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Taking Stock of the Global State of Democracy

In 2017, International IDEA launched the first Global State of Democracy report. The report provides evidence-based analysis and data on the global and regional state of democracy, and contributes to the public debate on democracy, informs policy interventions and identify problem-solving approaches to challenges affecting the quality of democracy.

The report provides rigorous comparative research, evidence-based and peer-reviewed analysis, examining democratic developments across the world over the past 40 years. Through six different chapters, the report also zooms in on six challenges to democracy: democratic backsliding, migration, inequality, political parties and representation, money in politics, and peacebuilding, with the cross-cutting theme of democratic resilience. The report provides actionable policy recommendations on how to address these challenges, drawing on International IDEA’s expertise and lessons learned from its regional and country programmes in Africa and West Asia, Wider Europe, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean.

At the core of the analysis of the GSOD 2017 report are the Global State of Democracy indices. These provide data on democratic trends for 158 countries from 1975 to 2017 across a broad range of democracy attributes. The indices are composed of indicators from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) dataset and other sources and are updated annually. The database is publicly available and is geared to inform strategies of those working on democratic reform at the national, regional and global level.[1]

The GSOD indices’ conceptual framework is based on International IDEA’s definition of democracy; popular control over public decision-making and decision-makers, and equality between citizens in the exercise of that control. These principles have been translated into 5 main democracy attributes that cover 16 subattributes and 98 indicators. Developed with guidance from V-Dem researchers, the GSOD indices aim to provide a rich democracy dataset accessible to policy-making and policy-influencing audiences to inform their reforms, advocacy efforts, strategies and programmes.

Ten months after its first launch, the GSOD report has generated worldwide attention, being referred to in over 100 articles in media in 30 countries around the world. The international launch series took place in over 11 countries and reached over 2,500 policy makers, democracy support practitioners, civil society organizations and students. International IDEA’s member states regularly use the GSOD data in their outreach and internal and external discussions on democracy and as inputs to define their democracy programming. A telling example is a quote from the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, who has referred to the GSOD as “mandatory reading for all politicians”.

The next Global State of Democracy report is currently under development. It will be launched in 2019 and will focus on the state of democracy across different regions of the world. The GSOD indices update with data up to 2017 has just been completed, providing the basis for the analysis of the new report. A GSOD info brief will be released in October 2018 with analysis of the most recent GSOD data for 2016 and 2017 and will be available on our website.

Today, as we celebrate Democracy Day, it is an opportunity to take stock of where the world stands on its democratic journey, and examine what the main developments have been since the launch of the 2017 GSOD report. Preliminary findings from the GSOD indices data update confirm some of the findings of the 2017 report, but also show some worrying trends.

The most recent GSOD data confirms that democracy has proven resilient over time. Indeed, if a historical 42 year perspective is adopted, we see significant democratic progress across the world, reflected in an increase in the global average on four out of the five attributes over the past 42 years. The only attribute that has not seen significant global progress is Impartial Administration, which measures fair and predictable public administration.

Much of the democratic progress across the world can be attributed to the expansion of electoral democracy in the past 42 years. The number of democracies in which competitive elections determined government power increased from only a quarter of the world’s countries in 1975, to two thirds in 2017. The most rapid increase is seen from 1975 to 1989, during ‘third wave of democracy’, which saw the democratization of military regimes in Latin America to the fall of the Berlin wall. Today, the number of democracies significantly outnumber the number of autocracies. While the great majority of democracies created after 1975 still remain democracies today.

We also see an expansion of civil liberties across all regions of the world. Generally, we can see an expansion of civil society participation since 1975. 

Despite these global gains, we see a number of reasons for concern in the current global democracy landscape.

Global progress has stagnated in the past decade. Moreover, we see that the number of countries improving their democratic scores over the past five years has been decreasing. The countries seeing an improvement in their Representative Governments score reached a low of only five countries in 2016 and 2017. Even more worrying, we see that the number of countries declining on Representative Government over the past five years has been increasing, reaching a high of 12 countries in 2017.

This means that from 2015 onwards, the number of countries seeing significant declines has started to outnumber the number of countries seeing gains, reversing the trend for the first time in 42 years.

These country-level declines observed on the Representative Government score is linked primarily to increasing pressures on free elections and on free political parties.

We see a similar pattern for Civil Liberties, with the number of countries improving their scores in the last five years being constant around ten, while the number of countries with declining scores has increased to 40 in 2017, again reversing the trend for the first time in 40 years. On Media Integrity, we see declines in countries across all regions since 2013.

Even more worrying is that we see declines in high-performing regions where most established democracies are concentrated, such as Europe and the US.

Of the top five countries that have experienced significant declines in their Representative Government, Fundamental Rights and Checks on Government scores in the past ten years, three are European countries, of which two are part of the European Union: Poland and Hungary, as well as Turkey. The United States is one of the two countries in the world together with Burkina Faso that has seen a significant decline in its Impartial Administration score in the past two years (although both countries have widely differing scores, with the US still ranging among the highest performing countries in the world on this attribute).

Another significant gain has been the progress made in the political representation of women. Women’s representation in parliament has doubled worldwide in the last twenty years (to 15 per cent). While there have been gains in women’s representation, there is no room for complacency.  Additional efforts need to be made to enhance women’s political participation and representation across all regions of the world. Efforts also need to be pursued to empower other marginalized groups, whatever their religious or ethnic origin, to participate on equal terms in the political process.

More detailed analysis of the latest GSOD data is under preparation and will soon be published. If you are interested in learning more about the GSOD initiative and its data, or if you want to get involved, by contributing financial resources or analysis to the report, contact the Democracy Assessment and Political Analysis Unit.

[1] The current online indices database has data from 1975-2015, but will be updated with data up to 2017 later this year. 

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