Europe keeps its status as the world’s highest-performing region in democratic performance, but declines have been seen in many countries, according to the Global State of Democracy 2023 Report.
The fundamentals of democracy are weakening across the world, with half of countries suffering democratic declines such as rule of law and freedoms of expression, according to a new report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Stockholm.
Europe keeps its status as the world’s highest-performing region, but declines have been seen in many countries including the established democracies such as the United Kingdom, Austria, and the Netherlands.
So how do European countries compare in terms of democratic performance, and which counties have the highest level of democratic values in Europe?
Global deterioration continued
The International IDEA’s annual report examines the health of democracy around the globe. This year’s report, which is entitled “The Global State of Democracy 2023 Report – The New Checks and Balances,” found that across every region of the world, democracy has continued to contract, with a decline in at least one key indicator of democratic performance in the past five years, based on 17 metrics ranging from civil liberties to judicial independence in almost half of the 173 countries surveyed.
This decline has been intensified by the erosion of formal ‘checks and balances’ – elections, parliaments, and courts – that have struggled to uphold the law and hold politicians to account according to the report. This deterioration comes as the cost-of-living crisis, climate change and Russia’s war against Ukraine pose huge challenges for elected leaders.
“Many countries are struggling now even with basic aspects of democracy,” said International IDEA Secretary-General Kevin Casas-Zamora.
“But while many of our formal institutions like legislatures are weakening, there is hope that these more informal checks and balances, from journalists to election organizers and anti-corruption commissioners, can successfully battle authoritarian and populist trends.”
Rather than one overall classification, this year’s report ranks the countries in four major categories of democratic performance: Rule of Law, Rights, Representation and Participation. Each category is scaled to range from 0 to 1, with 1 being the most democratic.
Nordic countries at the top
Nordic countries show the best democratic performance. Looking at the scores, Denmark is at the top of three categories out of four across the world. Norway and Finland are also ranked in the top 10 in all categories, and Sweden is in three categories.
In 2022, Germany also demonstrated outstanding democratic performance, ranking in the top 10 in all four categories.
As consolidated democracies in Europe, France and the UK succeeded at reaching the top 20 in only two categories. In the Rule of Law, the UK ranked 17th and France is 20th. In the category of Rights, France ranked 27th and the UK is 34th.
Hungary, Poland and Romania show the worst performance in the EU
In 2022, looking at both the scores and global ranking, some of the Eastern EU members did not show a great democratic performance. They are Hungary, Poland, and Romania. They were not in the top 50 in rule of law ranking.
Four countries drifted away from the rest of Europe
The report listed Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Turkey as non-democratic countries. According to the scores, Turkey has done slightly better than the other three countries. However, none of them are ranked in the top 100 in any of the four categories. “The clearly non-democratic group of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and Türkiye (Turkey) has drifted away from the rest of Europe, performing well below the European average across most indicators of democracy,” the report concluded.
Change in the last 5 years: Declines and rises
Although European countries clearly lead all four categories, looking at changes between 2017 and 2022, there have been significant declines in specific indicators of democratic performance in many of established the democracies in Europe. The report underlines the deterioration in the scores of long-standing and strong democracies, including Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK.
Declines have affected several indicators, the most common being the Rule of Law (especially Predictable Enforcement) and Freedom of the Press. These countries remain high-performing in most factors, but “the declines highlight the importance of constant vigilance in future-proofing democracy,” the report said.
Changes in the scores between 2017 and 2022 indicate the declines and rises. While in the chart above all the countries, the International IDEA refers to only five-year changes with a statistical significance level of 0.05.
Taking this base, several European countries showed a significant fall in the Rule of Law. The scores of seven EU countries in this category decreased more than 0.05 points. This decline was especially significant in Portugal, Austria, the Netherlands, and Hungary. After Belarus, the UK showed the largest decline.
Austria and the UK were also among the countries having an important decrease in the Rights category. France had the third highest decline in this category.
Germany had very high scores in all categories, but its score in the Representation fell significantly.
Despite the declines in Hungary and Poland, Central Europe was the epicenter of democratic growth, becoming the second-highest performing subregion regarding the Rule of Law according to the report. Moldova, Latvia, Armenia, Romania, and Azerbaijan increased their scores more than 0.05 points in the Rule of Law.
What do these categories measure?
According to the report, the four main categories examine different dimensions of democratic performance.
Rights is an aggregate measure of a fair legal system, respect for civil liberties, the extent to which the material and social supports of democracy are available, and the degree to which political and social equality between social groups and genders is realized.
Rule of Law is a new aggregate measure introduced this year (with comparisons from 2021). It includes assessments of the independence of the judiciary from government influence, the extent to which the public administrators use their offices for personal gain, how predictable enforcement of the law is, and the degree to which people are free from political violence.
Representation is an aggregate measure of the credibility of electoral processes (including elections that are free from irregularities, political parties that are free to operate, the inclusiveness of the right to vote and the extent to which national offices are filled by elected individuals), the effectiveness of legislatures and the quality of local democratic representation.
Participation is an aggregate measure of how involved citizens are in democratic expression during and between elections. It includes assessments of the context within which civil society operates, the strength of interest groups, the degree to which people are engaged with associations and trade unions, and voter turnout in national elections.
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