Apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 has been marked by an unprecedented decline of democracy in the world. The latest issue of the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit registers the lowest score of the global democracy (5.37) recorded since the index began in 2006. According to the report, only 8.4% of the global population live in fully democratic countries while 35.6% live under authoritarian rule. Out of 167 countries covered by the report, only 23 were full democracies. The average global score of the index has dropped from 5.44 in 2019 to 5.37 in 2020 [Eiu.com, 2021].
The Democracy Index is based on an annual survey, which rates such criteria as electoral process, the functioning of government, political participation of populations, democratic political culture and the degree of civil liberties. The report describes the degree of democracy in countries by grouping them into one of four types of regime: 1) Full democracies – nations with civil and political liberties respected and reinforced by the government and political culture; 2) Flawed democracies – nations with fair elections and basic civil and political liberties but with some minor issues; 3) Hybrid regimes – nations with regular electoral frauds, governments suppressing political opposition and underdeveloped political culture; 4) Authoritarian regimes – absolute monarchies or dictatorships with total disrespect to basic freedoms [Eiu.com, 2021]. The report observes that the majority of the global population (50.6%) live either under hybrid or authoritarian regimes. Moreover, these regimes constitute a solid majority of the countries (92 out of 167). According to the report, the main reason for deterioration of democracy in 2020 globally is the restrictive measures taken by governments to contain the spread of the COVID-19. Apart from imposing restrictions and social distancing, the pandemic also disrupted the electoral processes in many countries, jeopardizing the very basics of democracy. The U.S. foreign policy and high tolerance to abuses by non-democratic regimes during the administration of President Trump is also among the factors listed in the report. China’s anti-democratic stance and rising political influence on many developing nations also made a significant contribution to global decline of democracy.
Unfortunately, the downturn of democracy in 2020 is not an out of the trend phenomenon. If we look at previous records of the Democracy Index, we will find that civil freedoms and democratic principles in many countries around the world have been crumbling over the last 10-15 years. The number of fully democratic countries has decreased from 26 in 2006 to 23 in 2020. The number of authoritarian states during the same period increased from 55 to 57. Only eight countries have managed to score more than 9 in the ranking, which is the lowest number of highly democratic countries since the beginning of the survey.
There has been no significant shift to either side between democratic and authoritarian regimes in terms of demographics since 2006 [UN, 2020]. However, over the course of the last 10-15 years, authoritarian and hybrid regimes have gained enormous economic growth compared to regimes that are more democratic. Thus, the share of authoritarian regimes in the combined GDP of 167 states included in the report has more than doubled reaching 23%, compared to 10.4% in 2006. The share of hybrid regimes has increased from 3.5 to 3.7% during 2006-2020. Semi-democratic regimes (flawed democracies) have seen their GDP share decline from 49.8 to 46.8% while the share of fully democratic states has dropped from 36.7% to 26.5% [World Bank data, 2020]. In other words, on average authoritarian regimes had significantly higher GDP growth than democratic states did since 2006. On the one hand, this fact can indicate the presence of the economic convergence effect as mostly poor authoritarian countries gradually approach wealthier democratic states in terms of income. On the other hand, economic growth in authoritarian states does not necessarily lead to welfare growth. However, the theories developed to explain the effects of economic growth in authoritarian regimes differ a lot. In some cases, longer a country is under authoritarian rule, the lower its economic growth and income per capita [Carden and Harvey, 2007]. At the same time, the correlation between economic growth and regime type is not as evident as it might seem [Przeworski and Limongi, 1993]. In most of the cases, economic growth in authoritarian regimes contributes to income inequality rather than overall welfare. Moreover, this fact strengthens the positions of authoritarian governments in general, which is definitely not a positive outcome. In longer-term perspectives, a certain amount of economic growth under authoritarian rule can reduce the essentiality of democratic principles for reaching certain tolerable levels of welfare, reducing the demand for democracy by populations. Hence, the overall effect of the growing share of non-democratic countries in the global economy is rather ambiguous.
An analysis of the previous issues of the report shows a gradual change of the geography of democracy that in 2020 became more evident. During the last 4-5 years there has been a noticeable decline in demographic scores of some of the western countries that had been considered as traditional centers of democratic values. The United States, for instance, for the first time has fallen into the category of flawed democracies since Donald Trump became the President in 2016. Countries like France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have also recently become flawed democracies. On the other hand, thanks to their strong adherence to democratic principles, countries like Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica have become full democracies in contrast to most other countries in their regions. The emergence of new solid democracies in regions that previously were not not considered as centers of democracy and decline of democracies in part of the world were traditionally known as centers of democratic values reducing the factor of geographic and socio-cultural predetermination of societies. These trends can produce a positive inspiring effect on countries as they highlight the responsibility of societies for the degree of democracy in their countries.
Carden, A. and J. Harvey S., (2007). Time Under Authoritarian Rule And Economics. CORI Working Paper No. 2007-02.
Eiu.com (2021). Democracy Index 2006-2020. Retrieved from http://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index/#:~:text=The%20twelfth%20edition%20of%20the,the%20Democracy%20Index%20in%202006. Accessed on 28.03.2021.
Przeworski A. and F. Limongi (1993). Political Regimes and Economic Growth. Journal of Economic Perspectives 7 (3): 51–69.
UN (2020). Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/index.asp. Accessed on 30.03.2021.
World Bank data (2020). GDP (current US$). Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD. Accessed on 28.03.2021.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Kanat Makhanov is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in Business Economics from the KIMEP University from 2012. In 2014 he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Vigo (Spain), completing his thesis on “Industrial Specialization in autonomous regions of Spain and Kazakhstan”. His main research interests are Spatial Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Economics, Human and Economic Geography.