For the fifth consecutive year, in 2020, countries veering towards authoritarianism outnumbered those enjoying democratisation. International IDEA expects this trend to continue for 2021.
For 2021, according to the group’s provisional assessment, the world counts 98 democracies — the lowest number in many years — as well as 20 “hybrid” governments including Russia, Morocco and Turkey, and 47 authoritarian regimes including China, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Iran.
Globally, more than one in four people live in a ‘backsliding’ democracy, a proportion that rises to more than two in three with the addition of authoritarian or ‘hybrid’ regimes.
The number of ‘backsliding’ democracies has also doubled in the past decade, according to the report titled ‘Global State of Democracy Report 2021: Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era’. The foreword to the report has been written by former Chief Election Commissioner Dr S Y Quraishi.
Interestingly, the United States has been included in the annual list of ‘backsliding’ democracies for the first time. It is classified as a ‘high-performing’ democracy.
India is classified as a ‘mid-range performing’ democracy that has also experienced ‘backsliding’.
What is a ‘backsliding’ democracy?
Backsliding democracies are those that have experienced gradual but significant weakening of checks on government and curtailing of civil liberties, such as Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association and Assembly. This is often through intentional policies and reforms aimed at weakening the rule of law and civic space. Backsliding can affect democracies at any level of performance.
While full democratic breakdown is one possible path for democratic backsliders, those that still enjoy some levels of electoral support can continue to hold free elections, while the liberal aspects of democracy (Civil Liberties, Checks on Government) suffer continued losses and become disproportionately lower (so-called ‘illiberal democracies’).
According to the report, there were only eight countries in the world in 2020 that combined relatively good scores on clean elections with poorer performance in civil Liberties and checks on government, including India and Sri Lanka.
A total of 10 democracies have experienced declines in clean elections since 2015, including India, Brazil, Mauritius, and the US. In this period, five other countries lost their democratic status due to severe declines: Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras, Serbia and Turkey.
The report said the trend towards democratic erosion has “become more acute and worrying” since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic with some countries imposing measures that amount to “democratic violations — that is, measures disproportionate, illegal or unconnected to the nature of the emergency”.
It further highlighted that over the past two pandemic years, different groups’ varying levels of enjoyment of civil and political liberties have become more apparent.
In many of these cases, these inequalities are long-standing; the context of the pandemic, however, has refocused attention on them.
In the US, for example, research indicates that some states’ voter registration and voting laws, either recently approved or currently under discussion, end up disproportionately affecting minorities in a negative way.
The report claims that in India, the government has used laws against cow slaughter and anti-conversion to target Muslims, while sedition and counter-terrorism laws have been used to target human rights defenders, student activists, academics, opposition members and other critics.
Media integrity in decline
The report also assesses countries on media integrity.
This metric measures the extent to which the media are free from government control; and free to include a diversity of opinions, including criticism of the government.
Globally, media integrity is in decline, the report stated.
For the past eight years, the number of countries in which the subattribute has registered significant declines has been higher than the number of countries showing improvements.
The report alleges that in India, the capacity of the media to report in Kashmir has been severely restricted due to the ongoing Internet disruption.
Ray of hope
Despite the bleak outlook, the 80-page report also noted “the remarkable strength of civic activism”.
It said more than 80 countries saw protests and civic action during the pandemic despite often-harsh government restrictions.
International IDEA bases its assessments on 50 years of democratic indicators in around 160 countries, assigning them to three categories: democracies (including those that are ‘backsliding’), ‘hybrid’ governments and authoritarian regimes.
(With inputs from agencies and Global State of Democracy Report, 2021)