Half of the world's democracies are in a state of decline amid worsening civil liberties and rule of law while already authoritarian governments are becoming more oppressive, an intergovernmental watchdog group has said.
In its annual report, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) said on Wednesday that democratic institutions were being undermined by issues ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to increasing distrust in the legitimacy of elections.
Several factors, such as Russia's offensive into Ukraine, rampant inflation, a looming global recession, climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic provide significant challenges.
"The world faces a multitude of crises, from the cost of living to risks of nuclear confrontation and the acceleration of the climate crisis," IDEA said in its 2022 study on the state of democracy, relying on data compiled since 1975.
"At the same time, we see global democracy in decline. It is a toxic mix."
IDEA bases its Global State of Democracy Indices on more than 100 variables including measures such as freedom of expression, and personal integrity and security, which are then grouped and aggregated into broader categories.
The report said the number of "backsliding" countries — those with the most severe democratic erosion — has never been so high and included Poland, Hungary and also the United States, with its problems of political polarisation, institutional dysfunction and threats to civil liberties.
"More than a quarter of the world's population now live in democratically backsliding countries. Together with those living in outright non-democratic regimes, they make up more than two-thirds of the world’s population," it said.
"More countries than ever are suffering from "democratic erosion" (decline in democratic quality), including in established democracies," it said.
"The number of countries undergoing 'democratic backsliding' (a more severe and deliberate kind of democratic erosion) has never been as high as in the last decade, and includes regional, geopolitical and economic powers such as Brazil, India and the United States."
In Europe, almost half of all democracies have suffered erosion in the last five years, it said. However, democratic values and institutions are increasingly seen as a fundamental bulwark against Russian aggression, especially in Ukraine, but also in most countries in the region.
"The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has shaken Europe, forcing the region to rethink security considerations and deal with impending food and energy crises," IDEA said.
It said democracy globally is under threat from challenges to the legitimacy of credible election results, restrictions on online freedoms and rights, intractable corruption, and the rise of extreme right parties.
"Never has there been such an urgency for democracies to respond, to show their citizens that they can forge new, innovative social contracts that bind people together rather than divide them," IDEA said.
The report found that authoritarian governments were engaging in ever more repression of dissent, and that more than two-thirds of the world's population now lived in "backsliding" democracies or under authoritarian rule.
Globally, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism was more than double the number moving toward democracy measured over the past six years.
On a positive note, Africa remained resilient in the face of instability. Countries including The Gambia, Niger and Zambia all saw improvements in democratic quality.