Today, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg published its 2021 Democracy Report. Based on the largest dataset with almost 30 million data points for 202 countries all the way since 1789 the V-Dem-community of more than 3500 scholars and country experts offer a downpouring assessment: “Autocratization turns viral”, the report says pointing out the Covid19-pandemic as a mayor reason for the ongoing democratic backsliding. And with India, the world’s soon most populated country being downgraded from “democracy” to “autocracy” for the very first time since its independence 75 years ago, now 68% of the world population lives in an autocracy, up from 48% back in 2010.
“What we can see is, that the big progresses made in many parts of the world in the last three decades have reversed in a few years’ time”, states Bruno Kaufmann, Board member of Democracy International based in Sweden and long-term democracy reporter for public service media. He adds: “While democracy scores in most countries have been backsliding, local democracies and new forms of participatory and direct democracy has advanced in many places”.
Coronavirus: a major blow to democracy
A few weeks ago, also two other mayor democracy measure institutes published their annual reports: The Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House. And similarly to the new V-Dem-Report they offer no gracious judgment: “Democracy was dealt a major blow in 2020. Almost 70% of countries covered by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index recorded a decline in their overall score, as country after country locked down to protect lives from the novel coronavirus. The global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006”, reports the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, announced the publication of the 2021 report with the following words: As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny”. In addition to the Indian downgrading, which also Freedom House does, Abramovitz underlines the “The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship”.
Need for a democratic recovery
“The world will not be able to recover from the pandemic until democracy is recovering too,” says Joe Mathews, California-based co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, and a board member of Democracy International. “We need not just to reverse this trend towards autocracy. We need to democratize, so that the people themselves make decisions on the kind of societies we build post-pandemic.”
All the three mayor democracy reports published recently also offer some rays of hope for democracy. “Most of democracies acted responsibly during the pandemic”, notes V-dem while Freedom House underlines, that “democracy is remarkably resilient, and has proven its ability to rebound from repeated blows”. As a good example for this, the institute names Malawi where active citizens in 2020 ousted corrupted and autocratic leaders. “Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.”
Civil society for democratic resilience
In the face of democratic backsliding, Democracy International has been following a double approach of both monitoring the impacts of the pandemic and empowering civil society to take action.
As a member of the EXCEPTIUS research project, Democracy International is helping to trace the effects on of emergency decision-making under Covid-19 on democracy in Europe and identifying avenues of democratic resilience. Initial results offer a hopeful picture that restrictive measures are not the only ones being taken in times of Covid-19. “Governments have also implemented packages of democratic compensators aiming to offset the negative consequences of the restrictions on the rule of law, democratic governance, civil liberties and daily freedoms,” says Dr. Clara Egger, the project leader.
At the same time, Democracy International offers a place for democracy activists and experts worldwide to share best practices and learn from each other, via our International Democracy Community. "This interactive platform really allows those who work on democracy issues at the grass-roots level to share their work and meet like-minded spirits everywhere," says Caroline Vernaillen, Global Manager PR and Community Building at Democracy Intenational, "Through regular webinars, networking sessions and online conferences we can make sure that local successes can be lifted onto the global stage and even repeated elsewhere."
In a series of monthly webinars "Democracies under stress" we will further explore patterns of democratic resilience in crisis times starting April.
Background information: Measuring Democracy
Comparing countries has become a popular sport across the globe, with annual indexes ranking everything from happiness to health. Political systems are also increasingly measured – but can we really say who has the “best” democracy? Some answers are offered by a comparison of the comparisons done by our media partner SWI swissinfo.ch.
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Article photo: Covers of the Economist, Freedom House and V-Dem reports.