One more alarming new report from the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden states that by the end of 2022, 72% of the world’s population (5.7 billion people) lived in autocracies, out of which 28% (2.2 billion people) lived in “closed autocracies”.
This report titled Defiance in the Face of Autocratization has also asserted that “advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out” in the past half decade. The conclusions of the report must be a cause of global concern for politicians and policy-makers alike.
Today, there are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies and only 13% of the world’s humans (approximately one billion people) live in liberal democracies, notes the V-Dem report.
The last decade has been the autocriser multiplier seeing the increasing power of autocratic political regimes across the world. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, several countries responded, not with collective decision-making but with the use of emergency measures, centralising powers and even suspending federal and or parliamentary decision-making; the reasoning being “managing the pandemic.” Many such countries actually used the pandemic to pass legislations that impinged on their citizens’ rights and freedoms. The crackdown in India’s capital, Delhi on people’s protests even as political and religious rallies were allowed is one such example.
Some countries including India also used the pandemic as an excuse to allow the executive to assume disproportionate power, vis-à-vis citizens. For instance, in Hungary President Viktor Orbán assumed the power to rule by decree in 2020, then declared a “state of medical crisis” when he was criticised, which allowed his government to keep issuing decrees. In 2022 he declared another state of emergency pursuant to the war in Ukraine.
In the United States, the state of Kentucky outlawed fossil fuel protests and a federal appeals court in Texas upheld a ban on abortions which was to foreshadow the overturning of the Roe v Wade judgment in 2022. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the Knesset and postponed his own trial by suspending the courts and increasing surveillance.
India a force multiplier in autocrising tendencies
With all talks of India being a civilizational, “mother of democracy,” the non-partisan assessment and evaluation suggests otherwise.
In India, in early months of the pandemic, 2020, the government wasted no time in announcing a new domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir in April 2020 that allowed people who have resided there for 15 years or those who have studied there for seven years and appeared in Class 10 and 12 exams, from acquiring permanent residence. Notably, the trend towards autocratisation in many parts of the world began intensifying in 2020. The V-Dem report lists 42 countries as “autocratising” at the end of 2022. This, it says, is a record number.
India is not an exception to this trend. A sudden lockdown in 2020 displayed how easily the lives of people at the margins of Indian society could be disrupted. The complete panic and paralysis suffered by 6.3 million migrant workers, un-catered to by their governments that declared a hastily declared national lockdown will go down as a moment of cautionary shame for the world’s largest democracy.
In 2021, the V-Dem institute classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, while in the same year, Freedom House listed India as “partly free”. Also in 2021, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified India as a backsliding democracy and a “major decliner” in its Global State of Democracy (GSoD) report.
The data made available by the GSoD report demonstrated that between 1975 and 1995 India’s representative government score moved from .59 to .69. In 2015 it was .72. However, in 2020 it stood at .61, i.e, closer to the score India had in 1975 when it was actually under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. The GSoD report also listed India alongside Sri Lanka and Indonesia for the lowest score on the religious freedom indicator since 1975.
Is it unsurprising then, that the 2023 V-Dem report refers to India as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years?” On page 10 of the report, the index table and places India in the bottom 40-50% on its Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) at rank 97. India also ranks 108 on the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI) and 123 on the Egalitarian Component Index (ECI). On LDI where India is at 97/179, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Singapore fare better at 79, 81 and 95 respectively. Below India are our south Asian neighbours Pakistan at 106 and Bangladesh at 147. At the bottom of the heap are Afganistan and North Korea at 177 and 179 respectively. Interestingly, even developed democracies like UK and USA are at 20 and 23 on this count.
However, the report also states (page 24) that the process of autocratisation has “slowed down considerably or stalled” in some countries, including India, after they turned into autocracies.
The report also points out some characteristics of autocratising countries. These include increased media censorship and repression of civil society, a decrease in academic freedom, cultural freedom and freedom of discussion. The report states that media censorship and repression of civil society are “what rulers in autocratising countries engage in most frequently, and to the greatest degree”. It finds also that academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression have declined severely in Indonesia, Russia and Uruguay.
The V-Dem report also extends its analysis to indicators that bolster autocratisation. It says that disinformation, polarisation and autocratisation reinforce each other. It flags those countries that increased their democracy scores (The Dominican Republic, Gambia and the Seychelles) as countries that were able to check disinformation and polarisation. The report aptly targets disinformation as a tool to “steer citizens’ preferences” that is actively used by autocratising regimes to increase political polarisation. It classifies Afghanistan, India, Brazil and Myanmar as autocratising countries that have seen the “most dramatic” increases in political polarisation.
