The world’s (almost) eight billion people live under a wide variety of political and cultural circumstances. As Visual Capitalists's Nick Routley, Sabrina Fortin, and Raul Amoros detail below, in broad terms, those circumstances can be measured and presented on a sliding scale between “free” and “not free” – the subtext being that democracy lies on one end, and authoritarianism on the other.
This year’s Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is one such attempt to apply a score to countries based on how closely they measure up to democratic ideals.
According to EIU, the state of democracy is at its lowest point since the index began in 2006, blamed in part on the pandemic restrictions that saw many countries struggling to balance public health with personal freedom.
In this year’s report, the EIU reported a drop of the average global score from 5.37 to 5.28, the biggest drop since 2010 after the global financial crisis. This translates into a sobering fact: only 46% of the population is living in a democracy “of some sort.”
Let’s dive a bit deeper into what this means.
Percentage of Population by Regime Type
In 2021, 37% of the world’s population still lived under an authoritarian regime. Afghanistan tops this list, followed by Myanmar, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria. Of course, China has a big share of the population living under this style of regime.
On the other side of the spectrum we have full democracies, which only account for 6.4% of the population. Norway tops this list, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.
Let’s explore the characteristics of each of the four types of regime according to the EIU:
Full democracies are nations where:
Civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected
Valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist
There are limited problems in democratic functioning
Media is diverse and independent
Flawed democracies are nations where:
Elections are fair and free
Basic liberties are honored but may have issues
There are issues in the functioning of governance
Hybrid regimes are nations where:
Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly
Pressure is applied to political opposition
Corruption is widespread and rule of law tends to be weak
Media is pressured and harassed
There are issues in the functioning of governance
Authoritarian regimes are nations where:
Political pluralism is nonexistent or limited
The population is ruled by absolute monarchies or dictatorships
Infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common
Elections are not fair or free (if they occur at all)
Media is state-owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling regime
The judiciary system is not independent
Criticism of the government is censored
Global Democracy Index by Region
As mentioned earlier, in 2021, the global democracy score declined from 5.37 to 5.28. This was driven by a decline in the average regional score, but every region has a different reality. Let’s take a look at the democratic state of each region in the world.
North America (Canada and U.S.) is the top-ranked region in the Democracy Index with an average score of 8.36, but this dropped significantly from 8.58 in 2020.
Both countries have dropped their positions in the global ranking, however, Canada still maintains the status as a full democracy.
The U.S. is still classified by EIU as a flawed democracy, and has been since 2016. The report points to extreme polarization and “gerrymandering” as key issues facing the country. On the bright side, political participation in the U.S. is still very robust compared with the rest of the world.
Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the largest decline in regional scores in the world. This region dropped from 6.09 in 2020 to 5.83 in 2021. This decline shows the general discontent of the population about how their governments have handled the pandemic.
In this region, the only country that falls under a full democracy is Costa Rica. On the other side of the spectrum, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba fall under the authoritarian regime classification.
In 2021, Western Europe is the region with the most full democracies in the world.
In fact, four out of the top five full democracies are in this region: Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. A notable downgrade in this region happened in Spain; the country is now considered a flawed democracy.
Eastern Europe paints a different picture, where there is not a single full democracy. Three countries (Moldova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) were upgraded from being considered hybrid regimes to flawed democracies.
Ukraine’s score declined to 5.57, becoming a hybrid region. Russia’s score also declined to 3.24 keeping the authoritarian regime status. It’s important to note that this report by the EIU was published before the invasion of Ukraine began, and the conflict will almost certainly impact scores in next year’s report.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the most countries at the bottom of the Democracy Index rankings.
The fact is that 23 countries are considered “authoritarian regimes”. Meanwhile, there are 14 countries that are hybrid regimes, six countries under flawed democracy, and only one country, Mauritius, is considered a full democracy.
In North Africa, four countries are considered authoritarian regimes: Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Only Morocco and Tunisia fall into the hybrid regime classification.
Middle East and Central Asia
This region concentrates a substantial number of countries classified as authoritarian regimes. In fact, the region’s overall democracy score is now lower than what it was before the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.
There are no countries falling under the category of full democracy in this region. Only Israel (7.97) and Cyprus (7.43) are considered flawed democracies. Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Pakistan fall under the category of hybrid regimes, and the rest of the countries in the region are considered authoritarian regimes.
East Asia and Oceania
This is broad region is full of contrasts. Aside from Western Europe, East Asia and Oceania contains the most full democracies: New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. There are also a high number of countries that fall under the category of flawed democracies.
It’s worth noting that some of the most contentious geopolitical relationships are between neighbors with big differences in their scores: China and Taiwan, or North and South Korea are examples of this juxtaposition.
Decline in Global Democracy Levels
Two years after the world got hit by the pandemic, we can see that global democracy is in a downward trend.
Every region’s global score experienced a drop, with the exception of Western Europe, which remained flat. Out of the 167 countries, 74 (44%) experienced a decline in their democracy score.
As pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted, will democracy make a comeback in 2022?