The world is drifting toward authoritarianism — but it’s not all bad news

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — This year’s Democracy Report from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute) at the University of Gothenburg reveals that for the first time in two decades there are currently more closed autocracies than liberal democracies operating around the world. These findings are anything but positive, but researchers say there is good news too — as many as eight countries are trending in the right democratic direction after years of “democratic dismantling.”

All in all, researchers say a global decline in democracy is taking place, with more and more people living under closed autocratic regimes. Perhaps even more concerning, the report suggests this trend shows no signs of slowing. To put it another way, the world hasn’t been this anti-democratic in over 35 years.

“The level of democracy enjoyed by the average world citizen in 2022 is back to 1986 levels. This means that 72 percent of the world’s population, 5.7 billion people, live under authoritarian rule,” says Staffan Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute, in a university release.

This democratic decline has been most prominent in the Pacific regions, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. However, the rate of nations dealing with current democratic setbacks, or autocratization, has greatly increased over just the past decade (13 to 42 countries between 2002 and 2022). That’s the highest figure ever measured by V-Dem.

How do certain political movements undermine democracy?

Generally speaking, nations tend to experience autocratization when authoritarian political movements gain direct influence over governmental policies. When this occurs, biased actors are able to dismantle democratic institutions like free media, civil society, independent organizations, and even the judicial system itself. In the vast majority of historical examples, once a process like this really takes hold, it usually results in the complete undoing of a functioning democracy.

“28 percent of the world’s population, 2.2 billion people, now live in closed autocracies compared to 13 percent, 1 billion people, who live in liberal democracies,” the study explains.

Supreme Court protest
Photo by Sarah Penney from Unsplash

On a more positive note, there are a handful of countries that are beginning to return to democratic practices after years of interference and steps backwards. Bolivia, Moldova, Ecuador, the Maldives, North Macedonia, Slovenia, South Korea, and Zambia have all succeeded in reversing their autocratic evolution, the study asserts.

“The fact that eight democracies that were in a period of autocratization have stopped that process and ‘bounced back’ is uplifting news for democracy. It is rare to see countries that can make a U-turn. The countries that have succeeded in doing have brought about a pro-democracy mobilization, they have re-established an objective judicial system, deposed authoritarian leaders, introduced free and fair elections, worked to reduce corruption, and rejuvenated civil society,” Lindberg concludes.

The report, Defiance in the Face of Autocratization, is available here.

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