The report tries to end on an uplifting note by suggesting that all is not lost as some countries are moving towards more democracy – Bolivia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Dominican Republic, Gambia and Malawi.
To a lesser degree, it counts the Maldives, North Macedonia, South Korea and Slovenia as countries that are making a positive democratic U-turn. It is a little puzzling to see the Maldives listed here as reports from 2022 demonstrate that President Ibrahim Solih (the 2019 election of whom the V-Dem report sees as an indicator of democratisation) did outlaw the anti-India protests that had taken root in some parts of the archipelagic nation. Maldivian civil society actors questioned whether a president had the power to criminalise dissent.
Even so, the V-Dem report states that democracies can bounce back from autocratisation when a certain set of criteria are satisfied. These include mass mobilisation against an incumbent, a unified opposition working with civil society, the judiciary reversing an executive takeover, critical elections, and international democracy support.
Finally, the V-Dem report thinks that there is a shift in the global balance of economic power. It finds that inter-democracy world trade has declined to 47% in 2022 from 74% in 1998. 46% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product now comes from autocracies and democracies’ dependence on autocratic countries has doubled in the last three decades. It sees this dependence of democratic countries on autocratic countries for trade as an emergent security issue for democracies.
How does V-Dem work?
Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) produces the largest global dataset on democracy with
over 31 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2022. Involving almost 4,000
scholars and other country experts, V-Dem measures hundreds of different attributes of
democracy. V-Dem enables new ways to study the nature, causes, and consequences of
democracy embracing its multiple meanings.
What are the indicators used?
Amongst the various population-weighted indicators that the report uses to make its determinations on the health of democracy in various countries, it pays particular attention to freedom of expression (declining in as many as 35 countries), increased government censorship of the media (declining in 47 countries), the worsening state repression of civil society actors (going downhill in 37 countries) and a decline in the quality of elections in 30 countries. It also lists Armenia, Greece and Mauritius as “democracies in steep decline”.
There are several indices/critereon that V-Dem uses and applies. The V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) captures both liberal and electoral aspects of democracy based on the 71 indicators
included in the Liberal Component Index (LCI) and the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI). The EDI reflects a hitherto ambitious idea of electoral democracy where a number of institutional features
guarantee free and fair elections such as freedom of association and freedom of expression. The LCI goes even further and captures the limits placed on governments in terms of two key aspects: The protection of individual liberties, and the checks and balances between institutions.
There is also then the Liberal Component Index (LCI), Egalitarian Component Index (ECI), Participative Component Index (PCI) and Deliberative Component Index (DCI). Of these, the LCI factors in Equality before the law and individual liberty, judicial constraints on the executive, and Legislative constraints on the executive. The Electoral Democracy Index factors within Suffrage,
Elected officials, Clean elections, Freedom of association and Freedom of expression and
alternative sources of information.
Why Population-Weighted Measures?
Since democracy is rule by the people, it matters how many people are enjoying democratic rights and freedoms around the world. The population-weighted metric is therefore more indicative of
the levels of democracy experienced by people worldwide than straight averages across countries. Country-averages give the same weight to advances in a small country like the Seychelles
(one of the top performers) as to declines in a huge country like India (one of the worst autocratizers in the last 10 years). When speaking of ‘how much’ of the world lives in a democracy, and how much of it is undergoing a democratic decline, the V-Dem report states that, “we do not think that advances in a small country compensate for declines in a large one. That is why we focus more on population-weighted metrics while also reporting the averages that give equal weight to all nations.”
Hope is not lost
According to the V-Dem report, there have also been trends towards Democratisation. Eight of the top 10 democratizing countries over the last 10 years are now democracies, four of the top 10 democratizers in the short-term 3-year perspective have transitioned from autocracy to democracy and –possibly this has a lesson for India –democracies are ‘bouncing back’, making rare U-turns restoring democracy after a period of autocratization.
What enables these democracies to bounce back? Five elements unite most of the 8 cases:
Large-scale popular mobilization against incumbent.
Judiciary reversing executive take-over.
Unified opposition coalescing with civil society.
Critical elections and key events bringing alternation in power.
International democracy support and protection
The V-Dem report cautions us all. The level of democracy for the average global citizen by 2022 is back to 1986 levels. • Democracy has deteriorated in many regions and of this ours, the Asia-Pacific is now down to levels of 1978. Today, the world has more closed autocracies than liberal
democracies – for the first time in more than two decades, 72% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people live in autocracies by 2022. Within this fairly bleak scenario, freedom of expression is deteriorating in 35 countries in 2022; ten years ago it was only seven countries where the count was low; Government censorship of the media is worsening in 47 countries over last ten years and Government repression of civil society organizations is worsening in 37 countries.