For those of us interested in the development of democracy both in the short-term and in the much longer-term, what is called the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden is a must. This is likely to be the most comprehensive and openly accessible database of democracy indicators covering 177 countries, 117 years (starting in 1900) and more than 350 indicators, as well as 52 indices measuring varying aspects of democracy. This is why V-Dem is short for Varieties of Democracy, and this perspective is important. It is more than a simplistic understanding of one particular version of Western democracy!

I believe that academics will already know about V-Dem. However, I would like to encourage all the many practitioners from the field I have met and worked with over the years to familiarize yourselves with the database. You will find a wealth of information about your own country, and you can compare these data with those of neighbouring countries – and much more.

The following presentation is edited on the basis of the V-Dem Annual Report 2017 just released, and this is in fact the first annual report from the now six year old project.

Download here: V-DEM Annual Report 2017

Introduction by Director Staffan I. Lindberg

It is my pleas ure to introduce the very first Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Annual Report. As many of you already know, V-Dem is a new approach to conceptualizing and measuring democracy. Acknowledging the complexity of democracy as a system of rule that goes beyond the simple presence of elections, we adopt a multidimensional and disaggregated approach. V-Dem is one of the largest-ever social science data collection efforts, involving almost 3,000 scholars from over 170 countries and utilizing cutting-edge social science methodologies to produce a database containing about 18 million data points.

With this annual report we release the new version 7.0 of the data, covering 177 countries, 117 years, and more than 350 indicators, as well as 52 indices measuring varying aspects of democracy. Most of these data are also made available for online analysis on our webpage https://v-dem.net, where users, including those without a statistical background, can produce and download their own graphs without having to download the entire dataset.

Sadly, our first annual report comes at a time when democracy and freedom are challenged in many countries. This makes our efforts at measuring hundreds of aspects of democracy even more important. To what extent are legislatures actually using their powers to hold the executive to account? How much self-censorship is the media exercising? To what degree are women denied their formal civil or political rights? How much does corruption in the judiciary undermine the rule of law? These are critical aspects of any system aspiring to be democratic. Yet, before V-Dem, there were no reliable measures that both covered most countries and did so over a sufficiently long period of time to enable robust analysis.

To adequately portray the long and complex road leading up to this point would require far more space than is allowed. Suffice it to say that my co-Principal Investigators, (Michael Coppedge, John Gerring, Svend-Erik Skaaning, and until 2016, Jan Teorell); the 14 Project Managers; the 31 Regional Managers; the 8 current and past postdoctoral researchers; the thousands of country experts; and our amazing core team at the V-Dem Institute, led by Josefine Pernes and Natalia Stepanova, have together made this happen over the past six years. So
many people have contributed so much to the project that it is impossible to give due credit to everyone here, but please trust me when I say that we recognize and value every one of you immensely.

Our ambition is to provide the most comprehensive and reliable data on democracy and related issues that social science can produce, while being fully transparent on all aspects of data collection, processing, and aggregation. In this light, we are very proud that in 2016, V-Dem received the most prestigious award for comparative datasets in political science: the Lijphart/Przeworski/Verba Best Dataset Award presented by the American Political Science Association, Comparative Politics Section.

I am also proud that V-Dem has managed not only to produce an infrastructure for research that is now being used by tens of thousands
of scholars, but which is also becoming a key resource for policymakers and practitioners. This is something we always strive for – to be of use to the “real” world beyond academia. Today, international actors such as the World Bank, UNDP, Transparency International, and International IDEA, as well as local/regional actors such as Bibliotecha Alexandria and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, are using V-Dem data in their work. This is very gratifying to us.

This report provides some highlights from our newest version of the data (7.0). The main focus is on democracy and where democracy is heading in the world today. Are we seeing a trend towards backsliding as some have warned in recent years, or is it merely a question of stagnation? Some countries make advances while others suffer setbacks. Meanwhile, certain areas of democracy have declined in recent years whereas others continue to improve. This annual report seeks to clarify these issues and thus serve as an entry point to the world of V-Dem’s 18 million data points, whilst also showing what the world looks like today in light of the last 117 years.

