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.

Contributor

Rebecca Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The year's top development stories: 2017 in review
As Donald Trump cut funding for family planning and people from east Africa to Yemen went hungry, peace finally gained a foothold in Colombia

Lucy Lamble

25, Dec, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Obama v Romney: around the world in 90 minutes
The third presidential debate made it clear: from Israeli-Palestinian affairs to the eurozone crisis, foreign politics will have precious little part to play in this US election

Harriet Sherwood, Tania Branigan, David Smith, Jon Boone, Miriam Elder, Ian Traynor, Angelique Chrisafis, Jonathan Watts and Kate Hodal

23, Oct, 2012 @2:01 PM

Article image
The west turns a blind eye to Middle Eastern violence at its own peril | Dr Amr Darrag
In failing to hold Egypt and Saudi Arabia to account over the deaths of Giulio Regeni and Jamal Khashoggi, the west is making a rod for its own back

Dr Amr Darrag

25, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes?
Once used in the hunt for fugitive criminals, the global police agency’s most-wanted ‘red notice’ list now includes political refugees and dissidents

Josh Jacobs

17, Oct, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Isis and al-Qaida turf wars in Africa may push fragile states to breaking point
Power struggles and shifting allegiances between Islamist militant groups pose a formidable threat to the region’s security

Jason Burke, Africa correspondent

06, Oct, 2016 @11:59 AM

Article image
Militant crackdown in Sahel leads to hundreds of civilian deaths – report
Amnesty records 200 state killings and forced disappearances in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, state members of internationally-backed G5 group

Kaamil Ahmed

12, Jun, 2020 @1:27 PM

Article image
Human rights groups face global crackdown 'not seen in a generation'
Laws affecting funding, requiring registration and prohibiting protest are among controls that are making it difficult for NGOs and other campaign groups

Harriet Sherwood

26, Aug, 2015 @8:44 AM

Article image
World Cup to Brics: Brazil's hospitality moves from the pitch to politics

Sixth Brics summit kicks off this week, with sustainable development and the new world banking order on the agenda

Diana Cariboni

14, Jul, 2014 @1:01 PM

Article image
One-third of UK arms sales go to states on human rights watchlist, say analysts
Figures show that since 2008 Britain has sold weaponry worth £12bn to countries about which government has serious concerns

Karen McVeigh

21, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Should Britain make its driving test harder?
The British government wants to raise the driving age to 18 and impose a curfew on new drivers. But how does our test compare with other countries, such as South Africa, China and Pakistan?

Tom Banham

11, Oct, 2013 @12:33 PM