This morning I received the annual report on the state of democracy globally from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the DEMOCRACY INDEX 2020, just like I have become used to since the first report was published in 2006. Considering that the report covers developments during 2020, the key results presented in tables and graphs will normally not come as a surprise to readers who follow the ups and downs of democracy around the world. This year it did not come as a surprise that the COVID-19 has impacted negatively on democratic institutions, processes, and procedures. The title of IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH? makes sense.

Download report: Economist Democracy Index 2020

What is being measured?

There are several indexes circulating in the global democracy community, and this is not the place to argue why and how some are better than others from my point of view. But I have often used the Economist Index in lectures and workshops, because it offers a reasonably solid overview and snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide in 165 independent states and two territories. This covers almost the entire population of the world and the vast majority of the world’s states (microstates are excluded). The Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” or “authoritarian regime”. Like with other indexes, some of the statistical material is based on a mix of publicly available material (like the level of participation in elections) and perceptions (like what people feel about the public sector when asked by a polling institution). How accurate a picture of the world this mix of information allows us to get can be discussed.


Democracy has not been in robust health for some time. In 2020 its strength was further tested by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The average global score in 2020 fell from 5.44 in 2019 to 5.37. This is by far the worst global score since the index was first produced in 2006. This result represents a significant deterioration and came about largely—but not solely—because of government-imposed restrictions on individual freedoms and civil liberties that occurred across the globe in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The deterioration in the global score was driven by a decline in the average regional score everywhere in the world, but by especially large falls in the “authoritarian regime”-dominated regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa. 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. The other 13 stagnated.


I am sure it will come as no surprise to most readers that Denmark belongs to the top of the pack, being considered a full democracy. Of course, some might be disappointed that (once again) we are unable to beat our Nordic friends in Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland. The differences are not huge, but it is still interesting to note that Norway (scoring 9,81 out of 10) scores much higher on the functioning og government, political participation and political culture than Denmark (scoring 9,15 out of 10) does.

Compared with the US, Denmark is doing great. The US (scoring 7,92 out of 10) has continued the decline that started some years ago. This explains the light blue color for the US on the map, indicating that the country scores below 8 and above 6, thus qualifying to be labelled a flawed democracy. The report offers a fairly detailed picture of what has gone wrong in a country that most of us grew up knowing as being at the top of the democratic block.


Looking at the longer-term development for the five areas the index scrutinizes, it is rather frustrating to note that the global average moves downwards for four areas and only upwards for one area – political participation. Seen in isolation, this is of course great – more young people around the world have decided to let their voices be heard; participation in elections have increased in many countries, as we recently saw in the US presidential election; many have chosen to use social media to participate in public debate. But the downward trend in the other four areas also indicates that participation is at times not as productive as it could be, because it takes place in a very confrontational environment, where different groups seem to believe in very different facts about the situations a democracy need to manage.


In 2020, for the first time since 2010, the average regional scores worsened in every single region of the world. A decade ago, the cause of a similar democratic recession was disaffection with governments and a collapse of trust in institutions following the global economic and financial crisis. By contrast, the 2020 worldwide democratic regression was largely the result of the measures taken by governments to address the public health emergency, which has entailed the suspension of the civil liberties of entire populations for prolonged periods. Across the world, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime. As stated in the report:

“The willing surrender of fundamental freedoms by millions of people was perhaps one of the most remarkable occurrences in an extraordinary year.”

Across the world the pandemic led governments to take away their citizens’ freedoms and suspend civil liberties. Freedom of movement was taken away as border closures, international travel bans, and restrictions on domestic travel and the use of public transport. Governments invoked emergency powers or imposed states of emergency; dispensed with parliamentary oversight and checks and balances; introduced compulsory social distancing, lockdowns, curfews and mask wearing; confined people to their homes, except for limited activities; closed educational and cultural establishments; cancelled or postponed elections; prohibited public protests; censured dissenting voices and curtailed freedom of expression; and used the full force of the law to punish those who disobeyed.

How was this possible? Of course, in some countries (the US being one) there were many voices arguing that these government interventions were fundamentally undemocratic, moving their country in an authoritarian direction. These voices have also been heard in Denmark. But the report still offers the following conclusion:

“Most people simply concluded that preventing a catastrophic loss of life justified a temporary loss of freedom. While dealing with the impact of lockdowns on their own personal liberty, most were well aware of the other collateral damage inflicted by government lockdown policies, on livelihoods, health and education.”


While the key highlight is the impact of the pandemic on the way political systems manage, there are other highlights worth noting:

Asia is rising: We experience a shift eastward in the global balance of power. This is symbolized by Asia gaining three new “full democracies” (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and western Europe losing two (France and Portugal). – Taiwan is biggest winner: The star-performer this year, measured by the change in both its score and rank, is Taiwan, which was upgraded from a “flawed democracy” to a “full democracy”, after rising 20 places in the global ranking from 31st place to 11th. – Mali is a big loser: Measured by the decline in its score, Mali, in west Africa, was the worst-performing country in 2020, being downgraded from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime”. – A terrible year for Sub-Saharan Africa: 31 countries were downgraded, eight stagnated and only five improved their scores.


Finally! I used to follow the Economist index as well as other democracy indexes to see how the countries cooperating with my old workplace, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD), performed. It was useful to get a sense of how a country in general was performing, although the role of DIPD was primarily with the political parties. Based on the information on the DIPD website, Danish parties today cooperate with political parties in the following countries – mentioned in the order of their total democracy score:

South Africa (7.05), Colombia (7.04), Philippines (6.56), Ghana (6.50), Ukraine (5.81), Malawi (5.74), Bhutan (5.71), Georgia (5.31), Nepal (5.22), Tanzania (5.10), Kenya (5.05), Kenya (5.05), Uganda (4.94), Turkey (4.48), Burkina Faso (3,73), Nicaragua (3.60), Rwanda (3.10), eSwatini (3.08), Myanmar (3.04), Burundi (2.14).

This means that of the 20 countries, where DIPD is presently engaging with political parties and other institutions, only 4 belong to the group of flawed democracies, while the majority of 10 countries belong to the category of hybrid regimes. The remaining 6 countries are authoritarian in some form or other. Following the return to military rule in Myanmar, I would suggest that this country will score much lower in the 2021 Democracy Index report.