The world is becoming more authoritarian as autocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression. Many democratic governments are backsliding and are adopting authoritarian tactics by restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, a trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
These are the key findings of the Global State of Democracy Report 2021--Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era, published this week by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization based in Stockholm. The report comes at a timely moment—ahead of US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy on 9-10 December, when around 100 countries will gather to discuss the challenges facing democracy.
“The Global State of Democracy report is not a wakeup call, it’s an alarm bell. Authoritarianism advances in every corner of the earth. Universal values – the pillars of civilization that protect the most vulnerable – are under threat. The EU shares many of the challenges. But we do have a unique and diverse experience of democracy. Our Team Europe Democracy (TED) Initiative, that we are launching today, brings EU and member states’ democracy support together for the first time. We will not weather this storm divided, and we will learn as well as teach. We need Global Action for Democracy and the EU will play its part including at the upcoming Summit for Democracy”, said Jutta Urpilainen.
The number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade, now accounting for a quarter of the world’s population. This includes established democracies such as the United States, but also EU Member States such as Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. More than two-thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or autocratic regimes.
Overall, the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction.
The world has lost at least four democracies in the last two years, either through flawed elections or military coups. The Global State of Democracy (GSoD) indices show that authoritarian regimes have increased their repression, with 2020 being the worst year on record.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the trend of democratic deterioration—As of August 2021, 64 percent of countries have taken an action deemed to be disproportionate, unnecessary or illegal to curb the pandemic.
But democratic erosion is not a one-way street. Many democracies have proved resilient, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, by introducing or expanding democratic innovations and adapting their practices and institutions in record time.
“The political flaws and social fault lines revealed by the pandemic will drive more people towards populist and authoritarian leaders that seldom deliver durable solutions for the concerns of citizens”, said International IDEA Secretary-General Kevin Casas-Zamora. “If there is one key message in this Report, it is that this is the time for democracies to be bold, to innovate and revitalize themselves.”
The Report finds that many countries held credible elections in exceedingly difficult conditions created by the pandemic, often by expanding the modalities to exercise suffrage. Nonetheless, International IDEA warns against the grave and looming threat of disinformation and baseless accusations of electoral fraud, as seen in Myanmar, Peru and the United States.
One of the key findings of this research is the remarkable strength of civic activism all over the world. Pro-democracy movements have braved repression in places such as Belarus, Cuba, Eswatini, Myanmar, and Sudan, and global social movements for tackling climate change and fighting racial injustice have thrived. More than 80 countries have experienced protests and civic action of different kinds during the pandemic despite often harsh government restrictions.
To conclude, the Report recommends a series of policy actions to bolster global democratic renewal by embracing more equitable and sustainable social contracts, reforming existing political institutions, and shoring up defenses against democratic backsliding and authoritarianism.
Half the democracies in the region have suffered democratic erosion, including notable declines in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and the United States.
Still, most democracies have been resilient to the disruptive effects of the pandemic, with most elections going ahead and parliaments, judiciaries and media managing to exercise their functions of oversight. The Dominican Republic and Ecuador are notable for the considerable progress made in the quality of their democracies.
The pandemic has placed a strain on democracy. In some countries where democratic principles were already under threat, it provided an excuse for governments to weaken democracy further.
Ongoing democratic backsliding intensified in EU Member States Hungary and Poland, while Slovenia joined them as the region’s third backsliding democracy in 2020. Europe’s non-democratic governments—Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and Turkey have intensified their already very repressive practices.
ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
The continent has suffered a wave of growing authoritarianism as crises of various kinds have affected Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Myanmar. Democratic erosion is also widespread, including in India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka with many of them suffering from rising ethno-nationalism and the militarization of politics. China’s influence, coupled with its own deepening autocratization, also puts the legitimacy of the democratic model at risk.
AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
Recent declines in democracy in Africa have undermined remarkable progress made across the continent over the past three decades. The Covid-19 pandemic, though seemingly less damaging to public health than elsewhere in the world, has added pressure on governments to respond to concerns regarding governance, rights and social inequality.
While regular elections remain the norm, the democratic quality of these elections is on the decline and attempts to evade or remove presidential term limits present a risk to democracy. Moreover, the year has seen four successful military coups in Chad, Guinea-Conakry, Mali and Sudan.
The Middle East’s tainted track record on protecting civil liberties was even further strained by the pandemic, with many elections held with the sole aim of keeping existing regimes in power, such as in Algeria, Egypt and Syria.
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