Populism and immigration pose major threat to global democracy, study says

Inequality and vulnerability of technology-based voting systems to corruption also identified by researchers as factors in slowing spread of democracy

The spread of democracy around the world has slowed over the past decade, according to a report warning that governments are at a “critical juncture”.

Since 1975, the number of countries with fair democratic systems has more than doubled, from 46 (30% of countries) to 132 (68% of counties). More nations now hold elections than ever before.

But progress has slowed over the past decade and, in some countries, it has halted completely, according to a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International Idea).

The study warned that democracies face new threats such as the rise of populism, immigration, growing inequality, and the emergence of technologies that can be manipulated by governments. The reluctance of politicians to respect election results or hand over power peacefully was also identified as an increasing challenge.

In the decade leading up to 2015, democratic systems were significantly undermined in 24 countries including Mali, Niger and Thailand, said the researchers. While these states were outnumbered by the 39 that adopted democratic systems over the same period, they send a warning signal to policymakers, according to Dr Nathalie Ebead, head of democracy assessment at International Idea.

“It’s not just about the number of countries [where democratic systems have broken down], but which countries we’re talking about, and whether they are key actors within a region,” said Ebead. “For example, Mali had a democratic reversal – it’s a key country in its region in Africa.”

Of the 155 countries examined by the report, one-third do not have functioning democratic governments. Among them were major regional powers such as China, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The study measured the strength of democracies worldwide by looking at key factors including the extent to which a government is representative, how far people engage in the democratic process, and the presence of fundamental rights. It also analysed the checks in place on governments, such as an independent judiciary, the extent to which administrations were impartial, the presence of corruption and the discrepancy between a nation’s official laws and what happened in practice.

Globally, progress has been made in nearly all of these measures over the past 40 years, meaning public institutions are more accountable and representative than ever before. But the impartiality of governments remains unchanged.

“This has been the most difficult thing for democracies to tackle since 1975 to today,” said Ebead. “The sophistication with which democratic backsliding [into autocratic systems] occurs within countries has gone up over the past decade. In the past, democratic backsliding in a county would occur in the form of a coup d’etat or classical electoral fraud with the stuffing of ballot boxes.”

Such methods are still used, but governments also have access to new technologies that can allow them to manipulate voting systems.

The study cited increasing restrictions on civil society and freedom of expression in central and eastern European countries such as Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Slovakia. It also pointed to the Philippines, which transitioned to democracy following revolution in 1983-86, and which has been subjected to increased restrictions of rights and freedoms as a result of president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

Across Asia, the legitimacy of democratic systems has been challenged by opposition parties in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan and Thailand. Democracy is also being tested in Africa, said the report, where a generation of leaders associated with independence will soon be replaced.

In 2016 and 2017 crises erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Zimbabwe over government attempts to retain power. Power plays have also led to protests and repression in Burundi, but democracy has become the “nearly universal norm” in Latin America, said the researchers.


Rebecca Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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