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Democracies under threat around the globe

March 19, 2024

With 63 democracies now outnumbered by 74 autocracies, a new Bertelsmann Foundation report highlights a global shift away from democratic governance, exacerbated by recent geopolitical events and the COVID-19 pandemic.

pregnant woman casting her vote during the parliamentary election August 29, 2022
Kenya is often seen as a beacon of democracy in the regionImage: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

The hard facts are sobering: According to a new study, the quality of democracy has deteriorated over the past 20 years in 137 countries that are considered developing or emerging economies. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation's "Transformation Index," there are now 63 democracies compared to 74 autocracies. In other words, states that tend not to have free elections or a functioning constitutional state.

In the last two years alone, shaped by a new geopolitical climate, Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, and the coronavirus pandemic, elections in 25 countries have been less free and fair than they were before, according to the study, which also found that in 39 countries freedom of expression and freedom of the press has been increasingly restricted.

Effects exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic

Sabine Donner is one of the authors of the study. She told DW that the coronavirus pandemic had an effect on democratic developments, through lockdowns and temporary restrictions on civil liberties: "The pandemic was an opportunity to further restrict rights and to further concentrate power in the hands of governments," she explained."But basically, the pandemic did not bring about any problems that did not already exist."

Legislation as key tool of democracy

According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, their annual study is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind to cover so many countries. It is based on 5,000 pages of national reports that the foundation compiles with the help of 300 experts, universities, and think tanks in around 120 countries. The study analyzes political transformation toward democracy, economic transformation, and governmental action. All three categories are currently at an all-time low.

The Good News: Democracies are slowly waking up

But despite all the negative news, Sabine Donner is not entirely pessimistic. "In the last two to four years, people and governments have become more aware of the authoritarian challenges facing democratic states, including us here in Germany. They are much more aware than they were ten years ago," she said.

The Bertelsmann Foundation had invited Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) to their presentation of the study on Monday. With regard to the rise of right-wing populism in Germany, Scholz said that he was pleased that hundreds of thousands of people had recently taken to the streets to protest against it: "This has not come from above or from the parties. It's right that we should be concerned about the resilience of democracy. But in the end, this isn't a play, it's not taking place on the internet, it's us: We have to protect democracy ourselves."

Defiance in Germany: Can mass protests stop the far right?

Are democracies too slow and inflexible?

Authoritarian rulers tend to justify their actions by claiming that democratic processes are too cumbersome, that democratically elected governments are inflexible, and that their countries are unable to keep up with global competition.

The study shows otherwise. When governments were measured on how quickly and effectively they implemented measures during the pandemic. None of the 45 countries that were less effective in implementing protection measures for their populations were democracies.

According to Sabine Donner, China's response to the pandemic also shows that autocracies do not act more prudently than democracies in times of crisis: "We saw this during the coronavirus pandemic when it became clear that strict lockdowns weren't working and there were huge protests despite all the repression. It's not just about recognizing that wrong actions are being taken, it's also about how difficult it is to correct them. Autocracies can also come under pressure when the population is dissatisfied."

Civil commitment is key

The key to combating authoritarian tendencies remains the civil commitment to free elections, freedom of the press, and the separation of powers. If there is ongoing public support in these areas, it may be possible to ward off autocratic tendencies. The study cites recent elections in Kenya and Zambia, as well as Poland

and Moldova in Europe, as examples.

EU explained: What is its stance on democracy?

Sabine Donner cites examples of countries that successfully transitioned to democratic systems: "Take Taiwan or South Korea, which were under autocratic rule for a long time and were then modernized economically. And now they are very stable and successful democracies," she pointed out.

Good examples: South Korea, Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay

The 2024 Transformation Index describes South Korea, Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, and Taiwan in the following way: "Based on the rule of law and with a strategic approach, their government leaderships have ensured positive developments not only in education, health care, and living standards but also in strengthening democracy."

The Bertelsmann researchers conclude that in countries where democracy is already functioning, governments need to seek consensus from as broad a segment of the population as possible — even more so than they have in previous years. Even though they admit that this is becoming more and more difficult in an increasingly polarized climate.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau