Democracy in decline worldwide, new report says
The bedrock of democracy is trembling amid a surge of authoritarianism around the world, according to a report published Thursday.
Hard-line rule by current and former leaders, including Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Donald Trump in the U.S. and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, has contributed to the downturn observed in the past few years, the Global State of Democracy 2023 report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has said.
“In Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Slovakia, Israel, and the United States, just to name the most familiar examples, the erosion of democratic norms has been engineered by leaders claiming to speak in the name of, and with the authority of, the people,” the new report warned.
The six-year decline is the longest consecutive period of deterioration — in which countries with net declines outnumbered those with net advances across a range of metrics — since records started being kept in 1975, Seema Shah, the head of IDEA’s Democracy Assessment Unit, told POLITICO
“We haven’t seen that before,” Shah said, “the very foundational building blocks of democracy are under threat.”
IDEA’s report bases its analysis on 173 countries and takes into account 17 metrics ranging from civil liberties to judicial independence to credible elections to the rule of law, using the most recent figures from 2022.
While Europe “remains the world’s highest-performing region,” dominating the top 20 positions regarding rights, the Continent also observed strong subregional variations in other indicators.
EU countries Hungary and Poland are still the “most notable examples illustrating the bloc’s limited ability to exert more direct influence over the (non-)democratic trajectory of its member states,” the report said.
Leaders such as Orbán — who made headlines after shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month — “have actually been in power for enough time to be able to have had quite an impact,” Shah said.
Hungary had well-functioning institutions, but when Orbán came to power, “he started really weakening them,” Shah said. “And over time in those countries, unfortunately, those checks that existed have been worn down.”
Poland — which is set for a change of political direction after election results earlier this month that saw the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party defeated — might now be on a more positive trajectory.
“We will wait to see how that turns out in the data next year,” Shah said.
House of Kurz
In contrast to Hungary and Poland’s recent performance, other Central and Eastern European countries — such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania and Slovakia — are becoming the center of democratic growth in Europe due to notable five-year improvements, the report said.
But in Austria, rule of law and civil liberties declined after public funds were abused, while press and media freedom decreased “following efforts by the former ruling elite to exert influence over the media,” the report warned.
“One of the reasons we talked about [Austria] so much is because it’s generally not in the news. And also because it’s surprising,” Shah said.
According to the report: “Ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been implicated in schemes to shut down critical media and purchase positive coverage by using public funds through the Ministry of Finance.”
IDEA’s researchers are concerned, but also see some hope for the future.
“It’s worrying, but it’s still at a point … where actors in Austria can take action — whereas in Hungary and Poland, it’s been going on for so long, and it has become so deep, that it’s going to take a lot more to reverse it,” Shah said.
Asked about the EU’s role in preventing its members from backsliding toward authoritarianism, Shah said, “it’s really tricky, the EU is in a very difficult position.”
“They’ve tried to bring these countries back in line with EU standards, which is very commendable,” but progress has been slow, and decisions have not “necessarily resulted in the change that the EU seeks,” she said.
In Africa, and despite several coups in countries such as Niger and Gabon, there is good news.
The continent has been experiencing high rates of political participation and decreasing levels of corruption, the report says, with Gambia and Zambia at the forefront.