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The world under dictatorship: democracy in decline

A full democracy only exists in a handful of countries. The world is mostly being led by authoritarian governments.

Vladímir Putin, presidente de Rusia, junto a su homólogo chino, Xi Jingping.

Andrés Cañizález

17 de mayo 2022


The year 2022 kicked off with the simultaneous view of three global reports about the deteriorating health of democracy worldwide. Living under a full democracy, where there are wide-ranging freedoms, seems to be becoming more and more of a utopia or luxury that only citizens in a handful of countries can enjoy.

Figures from these three reports pretty much speak for themselves. They not only paint a picture of the current decline of democracies, but also show us that we may be facing the worst setback in many years, if we look at the data in perspective. Thus, our interest in analyzing the situation with authoritarianism in different places around the world.

First of all, it’s interesting that three global reports of a different nature and origin all agree on their assessment of the situation. On the one hand, we have the freedom index carried out by the US NGO Freedom House, which has been published every year since 1972, taking assessments from activists, reports by human rights organizations and news reports into account. On the other hand, there’s the V-Dem index, by Gothenburg University, which began as a long-standing academic project in 2010. With support from different academics in many different countries. This project not only attempts to reflect the state of democracy by establishing it as a gauge of freedom but has also wanted to rebuild a global perception of democracy since 1900. Finally, the report that had the greatest impact on readers was the one published by The Economist magazine, which has been published every year since 2006, taking expert opinions into account and under the name: democracy index.

Secondly, the global picture painted by these three indexes is cause for concern and no trivial matter. Democracy is experiencing its worst moment in years, only a handful of countries have a full democracy. The world is being led by authoritarian governments, mostly, although there are differences in nature or authoritarian practices across the world.

I recently read about the categories presented by Michel Duclos, quoted by Ahmet Insel in an article for Nueva Sociedad, to group authoritarianisms into three categories: “national populists, neo-authoritarians and assumed authoritarians.” Open dictatorships fall into this last category, such as Bashar al Asad’s (Syria), Kim Jong-un’s (North Korea), Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s (Egypt), Mohamed bin Salman’s (Saudi Arabia), Mohamed bin Zayed (United Arab Emirates) and, of course, Xi Jinping (China). Assessed before Ukraine was invaded, Vladimir Putin’s (Russia) dictatorship falls on the borderline of this category. According to Duclos, a former French diplomat, the group of national populists brings together this Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Jarosław Kaczyński (Poland’s leading figure although he doesn’t hold State leadership) and Narendra Modi (India).

According to Ahmet Insel, Duclos’ main interest lies in the group that he called “neo-authoritarianism.” There he brings together dissimilar figures such as Rodrigo Duterte (Phillipines), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Ayatollah Alí Khamenei (Irán) and Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela), who also figure side by side with Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey). Like any classification that tries to present a global reading, of any phenomenon, Duclos’ list is up for discussion, but it helps us to approach the subject.

Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel (left.), Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro (center) and Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega in 2019. Photo: EFE/Yander Zamora

According to this author, the cases of the Phillipines, Venezuela, Rwanda and Iran are “stable authoritarians”, while Orban and Erdogan are “drifting towards authoritarianism”. We feel this digression is necessary to show you the different analyses that are made about how democracy is going backwards or being wiped out across the globe.

According to assessments undertaken by Freedom House every year, a cycle of threats to democracy was consolidated in 2021. According to its figures, freedoms have been declining worldwide for 16 consecutive years. This NGO has created an indicator that allows you to say that, at the beginning of 2022, almost 38% of the global population lived in countries with no freedoms (“Not Free”, according to their category), and only 20% were in completely free countries. The remaining 42% of the global population is living under a rainbow of colors with limited freedoms, without them becoming absolute dictatorships. This is the highest global proportion of limited freedoms since 1997, according to comparative records by Freedom House.

