Here we go again: The annual global overview of how democracy fared in the year we just left, from one of the institutions that has made it a habit to measure and weigh changes from year to year. This one comes from The Economist Intelligence Unit, and soon we will have one from Freedom House. Today, these reports are probably followed more closely by a larger group of people than we saw in the past, when it was mostly seen as background information for a small club of democracy freaks. With developments in the US following the election of Mr. Trump, and with developments in several European countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy, and generally the discussion of how populist forces are disrupting our traditional democratic architecture, more people seem concerned and therefore interested.

You can access the full report here: Economist Democracy Index 2018


Before we look at the most interesting findings for 2018, a word of caution – or information if you will – about how these indexes are produced. Just to make sure that we do not make the mistake of thinking that this is the truth and nothing but the truth. It is, after all, what it is, based on the methodology used. My own position is that any index using what is called experts’ assessments is likely to have flaws or risks of flaws built into the system, no matter how diligent the procedure might be. However, having said that, it is also my understanding that The Economist is reasonably solid because of the number of indicators being measured, the nature of the categories being included, and the use of both expert assessments and publicly available surveys. Basically, the methodology is like this:

“The Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy, on a 0 to 10 scale, is based on the ratings for 60 indicators, grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each category has a rating on a 0 to 10 scale, and the overall Index is the simple average of the five category indexes.”

In addition, The Economist uses the information [the numbers] to place countries in four types of regimes. This can actually be very useful, because the types offer a better sense of what a country has achieved than the number by itself does. However, they can also be very crude in their judgement, especially when you move in the territory of moving from one type to the other. Here they are:

Full democracies: Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but which also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the flourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are
enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Flawed democracies: These countries also have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

Hybrid regimes: Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies—in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

Authoritarian regimes: In these states, state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary.”


With the number of books, newspaper articles and seminars during the past year highlighting that democracy is in crises or being threatened or tested or something else, it feels almost disappointing to read the report state that “for the first time in three years, the global score for democracy remained stable”. Of the total 165 independent states covered, 42 countries experienced a decline, and 48 countries saw an increase in their score. This gives us the following situation with regard to the four types used in the index:

Of the 20 countries judged to be “full democracies”, 18 are what we consider to be ‘western’ countries – only Mauritius and Costa Rica are from the South. Only 4,5 % of the global population live in this group.

Countries like South Korea, Japan, Chile and the United States fall into the category of “flawed democracies”, because they score 8 or less on the scale of 1 to 10. If The Economist had decided to make the cut-off between full and flawed democracies at a score of 7,5, another 15 countries would be included in the best group. Countries like Belgium and Italy would also be part of the group – as well as Botswana and Chile.

One area being measured shows improvement: political participation. This should of course be welcomed, because this is one area of our democracies globally that has been lagging behind [see the graphic presentation below]. Voters and citizens are obviously not happy of the state of affairs, and the increase in participation indicates that at least some groups react by engaging. Maybe not surprisingly, the single most important reason for the increase in participation is the increase in women’s participation.

In the following sections, you can read the highlights from the Democracy Index. They also explain the changes that are not seen clearly in the global numbers.

Democracy stagnates

For the first time in three years, the Democracy Index did not deteriorate in 2018. But nor did it register any progress on a global scale. Across the globe, deep disillusionment with the functioning of government was evident, knocking confidence in political institutions, and ultimately in democracy itself. The decline in civil liberties seen in previous years also continued apace. But despite this disenchantment with democracy, at a global level, political participation, one of five key components of our broad measure of democracy, increased. Far from being apathetic or disengaged from politics, the population turned out to vote, and to protest. This evidence of engagement prevented the Democracy Index from sliding further in 2018.

