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Democracy is under threat as autocratization accelerates

According to the latest democracy report from the V-Dem Institute, 68% of the world’s population now live in non-democratic states. V-Dem’s data is the world’s largest global dataset on democracy. The proportion of people living in non-democratic countries has risen by 20 percentage points between 2010 and 2020. A big change occurred last year as India, with its large population, fell from the category of democracies and turned into an electoral autocracy. All in all, the report confirms a worrying trend: the decline of democracy around the world continues.

The report, entitled Democracy Report 2021 – Autocratization Turns Viral, shows that the number of democratizing countries has dropped almost by half in a decade and now accounts for only 4% of the world’s population. Other figures also highlight the reversal of the trend in the past 10 years: in 2010, only 6% of the world’s population lived in autocratizing countries, but in 2020 the proportion was 34%. The differences between the number of countries are not quite as dramatic as in terms of population, as the state of democracy has declined in some quite large countries such as Brazil, India and the United States. It is worth noting that the country that declined the most during the past decade is an EU country – Poland.

The report confirms a worrying trend: the decline of democracy around the world continues.

In 2020, the state of democracy was also affected by COVID-19, which became a global pandemic and caused most states to restrict civil rights to curb infections. V-Dem’s Pandemic Backsliding Project monitored the extent to which governments violated international standards for emergency provisions in response to the pandemic. According to international standards, measures should be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, and have a clear time limit. Most democracies acted responsibly regarding restrictions, but major violations were identified in 9 democracies, and moderate violations in 23 democracies. Major violations were registered also in 55 authoritarian states. Restrictions on media freedom were most common, but abusive enforcement of emergency measures and measures without a time limit were also frequent. According to V-Dem, the direct impact of the pandemic on democracy globally was relatively small, but the final toll could be significant unless restrictions are lifted as soon as the pandemic ends, and therefore the situation should be closely monitored.

Similar trend in all democracy reports

The main findings of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020 and the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report are similar than those of V-Dem’s report. The global average of the EIU’s Democracy Index is at an all-time low, and the number of authoritarian regimes has increased by three during the year, while the number of full democracies has increased by only one. According to EIU, the biggest deterioration in 2020 took place in already authoritarian states, but among the declining democracies were, for example, France and Portugal that fell from the category of full democracies to flawed democracies. This follows the general trend of recent years; decline of democracy in established democracies in particular. The trend is also confirmed by the V-Dem report, which states that nine of the ten most autocratizing countries between 2010–2020 were democracies.

According to Freedom House, last year was the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The Freedom in the World 2021 shows that countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since 2006. There were 45 more countries that declined than countries that improved. Different reports follow slightly different indicators, which explains the variation in the categorisation of countries. For example, according to Freedom House, as many as 75% of the world’s population live in autocratizing countries. Despite the different categorisations, the reports point out a similar trend of autocratization.

The list of the top 10 most democratizing countries also includes countries where recent developments have been negative.

Freedom of expression and the media have suffered the most. Eight of the ten most declining indicators of V-Dem data are related to these rights. Repression of civil society has also intensified, the data showing substantial deterioration in 50 countries. Deliberation is also declining. This refers to the extent to which public speech is central to decision-making and political opponents are respected. Data shows that deliberative democracy has declined in 23 states over the past 10 years. In addition, the deterioration of the rule of law has accelerated in recent years.

Democratization still occurs, but mostly in small countries. The list of the top 10 most democratizing countries also includes countries where recent developments have been negative. Sri Lanka, for example, has shown impressive democratization since 2010, but its worrying development in recent years has been further accelerated by significant restrictions on media, freedom of expression and civil society in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The V-Dem report also recalls that the world is nonetheless far more democratic than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. At present, the level of democracy in the world is, on average, down to the levels of 1990. Despite restrictions on the freedom of assembly imposed by governments in response to the pandemic, some significant protests for democracy and human rights took place last year. Mass mobilization and large demonstrations were seen in Belarus, Thailand, Nigeria, Iraq and the United States, for example. However, the number of pro-democracy protests fell radically from 2019, which was a record year for people’s mass mobilization. The decline may prove temporary, the report predicts.

Democracy must be protected

The data gives us an updated picture of the state of democracy worldwide. However, awareness of the situation alone may not be enough to take the right steps to improve the state of democracy. The report also shows a recurring pattern on how autocratization unfolds. The majority of the most autocratizing states have followed a similar pattern: First, the government seeks to control the media and restrict academic freedom and civil society. It then feeds polarization of the society by disrespecting political opponents and spreading disinformation, and only then attacks formal institutions, such as elections. According to the report, such development has taken place in Brazil, Bolivia, Hungary, India, Poland, Turkey, and, to some extent, Benin and Serbia. Of the ten most autocratizing states, only Mauritius and Thailand stand out.

When the first signs of autocratization are seen, alarm bells should ring.

The finding gives all democratic actors a chance to protect democracy from its decline. When the first signs of autocratization are seen, alarm bells should ring. Both internal and external pro-democracy actors can address worrying developments by strengthening core aspects of democracy and engaging in a public discussion on the foundations and values ​​of a democratic society. If an authoritarian regime succeeds in consolidating its own dominance by undermining the formal institutions of democracy, it may be too late to reverse the development.

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