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The Global State of Democracy

Living in a free, democratic country is not something to take for granted. Recent political developments around the world have clearly shown us that.

LK20
Pre-reading activity

Before you start reading, go through the following words and expressions in pairs or in groups. Explain the meaning of the word in English. Use a dictionary if you like.

follow suit, take root, legitimacy, backslide, referendum, divisive, allegations, interference, strongmen, flawed, erode, infringements, civil liberties, confidence, predate, rule of law, marginalization, glue, changing tide, take heed

The history of modern democracy

Today, there are only a few countries in the world which can point to a fairly long and stable history of democratic governance. The United States is often considered the oldest democracy in the modern world, with its Constitution from 1789.

In the century following the founding of the United States, countries like Canada, New Zealand and several Western European countries followed suit, but it was not until after the Second World War that the idea of democracy took root worldwide.

In the 1960s and 1970s, after the colonial period had ended, the world experienced a global wave of people demanding a more democratic form of government, and throughout the 20th century, democracy continued to grow in popularity and legitimacy around the world.

Graphic showing the development of democracy from 1820 to 2000

Development of democracy, from 1820 to 2000 (Western Offshoots = the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand)

The Democracy Index

However, events in the 21st century have raised concerns about a global democratic backslide. In Britain, the Brexit referendum in 2016 brought on a democratic crisis. The same year, the United States went through a very divisive election, in which there were strong allegations of Russian interference. In addition to Donald Trump being elected, other conservative strongmen have also risen to power, destabilizing democratic institutions in their countries. As a result, in 2019 democracy scores across the globe went down.

Every year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes the Democracy Index, rating the state of democracy in 167 countries around the world. Countries are sorted into one of four categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

This index list has been published annually since 2006, and while the democratic situation in the world has been fairly stable during most of this time, the results from 2019 were less optimistic.

Map showing the countries of the world and their varying degree of democracy

According to the EIU Democracy index the world’s population is roughly divided in two: 76 out of 176 countries (48,4% of the world population) live in countries that are defined as full or flawed democracies, while 91 countries (51.6% of the world population) live in so-called hybrid or authoritarian regimes.

A backslide

The report showed that democracy is being eroded in many places around the world. The sharpest decline in democratic rights was observed in China, with an increase in discrimination of minorities and infringements on civil liberties. India, often referred to as the largest democracy in the world, also slid on the index. This was partly a result of a long-lasting conflict in the Jammu & Kashmir region, where the Muslim population has lost many of their civil liberties.

We also see a backslide in Western countries where democratic institutions and processes are being eroded. In 2016, the United States was downgraded from being a full democracy to being a flawed democracy. This was a result of a sharp fall in popular confidence in the functioning of the government and public institutions. According to EIU, this development predated and aided the election of Donald Trump the same year.

We see the same development in EU countries like Hungary and Poland, where democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law have come under threat from powerful forces in society. In fact, if you take a look at the EU as a whole, less than half of the countries are categorised as fully democratic.

Concerns about a democratic backslide are especially prominent in countries experiencing nationalist movements. Strongmen like Bolsonaro (Brazil), Orban (Hungary) and Trump (United States) are all examples of leaders who have represented this development. Nationalist politicians are often elected as a result of a rising income inequality between people and a feeling of marginalisation, both resulting in a declining trust in government institutions. Political trust is the glue of democracy.

Norway topping the list

With regards to Norway, we are still in a fairly good position, even though we also feel the changing tide of the world. The EIU Democracy Index puts us at the top of the list of democratic countries together with the rest of the Scandinavian countries and a few other Western countries. This is much due to the high trust most Norwegians have in each other and the government; a trust which is higher than in most other countries. Still, there are also divisive forces in the Norwegian society which will erode the stability of the country if we don't take heed. We should never assume that our own freedom and democratic form of government can be taken for granted.

The EIU's Democracy Index: Top 10 and bottom 10 countries (max score: 10,00)

TOP 10

Norway 9,87

Iceland 9,58

Sweden 9,39

New Zealand 9,26

Finland 9,25

Ireland 9,24

Denmark 9,22

Canada 9,22

Australia 9,09

Switzerland 9,03


BOTTOM 10

Yemen 1,95

Saudi Arabia 1,93

Tajikistan 1,93

Equatorial Guinea 1,92

Turkmenistan 1,72

Chad 1,61

Syria 1,43

Central African Rep. 1,32

Dem. Rep. of Congo 1,13

North Korea 1,08

Sources

Aridi, R (2020). How democracies now are ‘backsliding’ in countries from Russia to the United States. Retrieved from:
https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/09/how-democracies-are-now-backsliding-countries-russia-united-states

Cartledge, P (2018). A brief history of democracy: Does it still convey ‘the will of the people’?. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/democracy-history-athens-greece-politics-people-society-a8345136.html

Desjardins, J (2019). Mapped: The world’s oldest democracies. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/countries-are-the-worlds-oldest-democracies

The Economist (2020). Global democracy has another bad year. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/22/global-democracy-has-another-bad-year

The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020). Democracy Index 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index

Sist oppdatert 07.11.2020
Skrevet av Karin Søvik

Læringsressurser

Democracy and Human Rights