Government-imposed lockdowns and other disease-control measures led to the withdrawal of civil liberties on a massive scale, causing score downgrades across the vast majority of countries.
Every region of the world experienced a democratic rollback, but the removal of individual liberties in developed democracies was the most remarkable feature of 2020.
The Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa both had a terrible year as autocratic leaders used the cover of the pandemic to crack down on opposition.
Asia gained three “full democracies” (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), while Europe lost two (France and Portugal).
The US remains a “flawed democracy”, polarised not only on policy issues but on core values, and the social cohesion needed to support a “full democracy” has collapsed.
In Eastern Europe and Latin America, the pandemic compounded existing democratic flaws, including weak checks and balances, persistent corruption, a proclivity in some places for strong leaders, and pressures on media freedom.
In the 2020 edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, which provides a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide, the average global score fell from 5.44 (on a scale of 0-10) to 5.37. This is the worst score since the index was first produced in 2006. A large majority of countries—116 of a total of 167 (almost 70%)—recorded a decline in their total score compared with 2019. Only 38 (22.6%) recorded an improvement, and the other 13 stagnated.
According to our measure of democracy, only about half (49.4%) of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort, and far fewer (8.4%) reside in a “full democracy”; this level is up from 5.7% in 2019, as several Asian countries have been upgraded. More than one-third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, a large share of whom live in China. Of the 167 countries and territories covered by the model, 75 are considered to be democracies. The number of “full democracies” increased to 23 in 2020, up from 22 in 2019. The number of “flawed democracies” fell by two, to 52. Of the remaining 92 countries in our index, 57 are “authoritarian regimes”, up from 54 in 2019, and 35 are classified as “hybrid regimes”, down from 37 in 2019.
There were some impressive improvements (Taiwan) and some dramatic declines (Mali). There were 11 changes of regime category, seven negative and four positive. Three countries (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) moved from the “flawed democracy” category to be classified as “full democracies”, and one country, Albania, was upgraded to a “flawed democracy” from a “hybrid regime”. France and Portugal experienced a reversal, losing the “full democracy” status that they had regained in 2019, re-joining the ranks of “flawed democracies”. El Salvador and Hong Kong were relegated from the “flawed democracy” classification to that of “hybrid regime”. Further down the ranking, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Mali lost their status as “hybrid regimes” and are now designated as “authoritarian regimes”.
The deterioration in the global score in 2020 was driven by declines in the average regional score in every region, but especially by large falls in the “authoritarian regime”-dominated regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa. The scores for these two regions declined by 0.10 and 0.09 respectively between 2019 and 2020. Western Europe and Eastern Europe both recorded a fall of 0.06 in their average regional scores. The score for Asia and Australasia, the region which has made most democratic progress during the lifetime of the Democracy Index, fell by 0.05. Latin America’s average score declined by 0.04 in 2020, marking the fifth consecutive year of regression for the region. The average score for North America fell by only 0.01, but a bigger decline of 0.04 in the US score was masked by an improvement in Canada’s score.
In 2020 the measures taken by governments to address the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic entailed the suspension of the civil liberties of entire populations for prolonged periods. The willing surrender of fundamental freedoms by millions of people was perhaps one of the most remarkable occurrences in an extraordinary year—most people accepted their governments’ decisions to take away their rights and freedoms. But we should not conclude from the high level of public compliance with lockdown measures that people do not value freedom. Most people simply concluded, on the basis of the evidence about a new deadly disease to which humans had no natural immunity, that preventing a catastrophic loss of life justified a temporary loss of freedom.
That people reluctantly accepted social distancing and lockdowns as the best means of combating the coronavirus does not mean that governments should not be criticised for their democratic failings. The pandemic turned a spotlight on the nature of governance in 21st-century democracies and, in particular, on the relationship between governments and the people, exposing democratic deficits that have existed for a long time.
Download the full report “Democracy Index 2020” to find out more.