KIM WINGEREI. Democracy in Decline – Part 1

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently published their annual “Democracy Index”, a comprehensive report on the state of democracy around the world. It warns that democracy is in decline after three decades of growth, and of the emergence of populist “strongmen”. Even in Australia we cannot afford to hide behind our proud democratic record – we cannot just show up at the polls, we need to engage.

According to the EIU Democracy Index there are only 20 “full democracies” in the world – Australia and New Zealand are the only members of this exclusive club in Australasia. 14 of them are in Europe, and the United States – the self appointed defender of world democracy – is no longer regarded as a full democracy.

The Economist divides the world’s nation into four groups. Beyond the full democracies, the next group is “flawed democracies”, followed by “hybrid regimes” – typically countries with pretend elections – and finally “authoritarian regimes”, where there isn’t even any pretence. At the very bottom of the list is the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – aka. North Korea, the fiefdom of my namesake Kim Jong Un (no relation).

The EIU measures democracy using 60 different measures in five categories:

l The Electoral Process

l Government Functioning

l Civil Liberties

l Political Participation

l Political Culture

Every country is given an aggregate score on a scale from 1 to 10. Norway tops the latest list with a score of 9.93, North Korea scored 1.08. Australia was ninth on the list with a score of 9.09, well below the fifth placed Kiwis, even without any help from the All Blacks.

First published in 2006, the Democracy Index has waxed and waned over the years – countries move up and down the list as dictators are removed and others take control elsewhere, new constitutions are written, others ignored. Back then there were 22 countries considered full democracies, it peaked at 26 in 2012 and now stands at 20.

Their findings largely echo those of US based Freedom House who have their own “Political Freedom” and “Civil Liberties” indices. The (not so) catchily named V-Dem (“Varieties of Democracy”) – based in Sweden, but with researchers spanning the globe – recently released their own annual report echoing similar sentiments shrouded in the secret language of academia. (V-dem’s data gathering is extensive, varied and unique and their rankings go back to the French Revolution, although I don’t think Voltaire would have cared much.)

The common thread of all three reports is how authoritarian regimes are on the rise – as evident most recently by the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country. Bolsonaro is against secularism, opposes gay marriage, deplores homosexuality, is an outspoken racist and climate change denier and suggests torture is a legitimate practice.

He fits in neatly with the likes of The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Donald Trump – all democratically elected leaders with limited regard (and understanding in Trump’s case) of the institutions that they have been elected to lead.

We can only hope that the democratic checks and balances in the US Constitution is enough to stop Trump before he declares himself emperor, but in the case of Brazil, Philippines, Hungary and Turkey the democratic pillars are on much less solid footings.

Electoral Process.

With the exception of Turkey, the countries mentioned all have free elections – defined as everyone is free to vote and anyone can stand for elections without fear or favour, elections are held regularly and are secret ballots fairly monitored.

Like most of the countries in the “flawed” group, they all have high scores in this category. Even some of the countries that are classified as “hybrid democracies” often have fair and sound electoral processes.

Although many countries can do much better, the polling booth is generally not where democracy falters.

Government Functioning.

This category is measuring how – once elected – executive Government is free and able to govern based on the authority vested in it by the elected body (Parliament, Congress, etc.) with reasonable transparency and not unduly influenced by other institutions (e.g. church or military) or by corruption.

It also includes an assessment of the trust that voters have in political parties and the Government (based on surveys, where possible). Needless to say, the trust is in decline almost everywhere, although that may not be a bad thing for the long time survival of democracy, as it also fuels participation.

More on that in Part 2 – to follow.

Kim Wingerei is a former business-man, turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. Follow @ kimwingerei.com / Twitter @kwingerei

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