Hopes that the world’s emergence from coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions would lead to a rebound on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU’s) latest Democracy Index failed to materialise, with the index of 165 independent states and two territories primarily dragged down by Russia’s slide towards dictatorship over the past year.
The Democracy Index measures the state of democracy by assigning scores based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.
Countries are divided into “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” or “authoritarian regime”.
The 2022 index shows that almost half of the world’s population (45.3%) live in a democracy of some sort, but only 8% in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015. There are currently 24 “full democracies”, 48 “flawed democracies”, down by five since 2021, 59 “authoritarian regimes” (the same as in 2021) and 36 “hybrid regimes”, up from 34 the previous year.
The global state of democracy was relatively unchanged compared to 2021, with the global average score remaining virtually flat at 5.29 on a 0-10 scale, compared with 5.28 in 2021. While 75 countries improved their score in 2022 – up from just 47 in 2021 – the scores of 92 countries either stagnated or declined.
Joan Hoey, editor of the Democracy Index, expressed disappointment about the overall result for the year. "There was an expectation that the index score might rebound in 2022 because of the ending of the pandemic-related restrictions on individual liberties,” said Hoey told a webinar on February 23.
“We did see a lifting more or less everywhere, and there were improved scores in several categories – including civil liberties and functioning of government – but unfortunately we did not return to the position and score of 2019. Other negative developments cancelled out improvements resulting from the lifting of restrictions.”
Russia’s democracy deteriorates
Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022, saw the biggest decline in score of any country in the world in 2022. It had a score of just 2.28, ranking it in 146th place.
“[Russia’s] invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by all-out repression and censorship at home. Russia has been on a trajectory away from democracy for a long time and is now acquiring many of the features of a dictatorship,” the EIU report said.
Delving into the reasons behind this, Hoey blamed a combination of historical and institutional legacies. She described an “empire state of mind” in Russia that the country’s leader had found hard to abandon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which has informed Russia’s relations with neighbours and ultimately with the West as well.
Hoey also noted the “visceral experience of the Soviet Union’s breakup and the trauma of the economic transition”, which “had a very big impact on the attitudes of ordinary Russians to democracy, the market and capitalism”.
“What we see from the late 90s onwards is an increasing turning away from democracy in Russia, parallel with an increasingly anti-Western turn, and a more aggressive foreign policy of which Ukraine was the main victim,” Hoey told the webinar.
Hoey said she did not believe it would have been impossible to build democracy in Russia, but added: “Building and sustaining democracy is very difficult, under the circumstances of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what followed, with no prior history of democracy, it was always going to be a formidable challenge.”
Sovereignty and democracy
The Ukraine war, says the report, has highlighted the link between national sovereignty and democracy.
“Sovereignty and democracy are indivisible. Ukraine’s fight to defend its sovereignty has drawn attention to the importance of a principle that has been much denigrated,” said the report. “The idea that nation states and their borders do not matter in a globalised world has taken root in recent decades. In 2022 it became clear how important those things are for any country aspiring to determine its own future. Without having full control of its territory and borders, there would be no hope of freedom and democracy in Ukraine.”
However, as indicated in the report, two-thirds of the world population in countries either neutral or Russia leaning regarding the war in Ukraine – and this includes many developing economies in the Global South.
Explaining this phenomenon, Hoey told the webinar: “Many developing countries do not see things the same way as leading Western powers. They see this as Europe’s war and not necessarily their concern.”
She also cited a reluctance to line up behind Western countries stemming from frustration with the current international order; resentment of perceived Western hypocrisy in light of previous Western interventions into other states’ affairs; dependency on Russian minerals and natural resources; and a prior history of close relations with the former Soviet Union from colonial times.
Winners and losers
Western Europe – and in particular the Nordic region led by Denmark – dominated the top of the index, accounting for eight of the top 10 places. It also saw the strongest post-pandemic rebound.
Two Western Balkan countries – Albania and Montenegro – improved their scores strongly in 2022, having had previously been promoted to the flawed democracy category.
“We think this reflects increased political pluralism in Montenegro despite government instability. Probably in Albania there has been a positive impact from judicial and other reforms, and from being able to open EU membership negotiations,” said Hoey. She noted that the changes are particularly welcome, "because what we often see in Eastern Europe is an improvement followed by regression”.
Globally, Thailand managed the biggest overall improvement in its score in 2022, with other big improvers being Angola and Niger.
Three countries, Chile, France and Spain, returned to the “full democracy” category, mainly because of a reversal of pandemic measures.
On the other hand, two countries, Papua New Guinea and Peru, were downgraded from flawed democracies to hybrid regimes.
As well as Russia and China, there were sharp declines in the scores of Burkina Faso, Haiti, El Salvador and Mexico.
By region, the Middle East and North Africa was both the worst-performing region in terms of its absolute score and its year-on-year decline. The EIU points to strong declines for Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan.
The regional average scores for Asia and Australasia, North America, sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe all remained relatively flat.