The V-Dem Institute is an independent research institute based at the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Founded by Professor Staffan I. Lindberg in 2014, the institute is in charge of most of the operations related to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data collection and database and is also active on the policy front. V-Dem produces the largest global dataset on democracy with almost 30 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2020, measuring hundreds of different attributes of democracy.
L’Institut V-Dem est un institut de recherche indépendant basé au département de sciences politiques de l’Université de Göteborg en Suède. Fondé par le professeur Staffan I. Lindberg en 2014, l’institut est responsable de la plupart des opérations liées à la collecte de données et à la base de données Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) et est également actif sur le front politique. V-Dem produit le plus grand ensemble de données mondiales sur la démocratie avec près de 30 millions de points de données pour 202 pays de 1789 à 2020, mesurant des centaines d’attributs différents de la démocratie.
Date of publication: March 2021
Organisation’s site: V-Dem
Extracts from the document, pages: 10-16, 18, 22-23
Pandemic Backsliding: Does Covid-19 Put Democracy at Risk?
Reports about the excessive use of emergency powers and limitations on media freedoms created widespread concerns that responses to Covid-19 would shut down democracy itself. From March to December 2020, the V-Dem Institute’s Pandemic Backsliding Project (PanDem) monitored the extent to which 144 governments violated international standards for emergency provisions in response to the pandemic. PanDem data suggests that the most pessimistic predictions did not materialize during 2020. The majority of severe violators were already autocracies before the pandemic and their violations therefore meant going from a bad situation to a slightly worse situation. Yet, a few governments in democracies do seem to be using the pandemic to erode democratic institutions. This risk of pandemic backsliding is high in El Salvador and Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent in Nepal and Paraguay.
This risk of pandemic backsliding is high in El Salvador and Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent in Nepal and Paraguay
What does it mean to respect international standards during an emergency? Based on international human rights law, emergency measures may alter democratic institutions, rights, and proceedings only within certain boundaries. For example, while responses to Covid-19 may ensure physical distancing by restricting freedom of movement and assembly, they may not infringe on non-derogable rights like the right to life or freedom from torture. In short, emergency measures must be “proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory”, have a clear time limit, and not be implemented in an excessive manner. With these standards as benchmarks, the PanDem project measured seven types of violations:
- discrimination against minorities,
- violations of fundamental rights (non-derogable rights),
- excessive use of force,
- absence of a time limit for emergency measures,
- limitations on the legislature’s ability to constrain the executive,
- official disinformation campaigns, and
- restrictions on media freedoms.
The composite Pandemic Democratic Violations Index (PanDem) assesses the extent to which state responses to Covid-19 contravene the standards, ranging from zero (no violation) to one (maximum number of violations).
On the bright side, there were no violations in 14 countries, 13 of which are democracies such as Botswana, Canada, Finland, and Taiwan. Another 35 countries, committed only minor violations, such as a few isolated instances of limitations on access to information. In total about 55% of all democracies and 34% of the countries coded have committed no or only minor violations of democratic standards in their response to Covid-19. However, no less than 95 other countries (66%) committed either moderate or major violations during this time period.
Restrictions on media freedom have been most common by far, with about two-thirds of all countries imposing moderate ones. Abusive enforcement of emergency measures was also quite common with almost half of the countries recording at least minor levels, and almost a third of the countries (31%) have (or had) emergency measures without a time limit. A quarter (25%) engaged in some form of disinformation campaigns, while the legislature’s role was limited during the pandemic (or there was no legislative check to begin with) in 17% of countries. Discriminatory measures occurred in 15% of the countries, and violations of non-derogable rights in 7% of countries.
Violations were more common in closed autocracies and electoral autocracies. For instance, the Saudi government detained hundreds of migrant workers in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and the Venezuelan authorities detained thousands of its citizens who were returning from abroad in makeshift facilities. There are alarming reports of harassment of journalists covering Covid-19 in India, which is now an electoral autocracy as this report documents below. In other electoral autocracies like Turkey authorities arrested journalists for their reporting on the pandemic and detained hundreds of citizens for discussing the issue on social media. In Uganda, the authorities invoked social distancing regulations to target LGBT communities and intimidate journalists. In Serbia, the government imposed excessive restrictions on movements in refugee camps.
Violations even occurred in a couple of liberal democracies such as the United States of America, where the government frequently engaged in disinformation about the pandemic
To a lesser extent, there were also violations in Nepal, Paraguay, and South Africa, with reports of security forces employing humiliating tactics or excessive forces against those who violated social distancing rules. In Tunisia bloggers faced prosecution for criticizing the government’s approach to the pandemic. The government in Slovakia imposed restrictions on Roma communities that raised criticisms of discriminatory treatment. Violations even occurred in a couple of liberal democracies such as the United States of America, where the government frequently engaged in disinformation about the pandemic, and Greece where lockdown measures disproportionately affected refugee camps.
In addition, 43 countries – 24 democracies and 19 autocracies – still had emergency measures without a time limit by December 2020, including Albania, Mexico, and The Gambia. Other countries – including Brazil, Jamaica, and Kyrgyzstan – have set a time limit for specific emergency measures, but not for the overall emergency response. Despite international pressure to set an end-date for emergency measures only eight countries have done so. For democracy to endure the pandemic without long-term damages, it is vital that governments lift the measures once the pandemic tapers off.
Another Year of Decline for Liberal Democracy
Western Europe and North America, as well as parts of Latin America, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Taiwan have the highest levels of liberal democracy. The least democratic countries in the world include parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region, as well as China, Russia, and Venezuela.