Section 1. Retreat and Resilience

Is there evidence of a global democratic backslide? The answer is, unfortunately, yes. The average level of democracy in the world seems to have regressed back to, roughly speaking, where it was some 10 to 15 years ago. Even if this change falls within the confidence levels, the trend in the data is worrisome. At the same time, the decline is moderate and there is still much more democracy in the world today than before the end of the Cold War.

One of many graphic presentations based on the unique data in the V-Dem database. This one is basically offering a graphic understanding of democratic developments since around 1900 and until today. 

Section 2. Electoral principles

For several decades, scholars and practitioners alike have depicted democracy in the world as though the extant measures really captured what is meant by the concept “electoral democracy”. Yet, we have all known that they did not. V-Dem is the first systematic effort to measure the de facto existence of all the institutions in Robert Dahl’s famous articulation of “polyarchy” as electoral democracy. The V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index (EDI) captures not only the extent to which regimes hold clean, free and fair elections, but also their actual freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, and association, as well as male and female suffrage and the degree to which government policy is vested in elected political officials.

This is a way of showing countries that regressed and those that advanced between 2006 and 2016.

Section 3. The liberal principle of democracy

The liberal notion of democracy adopts a “negative” view on democracy where one evaluates democracy, beyond the existence of a satisfactory level of electoral democracy, by the limits placed on governments in terms of two key aspects: 1) protection of individual liberties; and 2) checks and balancesbetween institutions. Therefore, in V-Dem’s conceptual scheme the liberal principle of democracy embodies the importance of protecting individual and minority rights against both the tyranny of the state and the tyranny of the majority. It also captures the “horizontal” methods of accountability between more or less equally standing institutions that ensure the effective checks and balances between institutions and in particular, limit the exercise of executive power. This is achieved by strong rule of law and constitutionally protected civil liberties, independent judiciary and strong parliament that are able to hold the executive to account and limit its powers. The three indices that capture these dimensions are: the equality before the law and individualliberties, judicial constraints on the executive, and legislative constraints on the executive. Taken together they measure the V-Dem Liberal Component Index.

Section 4. The egalitarian principles

The egalitarian principle of democracy measures to what extent all social groupsenjoy equal capabilities to participate in the political arena. It relies on the idea that democracy is a system of rule “by the people” where citizens participate invarious ways, such as making informed voting decisions, expressing opinions, demonstrating, running for office or influencing policy-making in other ways. Theegalitarian principle of democracy is fundamentally related to political participation, assystematic inequalities in the rights and resources of citizens of specific social groups limitcapabilities to participate in the political and governing processes. Therefore, a more equaldistribution of resources across groups results in political equality and hence democracy.

Section 5. The participatory principles

The participatory principle of democracy emphasizes active participation by citizens in all political processes, electoral and non-electoral. This principle prefers direct rule by citizens as practicable. The V-Dem Participatory Component Index (PCI) takes into account four important aspects of citizenparticipation: civil society organizations, mechanisms of direct democracy, andparticipation and representation through local and regional governments. Four different V-Dem indices capture these aspects and are the basis for the PCI.

Section 6. The deliberative principle

The V-Dem Deliberative Component Index (DCI) captures to what extent the deliberative principle of democracy is achieved. It assesses the process by which decisions are reached in a polity. A deliberative process is one in which public reasoning, focused on the common good, motivates political decisions—as contrasted with emotional appeals, solidary attachments, parochial interests, or coercion. According to this principle, democracy requires more than an aggregation of existing preferences. There should also be respectful dialogue at all levels —from
preference formation to final decision— among informed and competent participants who are open to persuasion.

The end of the Annual Report offers an overview of how all the 177 countries in the database score overall as well as on the different principles of democracy outlined above.