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The stealthy recession

Across the globe, the institutions that defend democracy are in serious trouble

Dictadura Regímenes
A motorcycle passes in front of a mural of Simón Bolívar and Hugo Chávez in Caracas, in an image from 2022. Javier Campos (NurPhoto / Getty Images)
Moisés Naím

Much has been said about the “democratic recession,” meaning democracy is retreating in many parts of the world. But there is another recession, less well-publicized, that goes hand in hand with the first and could be more damaging: the global rule of law recession.

What exactly is the rule of law? Well, it’s a group of institutions that guarantee that society functions based on explicit rules that are impartially enforced. The concept encompasses many things: limits on government power, transparent government decision-making, checks on corruption, the protection of fundamental civil rights, public order and personal security, compliance with rules and regulations and, in general, the proper functioning of justice.

Democracy without the rule of law is hollow. One can live in a country where the government is chosen by elections, but if that government repeatedly violates the limits on its power, is corrupt, opaque and tramples the fundamental rights of individuals, it can hardly be said that its citizens are free. It is of little use to hold an election every few years in a country where there is no order, laws are not followed and the courts are rigged.

Hence the gravity of the sprawling study recently published as the Rule of Law Index, by the World Justice Project (WJP). This study gathered together the perceptions and experiences about the rule of law in 142 countries based on surveys of some 149,000 households and more than 3,400 experts.

What they discovered is deeply worrying. The rule of law is in decline. “Our data shows that, in the last year, the rule of law has worsened in 82 countries, or 59% of the countries included in the index,” says Daniela Barba, a researcher at the WJP. “In Latin America and the Caribbean, we see that 18 of the 32 countries in the region experienced a degradation in the rule of law,” she adds.

And these are not isolated data points. The decline is a global phenomenon. For the sixth year in a row, more countries are getting worse than are getting better.

It will surprise no one to see that the countries where the rule of law is strongest are the nations that provide an excellent quality of life for their citizens: Scandinavia stands out, with Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden taking the first four places in the index, and countries such as Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland also in the top 10.

At the other end we have a series of countries devastated by conflict and corruption: Cameroon, Egypt, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cambodia are among the 10 worst in the world, but all of them achieve a better score than my beloved and ill-fated Venezuela, which appears dead last in the world ranking for having no limits on the power of the government and a weak and often co-opted judiciary.

In Latin America, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile lead the index, all of them placing above 60% of the ideal score. (Denmark hits 90%). But scores are falling across almost the entire region: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador and Mexico saw sharp declines in the strength of the rule of law this year. Honduras shows the greatest improvement in the region, although its score has only risen to 41% of the ideal score.

The rule of law is not the same as democracy, and the two should not be confused. There are countries like Singapore, where it is almost impossible to change the government through the ballot box, but where the rule of law is respected. Indeed, Singapore ranks 17th in the global index, ahead of consolidated democracies such as France, Spain and even the United States.

But Singapore is an exception. Much more common are cases where, little by little, the rule of law is eroded, and then democracy collapses because — by that point — it no longer has any way to defend itself. And that is why the sustained trend over time confirmed by the World Justice Project is so worrying. Because as the rule of law is weakened across more and more countries, their democracies become increasingly vulnerable.

Cases like Argentina, which went from occupying the 46th place in the world ranking in 2019 to 63rd place this year, should give us pause. As does Colombia, which fell from 71st to 94th in seven years, and Peru, which went from position 60th to 88th, and also Mexico which fell from position 79th to 116th. In each of these countries, the erosion of the basic institutions that defend democracy has been gradual and almost imperceptible. But its long-term consequences are incalculable.

This may explain why we so seldom here of countries transitioning to democracy anymore. Because traveling the path to democracy where the rule of law is not in force is much more difficult than doing so where complying with the rules is already an established custom.


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