The world has more democracies, but weaker democracy

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, democracy still has problems. Keystone / Fritz Reiss

“Despite the continued quantitative increase in the world’s democracies, the quality of the world’s democracies is eroding,” writes the Stockholm-based IDEA institute in its annual Global State of Democracy ReportExternal link, published on Tuesday.

This content was published on November 19, 2019 - 09:00,dos

In a mixed bag of findings, the report notes that more than half of the countries in the world are now democratic, up from a quarter in 1975. In the last decade alone, the number of democracies rose from 90 to 97, writes the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Meanwhile, already-established democracies have proven resilient: 81% of states that were democratic in 1975 or that have since become so, have stood the test of time.

The problems are rather qualitative. Democratic erosion, defined as “a statistically significant decline on at least one democratic substitute over a five-year period”, has more than doubled in the past decade, the institute says.

“The quality of democracy is being eroded across all regions of the world […] with voters lured by populist alternatives that promise more effective solutions to current global social-economic challenges,” it wrote in a press statement.

In all regions of the world, and across all regime types, civic space is on the retreat. Freedom of expression, of religion, of association, and of the media have all seen deterioration, even in regions like Europe, where democracy seems to be entrenched.

Other key findings include the conclusion that the share of weak and fragile democracies has increased significantly in the last ten years and that so-called “democratic backsliding” is closely linked to both the rise of left- and right-wing populist parties.

The report highlighted four specific areas where democratic progress has been globally insufficient: corruption, continuing under-representation of women in parliaments, low levels of judicial independence, and limited access to political power for certain social groups.

Switzerland doing well

Despite this, the IDEA assessment follows other similar democratic rankings in stressing the bright spots in an otherwise dark picture: “our data shows that, despite its shortcomings, democracy is still by far the preferred form of government in all continents”, it writes.

It points to the waves of protests across the world in 2019, mentioning Algeria, Egypt and Sudan as examples of places where “democratic aspirations are strong and find expression even in hybrid or non-democratic contexts”.

As for Switzerland, the Alpine nation scores highly as usual on most aspects of democratic governance, notably on civil society participation, direct democracy, and corruption, where it is marked as a “good-practice” country.

The only area Switzerland stands to markedly improve is on electoral participation, the report finds.

The IDEA institute highlights global challenges to democracies, notably the crisis of representation of political parties fuelled by the rise of populism, shortcomings in managing electoral processes, corruption in politics and the empowerment of civil society.

The report is based on criteria which measure democratic performance for nearly 160 countries over the past 44 years. The indices help monitor progress on the sustainable development goals and are meant to complement other democracy measures.

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