Political participation rises

A host of indicators The Economist Intelligence Unit looks at to assess the scale of political participation improved in 2018. On average, scores for voter turnout increased; there was also an uptick in membership of political parties and organisations—even amid signs that confidence in political parties had reached fresh lows during the year—and growing engagement with politics in the news. What happens as a result of this increased engagement will depend on how political participation influences governance, political culture and civil liberties. In all these areas, there are big questions over future progress, particularly as increased engagement has often been in the name of anti-establishment movements that could shake up political systems and the practice of democracy. Moreover, a rise in engagement, combined with a continued deterioration of civil liberties, could be a recipe for instability and social unrest.

Women’s political participation makes progress

While many indicators of political participation improved in 2018, none improved more than women’s political participation—as measured by the proportion of women represented in the legislature. In fact, of all 60 indicators in the Democracy Index, in the history of the report none has improved more than that for women’s political participation. In part, this reflects the low maximum threshold in our model—which is in turn a reflection of historically low levels of women’s participation. In 2018 one of the most notable increases in women’s political participation came in the US, where female candidates performed well in the November mid-terms.

Top and bottom

There was little change at the very top and the very bottom of the Index. Once again, Norway came out on top and North Korea bottom. One of the more notable moves was that of Costa Rica, the only country to join the ranks of “full democracies” in 2018, and to break into the top 20, rising three places from 23rd to 20th. Western Europe continues to feature heavily among the index’s “full democracies”; apart from North Korea, the bottom 20 features countries from the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe heavily.

Winners and losers

Although there was no big movement at the top and bottom of the index, there were big movements in the rankings elsewhere. The two countries to fall the most in the rankings in 2018 were both from Latin America: Nicaragua and Venezuela. Both fell by 17 places, causing Nicaragua to fall from “hybrid regime” to “authoritarian regime”, and causing Venezuela, already an authoritarian regime, to sink further towards the bottom of the ranking. There were some notable falls in eastern and western Europe, too. Italy’s ranking fell by 12 places, Turkey’s by ten and Russia’s by nine places. There were notable improvements registered in Armenia, Macedonia, Ecuador, Haiti and Tunisia.

Regional trends

After falling in 2017, eastern Europe, Asia and Australasia, and Sub-Saharan Africa all saw an improvement in 2018, mostly reflecting higher scores for political participation. That said, the scores for all three regions remain below recent historical peaks. In Latin America and western Europe there were continued deteriorations, maintaining a trend that has been in evidence in both regions for three years. Eastern Europe remains the region that has deteriorated most since the Democracy Index began in 2006; Asia is the region to have recorded the most progress, from a low base.

The return of populism in Latin America

Elections in Mexico and Brazil in 2018 showed that, in Latin America, rumours of the death of populism were greatly exaggerated. In both countries, voters—disgusted by corruption, violence, and high levels of poverty and inequality—turned to populists to “stop the rot”. Although Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, share similarities in their ascent to power, the two men have little in common ideologically. Mr López Obrador is a traditional left-wing firebrand, albeit one who served as a relatively moderate mayor of Mexico City in 2000-05. Mr Bolsonaro, in contrast, is a right-wing law-and-order retired military officer, who has praised Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship and promised to be tough on crime. Despite Mr Bolsonaro’s tougher language, it is Mr López Obrador who could have a bigger impact on democracy—for good or bad. Mr López Obrador has a majority in both houses of Mexico’s Congress, making him the most powerful president since Mexico’s return to democracy in 2000.

Europe’s democratic malaise persists

There were substantial declines in the rankings for several important European countries, including Italy, Turkey and Russia. In Italy, plummeting confidence in traditional politics produced a resounding victory in the parliamentary election in March for the anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and the Eurosceptic anti-immigrant Lega, which formed a coalition government that has taken a hardline stance against immigration. Turkey’s score declined further in 2018 as the country consolidated amid weakening checks on the presidency. A presidential election in June, won by the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was held under a state of emergency and appeared mostly free, but largely unfair. Meanwhile, in Russia, a sharp decline in its score for civil liberties caused the country’s overall ranking to slip substantially.