However, Freedom House underlines the regressive tendency it’s seen as its greatest cause for concern. In 2021, a total of 60 countries suffered setbacks compared to 2020 and just 25 out of the 210 countries and regions made positive steps or democratic progress. The organization warns that the planet is on the brink of a turning point where the work of democracy advocates (governments, NGOs, universities, the independent press) is pressing and much-needed to offset the authoritarian wave that is sweeping the world right now.

Meanwhile, the Gothenburg University’s V-Dem emphasizes the idea of a liberal democracy with its indicator. Under this light, it concluded that 70% of the global population were already living under regimes that were dictatorships, in 2021. Not as long-standing as the others, this project sets 2012 as the most democratic year in the world, since this comparative study was founded.

The 2021 report was concluded on February 24, 2021 in Gothenburg. On that day, Vladimir Putin announced (From Russia) that he would be invading Ukraine. The document that had been prepared months in advance, warning of democracies lapsing, baptized as “autocracies” by Swedish studies, meaning it could lead to more wars today worldwide. When assessing 2021, V-Dem already pointed out the trend that “autocratic leaders are emboldened” and are practically deaf to the signs and/or recommendations from the democratic world, including international human rights organizations.

Comparing 2012 to 2021, spanning a decade of studies and records, V-Dem says that there were 42 liberal democracies in the world at the time, while this figure dropped to just 34 last year. Measured by population, only 13% of human beings lived full freedoms under a government that respected all of their rights in 2021. Civil liberties and basic rights are avoided or denied, to different degrees, for 87% of the global population. As we have previously pointed out, approximately 70% are living under open dictatorships.

Thus, Freedom House (which is normally identified as a conservative institution in the US) sounded its alarm bells in 2020 when it analyzed the state of democracy in this country, regarding Donald Trump’s administration. Meanwhile, V-Dem reminded us in its 2021 report of its wake-up call to democracies forming part of the European Union (EU), as authoritarianism has been firmly taking root at its heart. Hungary was classified as non-democratic in 2020, and this classification was repeated in 2021. An autocracy lives side-by-side with democratic regimes in the EU and this needs to be urgently addressed.

Legislative elections took place in Hungary now on April 3rd. Orban’s party, the conservative Fidesz, won by a wide margin which will set the parliamentary steps needed for him to be president in the 2022-2026 term. This will be his fourth consecutive term in office. Even before the Ukraine invasion, Orban had been closer to Putin than EU leaders, and this Hungarian leader was a real pain in the neck for the political community. Brussels had accused him of multiple attacks on Rule of Law, but he has a firm grasp of the justice system and media in this Central European country. The European Commission sanctioned Orban’s government last year for passing a law that banned the dissemination of LGBTIQ materials in schools for children and teenagers.

Finally, the democracy index in the world carried out by British magazine The Economist every year, assessed 167 countries. Written up by this publication’s intelligence unit, the barometer classifies every country’s democratic level: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. It takes aspects into account like electoral process and political pluralism, civil liberties and political participation, to name a few.

Sweden, Luxembourg, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Uruguay, Mauritius, Costa Rica, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, etc., feature on the select list of full democracies, where the US or Spain aren’t listed, for example. Globally-speaking, the worst countries in this index are Afghanistan, Myanmar and North Korea.

However, The Economist believes the main challenge to global democracy is China. This huge Asian country has significantly increased its global presence, with an array of diplomatic and financial relationships, making it a kind of model to follow for those who don’t embrace a full democracy: economic liberalization with an iron hand in politics.

According to different human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, China is the largest prison on the planet with its 1,402 billion inhabitants, because of its extensive lack of liberties and respect for human rights. But in addition to this, China is also the world’s creditor, as the World Bank has itself pointed out. According to the World Bank, it is the greatest creditor, and quite a few of its loans have gone to authoritarian regimes around the world.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times



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Andrés Cañizález

Andrés Cañizález

Periodista y politólogo venezolano. Doctor en Ciencia Política por la Universidad Simón Bolívar, (Caracas). Investigador asociado de la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Fundador y director de Medianálisis.