Receding, eroding, weakening. These are terms that the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) uses in its latest annual report to describe the global state of democracy after analyzing 173 countries. “Democracy remains in trouble, stagnant at best and in decline in many places,” summarizes the document, which notes that nearly half of the countries analyzed suffered setbacks over the past five years. To reach this conclusion, IDEA analyzes democratic evolution in four main categories: representation, rights, rule of law, and participation. Although progress has been made in some areas at the global level, “the outlook is bleak,” says the organization’s secretary general, Kevin Casas-Zamora, in a telephone conversation.
A former vice-president of Costa Rica, Casa-Zamora notes “serious problems” with the performance of representative institutions. “The credibility and integrity of elections is under siege around the world,” he says, both because of the “very marked presence of deliberate disinformation efforts to subvert the credibility” of elections and because of attempts by many governments to undermine the necessary control of “independent electoral authorities.” As for the rule of law, he highlights “very serious” problems in maintaining the independence of the judiciary, which coexist with progress in the fight against corruption in some African and Asian countries. Regarding the protection of fundamental rights, there are no improvements in general and “significant deteriorations” in relation to freedom of expression, press, and association.
Amid the dark clouds, the analysis of democratic participation “offers a glimmer of hope,” notes Casas-Zamora. “Levels of civic participation, above all, and electoral participation continue to be robust in most regions of the world, and in some cases in countries where the other elements of democracy are in a very precarious situation,” as is the case in African countries with a very deficient rule of law. “The center of gravity of democracy is shifting; it is moving away from being in the traditional representative institutions [parliaments, parties, elections] and is starting to move more into the area of civic participation. The energy to renew the democratic project is not in the formal institutions of representation, but in citizen action, in the capacity of civil society to organize itself, to demand accountability,” he points out.
This is the state of democracy in the different regions of the world at the end of 2022, according to the IDEA report.
Europe dominates the top 20 global rankings in all four categories, “but there are significant subregional variations.” In 2022, there was a deterioration in the scores of Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. These declines have affected several indicators of compliance with the rule of law or press freedom. “While these countries continue to perform well on most factors, the declines highlight the importance of continued vigilance to ensure the future of democracy,” says International IDEA.
“Undemocratic” Turkey “is an exception” in the region, and in the east, authoritarian regimes in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia rank well below the European average on most indicators, in contrast to “promising democratic growth” in countries such as Armenia and Moldova, and “notable improvements” in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and especially Slovenia.
The past year has been dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The report stresses that the European Union “mobilized intra-EU unity” in support of Kyiv, and took steps to revive the enlargement process — rather than “defensively contracting” — to new future partners such as Bosnia, Moldova and Ukraine itself, and to protect democratic standards in its member states.
The study also stresses that the EU “finally” took concrete action on rule of law disputes with Hungary and Poland, which saw “significant declines” in key indicators between 2017 and 2022. But despite the European Commission freezing billions of euros in funding to these countries due to those violations, both have “generally not changed course,” although recent elections in Poland paved the way for a turnaround there.
Europe remains the region with the best average scores for representation and rights, with gains in gender equality but also declines for attacks or pressures on press freedom. In contrast, participation has stagnated in Europe, although eight of the top 10 countries in the world ranking are European, with Denmark topping the world rankings in several categories.
The report describes the Middle East as “the most authoritarian region in the world,” marked by “personalized centralization of power,” intensified repressive practices and significant economic and social inequalities. More than half of the region’s countries have low rights scores, with Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen among the bottom 50 globally.
“The shrinking civic space is worrisome; there have been significant declines in freedom of speech, press, and freedom of association and assembly since 2012″ [the end of the Arab Spring protests], all amid “a rise in digital authoritarianism” whereby the region’s leaders “have used technology to silence political opposition and popular mobilization through surveillance, censorship, disinformation, and manipulation of information.”
At the same time, social resistance continues to exist, as seen in Iran, where the movement that emerged after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini for not wearing the mandatory headscarf properly, “has revealed the power of protest as a tool for democratic expression.”
In Israel, the report highlights the attack on judicial independence following the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is embroiled in corruption cases, and the response of society, which staged large demonstrations against it. However, Israel is the only country in the region with high indexes in most of the categories analyzed, except that these do not measure “Israel’s anti-democratic actions in Palestine,” warns the report, prior to the current conflict with Hamas.
Latin America and North America
In the last five years, most Latin American countries have remained in the middle range of the four categories analyzed but “more have experienced a significant decline than have made progress.” Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela recorded the sharpest declines. But there have also been falls in El Salvador and Guatemala, and greater recourse to militarization or states of emergency to deal with violent crime in countries such as Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru.
