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Democracy Index 2020 | In sickness and in health?

December 22, 2021

Published by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2021. 

Key Highlights

  • Pandemic dilemmas: life, death, lockdowns and liberty | Across the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime). The willing surrender of fundamental freedoms by millions of people was perhaps one of the most remarkable occurrences in an extraordinary year (see Democracy: in sickness and in health?, page 14 onwards). Most people concluded, on the basis of the evidence about a new, deadly disease, that preventing a catastrophic loss of life justified a temporary loss of freedom. Many critics of the lockdown approach accepted that some form of social distancing was necessary to contain the spread of the disease, but they failed to put forward convincing alternatives to the policy of enforced lockdowns, and the question of how many deaths would be acceptable as the price of freedom was one that few lockdown sceptics were prepared to answer. That does not mean that governments and media should have censored lockdown sceptics: attempts to curb freedom of expression are antithetical to democratic principles. The withdrawal of civil liberties, attacks on freedom of expression and the failures of democratic accountability that occurred as a result of the pandemic are grave matters. This is why the scores for many questions in the civil liberties category and the functioning of government category of the Democracy Index were downgraded across multiple countries in 2020.
  • Asia rising: a shift eastwards in the global balance of power | The symbolism of Asia gaining three new “full democracies” (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) in 2020 and western Europe losing two (France and Portugal) was apt, as the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has accelerated the shift in the global balance of power from the West to the East. Asia lags behind the West in democratic terms, having only five “full democracies”, compared with western
    Europe’s 13, and the region also has seven “authoritarian regimes” while western Europe has none. Yet the Asia region has, so far, handled the pandemic much better than virtually any other, with lower infection and mortality rates and a fast economic rebound. Having learned from the experience of SARS, Asian governments reacted decisively (albeit deploying coercive powers in some cases), benefited from well-organised health systems and retained the confidence of their populations. By contrast, European governments were slow to act, some health systems came close to collapse and public trust in government declined. Europe’s handling of the pandemic was not a good advert for democracy, something that authoritarian China did not fail to point out. The pandemic has highlighted the widening gap between a dynamic East and a declining West and is likely to further accelerate the shift in the global balance of power towards Asia.
  • US democracy under pressure from rising polarisation and declining social cohesion |  The US’s performance across several indicators changed in 2020, both for better and worse. However, the negatives outweighed the positives, and the US retained its “flawed democracy” status (see page 42). Increased political participation was the main positive: Americans have become much more engaged in politics in recent years, and several factors fuelled the continuation of this trend in 2020, including the politicisation of the coronavirus pandemic, movements to address police violence and racial injustice, and elections that attracted record voter turnout. The negatives include extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties, deep dysfunction in the functioning of government, increasing threats to freedom of expression, and a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus almost impossible to achieve. Social cohesion has collapsed, and consensus has evaporated on fundamental issues—even the date of the country’s founding. The new president, Joe Biden, faces a huge challenge in bringing together a country that is deeply divided over core values.
  • Taiwan: the year’s biggest winner | The star-performer in this year’s Democracy Index, measured by the change in both its score and rank, is Taiwan, which was upgraded from a “flawed democracy” to a “full democracy”, after rising 20
    places in the global ranking from 31st place to 11th (see box on page 32). In a year notable for having few winners, Taiwan’s performance was spectacular. The country’s score rose by more than any other country in the 2020 index. Taiwan went to the polls in January 2020, and the national elections demonstrated the resilience of its democracy at a time when electoral processes, parliamentary oversight and civil liberties have been backsliding globally. There was a strong voter turnout, including among the younger generation, to elect the president and members of the Legislative Yuan (parliament). Overall, the country seems to have concluded that a well-functioning democracy represents the best means of safeguarding its future.
  • Mali and Togo the big losers in a dire year for African democracy | Measured by the decline in its score, Mali, in west Africa, was the worst-performing country in the 2020 Democracy Index, being downgraded from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime”. Mali does not have full control over its territory, and rampant insecurity precipitated a coup in August 2020 by military officers aggrieved by a lack of progress against jihadist insurgents. A military junta has since established a transitional government, nullifying the outcome of parliamentary elections held in March 2020, which were broadly free and fair. Because of this, Mali has dropped 11 places globally, the second-biggest fall in rank in Sub-Saharan Africa behind Togo, which fell 15 places, further down the ranks of “authoritarian regimes”. Overall it was a terrible year for democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 31 countries were downgraded, eight stagnated and only five improved their scores (see page 47). Burkina Faso, which, like Mali, faces a jihadist insurgency and does not have full control of its territory, was also downgraded from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime”.
  • Western Europe loses two “full democracies” | In 2020 two west European countries—France and Portugal—moved from the “full democracy” category to the “flawed democracy” one (see page 50). Thirteen countries in the region are now classed as “full democracies” (down from 15 in 2019) and seven as “flawed democracies”, up from five in 2019. Only three countries improved their scores in 2020 (Italy, Turkey and the UK) and 18 recorded a decline. The most significant downwards score changes were in the category of civil liberties, for which the aggregate score fell sharply, and in the functioning of government category. No country recorded an increase in its overall civil liberties score, as lockdown and social-distancing measures used to combat the coronavirus pandemic curtailed individual freedoms. Nevertheless, countries in western Europe account for seven of the top ten places in the global democracy rankings, including the top three spots, occupied by Norway, Iceland and Sweden. The Nordics are kings of the rankings, with Finland and Denmark sitting in sixth and seventh place.
  • A tale of two regions: democratic backsliding continues under cover of Covid-19 in eastern Europe and Latin America |  It is hard to say whether the recent democratic backsliding recorded in eastern Europe and Latin America would have continued without the coronavirus pandemic. What is certain is that the public health emergency provided cover for abuses of power that have become familiar in recent years. These two regions contain only three “full democracies” (all in Latin America), but they share half the world’s flawed democracies (26 out of 52). Eastern Europe has always lagged behind Latin America in the Democracy Index, but both regions suffer from similar flaws. A weak political culture, difficulties in creating institutions aimed at safeguarding the rule of law and persistent issues with corruption create a difficult habitat for democracy. The deterioration in both regions in 2020 revealed the fragility of democracy in times of crisis and the willingness of governments to sacrifice civil liberties and exercise unchecked authority in an emergency situation.
  • The Middle East and North Africa retains the lowest score | After Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa region recorded the second-biggest reduction in regional average score in 2020 (see page 40), mainly because of the impact of coronavirus-related restrictions on civil liberties. That score has declined every year since 2012, when the advances that followed the onset of the pro-democracy “Arab Spring” uprising in December 2010 began to be reversed. The region suffers from a concentration of absolute monarchies, authoritarian regimes and the prevalence of military conflicts, and it is the lowest ranked of all the regions covered in the Democracy Index, with seven countries of the 20 in the region featuring in the bottom 20 in our global ranking. The few bright spots included increased political participation in Israel, as shown by the high turnout in the election in 2020, despite it being the third one in two years, and tiny moves towards political inclusion and transparency in the Gulf states, where authoritarianism nonetheless remains entrenched.

Read the full report from The Economist→