The least democratic countries in the world include parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region
Autocracies: home to 68% of the world population
The world is more democratic compared to the 1970s and 1980s, even with the 87 autocracies at the end of 2020. Closed autocracies dominated the world both in terms of number of countries and as the share of the population they harbored back in the 1970s and 1980s. The numbers then fell gradually to reach a record low when these dictatorships were found in only 20 countries by 2013. Their number has since increased again to 25 as of 2020.
A wave of democratization built up through the 1970s and 1980s, and broke in the early 1990s to slowly subside. At its peak in 1999, 72 countries with about 30% of the global population were in a process of democratization. While the number of countries undergoing autocratization fell off during the period that democratization wave was building, it has been on the rise since around 2000 in an uneven but pronounced upward trajectory. However, the pace of this “third wave of autocratization” escalated in the last few years. In 2020, there were 25 countries undergoing autocratization compared to less than ten a decade ago. Meanwhile only 16 registered as in a process of democratization by 2020, a drop by almost half compared to ten years ago.
By 2020, more than one-third (34%) of the world’s population were living in countries undergoing autocratization while a miniscule 4% were living in democratizing nations.
The decline in 2020 and covid-19
In short, the pandemic seems to have had a marginal impact on the global level of liberal democracy, at least in this short-term perspective. Even so, holding elections during the pandemic presented many challenges, from ensuring voter safety to organizing election observers amidst travel restrictions. Some countries managed the difficulties exceptionally well, such as South Korea where voter turnout in the legislature elections reached the highest level in 16 years. In other countries, the pandemic made it harder to observe the quality of elections such as in Burundi where, in addition to domestic electoral observers, international observers were not allowed to monitor the presidential elections in May 2020.
Restrictions on international observers also reduced the integrity of the Belarusian presidential elections in August 2020. In addition, some governments postponed elections without indicating a reliable alternative date, for instance in Ethiopia. Finally, a series of countries witnessed an upsurge of violence around elections, such as in the Central African Republic and in Guinea, which explains why the indicator for electoral violence is the fourth most affected. While it seems that in the short term the pandemic has not been used to substantially increase autocratization in most countries, the longer-term consequences are uncertain. The continued violations documented above are a reason for serious concerns however, and for close monitoring of the coming months and years in order to ensure that measures are removed once the pandemic subdues.
Advancers and Decliners
While autocratization is the dominant trend in the world, the demand for democracy remains high in many quarters and positive regime transitions have taken place. Countries moving toward autocratization outnumber advancing countries and they cover broad swathes of territory globally as well as in most regions of the world. In North America, and Western and Eastern Europe, no country has advanced in democracy in the past 10 years while Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States of America have declined substantially.
16 countries advancing over the last ten years, including Armenia, The Gambia, and Tunisia with records of relatively free and fair elections, and stronger civil societies. South Korea stands out as one of the few cases ever recorded where a process of autocratization started in a liberal democracy but was turned around thus avoiding a breakdown.
However, since the democratizing countries – with the exception of South Korea – are typically small they can only play a marginal role in influencing regional and world trajectories.
Contrast this with the 25 autocratizing nations where we find major G20 nations such as Brazil, India, Turkey, and the United States of America. The data also shows that other populous, influential states such as Bangladesh, Hungary, Philippines, and Tanzania belong to this group of autocratizers, as does Hong Kong. Some of these are large, influential countries found across the major regions in the world, making it a truly global trend.
The major autocratizers
The most notable finding at the general level is that nine out of these ten were electoral or even liberal democracies in 2010. Only three (Brazil, Mauritius, and Poland) of those nine remain democracies, but all are now only electoral democracies. This presents a worrying trend, which is corroborated by a recent study analyzing all instances of autocratization in democracies from 1900 to 2019 and showing that almost 80% lead to democratic breakdown. In this year’s Democracy Report, Benin, Bolivia, and Mauritius are new cases among the top 10 autocratizing countries and our data documents substantial declines for all three.
Benin, Bolivia, and Mauritius are new cases among the top 10 autocratizing countries and our data documents substantial declines for all three
How autocratization unfolds
The recent developments in Mauritius come as a surprise to many observers. The island has been a democracy for over 40 years. The sharp decline in the indicator for quality of elections in 2019 is likely related to widespread allegations of electoral fraud in the November 2019 parliamentary elections. The electoral period also saw complaints of false information being disseminated by both government and opposition. With the Covid-19 pandemic, further anti-democratic measures were enacted, including the suspension of parliament in December 2020 and dispersion of peaceful protests.
Government censorship and hostility to non-partisan media is steadily increasing in Brazil, in particularly after right-wing populist Bolsonaro became President in January 2019, including government dissemination of false information. In Poland, media laws from 2015/16 place new limitations on freedom of expression and the media. Following the 2016 election of Patrice Talon as President, measures limiting political dissent and competition intensified in Benin. A new Penal Code adopted in 2018 penalised civil society organisations and opposition parties, in addition to a 2017 law on digital publications that targeted independent journalists. Free and fair elections are declining in Benin. In 2019, electoral laws made participation in parliamentary elections prohibitively expensive and opposition activists and journalists were subject to arrest.
Rays of hope: top 10 advancers
This year we register 16 nations that made substantially meaningful and statistically significant advances on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) between 2010 and 2020.
Of these ten nations, four transitioned to democracy during the last 10 years while two democracies and four autocracies improved in significant ways in their democratic qualities.
As in last year’s Democracy Report, Tunisia is the most prominent case of a successful transition to democracy over the past decade and continues to be the greatest advancer on the LDI in the group. Eight more nations also reappear from last year: Armenia, Ecuador, Fiji, The Gambia, Madagascar, Myanmar, Niger, Sri Lanka. Their relative advances were similar as of yearend 2020 to that which we reported then for 2019.
Source photo : V-Dem Institute