in 24 countries including Mali, Niger and Thailand, said the researchers. While these states were outnumbered by the 39 that adopted democratic systems over the same period, they send a warning signal to policymakers, according to Dr Nathalie Ebead, head of democracy assessment at International Idea.

“It’s not just about the number of countries [where democratic systems have broken down], but which countries we’re talking about, and whether they are key actors within a region,” said Ebead. “For example, Mali had a democratic reversal – it’s a key country in its region in Africa.”

The global state of democracy was also assessed in a 2015 forum at the National Endowment for Democracy (see below).

The IDEA report highlights social inequality’s impact in undermining the quality and resilience of democracies, writes ODI analyst Alina Rocha Menocal:

Inequality feeds polarization and erodes social cohesion, as can be seen with the rise or resurgence of populism and nationalist/anti-immigrant discourse in many democracies, both more established and emerging. This makes it difficult to achieve political consensus for policies intended to promote inclusion and redistribution. In countries as diverse as GuatemalaSouth Africa, and the United States, those with means, resources, power or the right status have wielded out-sized influence over policy- and decision-making processes.

The analysis also offered recommendations aimed at politicians, technocrats, and citizens in order to combat the threats to democracy, reports suggest:

These included migration policies aimed at encouraging integration and political participation among migrants, while political parties were advised to ensure their party statutes and electoral platforms were inclusive, and to “engage in fact-based democratic dialogue on migration to promote tolerance towards migrants and counter inaccurate public beliefs, knowledge and behavior about migration”.

Of the 155 countries examined by the report, one-third do not have functioning democratic governments. Among them were major regional powers such as China, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia, The Guardian adds:

The study measured the strength of democracies worldwide by looking at key factors including the extent to which a government is representative, how far people engage in the democratic process, and the presence of fundamental rights. It also analyzed the checks in place on governments, such as an independent judiciary, the extent to which administrations were impartial, the presence of corruption and the discrepancy between a nation’s official laws and what happened in practice.

Globally, progress has been made in nearly all of these measures over the past 40 years, meaning public institutions are more accountable and representative than ever before. But the impartiality of governments remains unchanged.

“This has been the most difficult thing for democracies to tackle since 1975 to today,” said Ebead. “The sophistication with which democratic backsliding [into autocratic systems] occurs within countries has gone up over the past decade. In the past, democratic backsliding in a county would occur in the form of a coup d’etat or classical electoral fraud with the stuffing of ballot boxes.” RTWT

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