Democracy watchers do not have happy tidings to convey, imperilled and threatened as it is, in developed and developing countries alike. As Cassandra - like messengers, they may not be welcome to powers that be, but their message is telling: democracy is in mortal danger in a wide swath of the world. It cannot be taken for granted.
According to the latest Democracy Index (DI) for 2022, prepared by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), only 24 of the 167 countries measured by the model used by it or 43 per cent can be considered to be 'full democracies'. The model uses four categories to classify countries according to the prevalent degree of democratic practices: (a) full democracy; (b) flawed democracy; (c) hybrid democracy; and (d) autocracy. The number of 'flawed democracy', in its latest DI, is 48 while 59 are authoritarian, the same as in 2021, and 36 are 'hybrid regimes', up from 34 in the previous year. While some countries show improvements (47), the index scores for 92 countries have either stagnated (48) or declined (44) in 2022. The EIU considers this a poor outcome, given the scale of upgrades to several indicators related to restrictions of individual freedoms after the pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions were lifted in 2022.
In terms of number of 'full democracy' the developed countries of the western Europe dominated among the world's 'full democracies', accounting for 14 of the total 24 in 2022.
Canada is the only 'full democracy' in North America, as the United States (US) continues to languish in the category 'flawed democracy', where it was relegated in 2016. Among the 'flawed democracy' category are France, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, among others. Among the 'hybrid democracies' are countries like Turkey, Armenia, Ukraine, Mexico, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan.
China, Russia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Belarus and Azerbaizan are included in the 'autocracy' category.
The EIU has defined 'full democracies' as those countries where civil liberties and political freedom are not only respected but also reinforced by a political culture conducive to the practice of democratic principles. These countries have a valid system of governmental checks and balances, independent judiciary whose decrees are enforced, governments that function efficiently and have media that is diverse and independent. 'Flawed democracies' have been identified as those where basic civil liberties are honoured with occasional infringements, low level of voter participation, media partisanship, reasonably fair and free elections with occasional denial of electoral results by losing parties. Hybrid regimes have been characterised by regular electoral frauds preventing election from being free and fair, restrictions on political opposition and denying them freedom of speech, non-independent judiciary, widespread corruption, controlled media, anaemic rule of law, underdeveloped political culture, low level of political participation and lack of good governance.
'Authoritarian democracies' stand at the complete opposite of 'full democracies' with absolute dictatorship of an individual or a single political party, regular infringement and abuse of civil liberties, sham elections, media censorship and controlled judiciary.
The EIU uses 60 indicators, grouped into five categories i.e electoral process, pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government and role of media. Countries are ranked into four categories of democracies on the basis of points scored in each indicator. The Democracy Index produces a weighted average based on the answers to 60 questions, each one with either two or three permitted answers. Each answer is converted into a score, either zero or one.
According to the score, America ranks 26 and is in the category of ' flawed democracy' while Bangladesh as a 'hybrid democracy' ranks 73rd in the index for 2022. In Asia, Bangladesh ranked 15th by securing 5.99 out of 10 points in the regional ranking. Sector-wise, the country scored 7.42 for political process, 6.07 points for functioning of government, 5.56 points for political participation, 5.63 for political culture and 5.29 for civil liberties.
It is evident from the scores in different indicators in the index that Bangladesh is languishing in promoting democratic culture, particularly in respect of free and fair elections, freedom of movement and speech by opposition, freedom of press and civil liberties. The evolution of a development model in recent years, lauded worldwide, has not been matched by steady progress towards a well functioning democracy. Many observers also allege creeping authoritarianism in the functioning of governance and polity. The ensuing general election will be a test case of the coming of age in democratic culture in the country.
The most shocking aspect of the state of democracy in the world at present, as revealed in the DI for 2022, is the worsening of democratic culture and practice in America, long held as the citadel of democracy. The denial of election results of the Presidential election in 2020 persists even now among stalwarts of the Republican Party and its hard core supporters, casting ominous shadow over the next Presidential election in 2024. Reforms of electoral laws in Republican-dominated states are going apace with a view to disenfranchising the minority groups. None of these augur well for robust functioning of democracy in America. As pointed out by Martin Wolf, an economic and political observer, the ongoing political transformation in America has deep implications for liberal democracies everywhere, as well as the world's ability to co-operate on vital tasks, such as managing climate change. (The Financial Express, October1, 2021l
In a recent interview in CNN, Ian Brammer, a neo-liberal political analyst and the author of a recent book 'Crisis of Power', observed that democracy in America has, of late, become dysfunctional as many have lost trust in political institutions. In support of this view he mentioned that the recent demonstration in front of the Supreme Court after the overturning of the Roe vs Wade verdict that legalised abortion. Others, belonging to the ultra Right, has pointed out, supporting the storming of the Capitol Hill by Trump supporters in January, 2021 on the grounds of 'stealing the election'. Both the views point to the loss of credibility, from the perspective of their ideologies, about institutions that underpin democracy.
The point that Brammer and other political analysts have laboured to make is that institutions like electoral process, judiciary and neutral media matter most in allowing democratic culture to prevail and flourish. An overview of the present political landscape where the democratic institutions inhabit in different countries should provide the backdrop to the truth or otherwise of what political analysts like Ian Brammer is saying about institutions as the fulcrum of democracy. This is important not for an understanding of the way that American democracy is veering towards a crisis at present but also for the answer to the puzzle of why democracy waxes and wanes in countries where it is exist. An impartial appraisal of practices that undermine democracy will inevitably point to the weakening of institutions like electoral process, judiciary, governance and civil society, including media. The hollowing out of institutions that sustain and nurture democracy may be incremental or sudden, but the suffocation of the system is always pre-meditated and deliberate on the part of power that are. It does not happen like a bolt from the blue.
The Democracy Index, prepared by the EIU for 2022, conveys an ominous message about the stagnation or decline in respect of the selected indicators of functioning of democracy in different countries of the world. Instead of making oblique remarks, the report should have said bluntly that detractors of democratic values and practice are hollowing out institutions for their partisan interests.