Most countries score well in representation, with 13 countries in the world’s top 50; Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica are in the top 20. The most notable declines have been in freedom of expression, press and association and assembly. “The use of force against demonstrators in Cuba and the harassment, intimidation or closure of media outlets in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua exemplify this worrying trend.” In addition, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
Seven countries in the region experienced significant declines in social equality, including the U.S. and Canada, although both continue to rank among the top 30 in the world in terms of equal rights. The drop in the U.S. is explained “by the impact of structural racism and discrimination on political equality,” among other issues. Only Costa Rica, the highest-ranked country in the region in terms of rights, and Uruguay, the sixth-highest, perform well in this area. In the last five years, gender equality has remained stable and most countries are at a medium level (18 out of 27). In the case of the U.S., the report warns that the proliferation of state legislation against abortion rights may end up “affecting the country’s gender equality performance.”
Insecurity continues to be a serious problem for the rule of law in the region and many governments have given more power to the armed forces and increased militarization in public security. The popularity of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele stands out, despite tens of thousands of people imprisoned and due process violations in his anti-gang strategy. Others, such as Honduras, Peru, or Ecuador, have also resorted to military deployments and the suspension of rights to fight crime or control immigration.
In contrast, the category of democratic participation is “a bright spot” in the region, with most countries above the world average.
Legislative bodies have had mixed success in exercising government oversight. The report cites the positive example of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 attack, which recommended prosecuting Donald Trump for his involvement in attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. By contrast, in Mexico, a Congress mostly aligned with the ruling party has paralyzed the appointment of officials to oversight bodies that have been criticized by the government, and the courts have had to act as a counterweight to stop bills contrary to the Constitution.
The report dedicates special section to Guatemala, “a terrible case of manipulation of the electoral process that clearly affects the credibility of the elections, but at the same time is an example of citizen mobilization to protect an electoral result” that gave victory to Bernardo Arévalo.
The average level of democracy on the African continent remains “relatively stable” with the significant exception of the category of political representation in the face of a wave of coups d’état in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and civil conflicts in Ethiopia or Sudan, which “have highlighted the challenges for democratic consolidation,” according to the report. Added to this are cases such as Tunisia, where President Kai Said suspended parliament in 2021 to rule by decree. Conflict and insecurity continue to threaten democracy and human rights on the continent, and economic shortages and lack of basic necessities lead to distrust of institutions.
Despite the challenges to the rule of law, progress has been made against corruption with “significant improvements” in the last five years in countries such as Angola, Burundi, and Sudan, which is now mired in a bloody civil war, coexisting with declines in other areas indicative of democratic health. The category of participation is also “an area of strength across the continent,” with countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia among the top 50 worldwide, compared to significant declines in Tunisia or Burkina Faso.
Asia and the Pacific
The “broad-based democratic decline” observed in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years has mostly been halted, although a change in trend is not apparent, according to the study. Factors related to civil liberties, such as freedom of expression or association, have largely continued their multi-year downward trend, with the regional average “well below the global average.” Most countries remain below the average in all categories except participation, with improvements in rule of law in the Maldives, Taiwan, and Uzbekistan, and representation in Malaysia, the Maldives and Thailand “showing promise.”
Against a general picture of institutional stability across the region stand Myanmar and Afghanistan, two states that have fallen sharply in all categories “due to civil war and state collapse.”
India, which has overtaken China as the world’s most populous country, remains at a medium level in representation despite a decline over the past five years, similar to the credibility of its elections, among other challenges to democracy. One area of “continuing concern” is civil liberties, where India, the Maldives, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka recorded significant declines over the past five years, as did Afghanistan and China, the latter from already low levels.
Gender equality saw limited change across the region, with significant declines in Afghanistan (again under Taliban control) and Kyrgyzstan. Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan remain the region’s best performers in this area, while the vast majority of other countries are at a medium level.
The International IDEA report provides a series of recommendations to encourage and maintain democracies. Some of these are: take action to defend electoral processes; encourage parliaments to “increase opportunities for public participation and transparency”; governments consulting with the judiciary to create mechanisms to denounce and sanction acts that undermine judicial integrity, and ensuring that prosecutors are independent; counteracting the continuing serious deterioration of the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; and defending the work of the media and civil society.
Civic and social organizations should continue to take the lead in conducting assessments of the protection of these rights by governments and ensure the existence of a robust and impartial mechanism that can receive complaints of rights violations, the report states.
A 'universal aspiration'
Aside from the negative indicators of the report, Casas-Zamora expresses his concern that "the discussion on democracy on a global scale is getting caught up in the geopolitical quagmire." In the wake of the wars in Ukraine and Israel and "geopolitical disputes, the perception is beginning to take hold in parts of the world that democracy is a problem that only Western countries care about and that only they are willing to support it, and that somehow it is their creation that is being imposed on the rest of the world."
This is a "dangerous and unfortunate" trend, Casas-Zamora says, in the face of which we must insist "that democracy is a universal aspiration, which exists because people are not willing to give up the opportunity of choosing their rulers in elections worthy of the name, the possibility of criticizing their rulers and returning home in one piece, or to renounce certain fundamental rights. And that is true in sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America and in Asia."
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