2024: Navigating the Decline of Global Democracy

Long read.
Words by Ksenia Karpova

The year 2024 is set to be one of the most significant years for democracy in global history. More than 4 billion people will vote in parliamentary and legislative elections.

According to The Guardian, over 80 nations will participate in these pivotal elections. However, estimates vary depending on the source and methodology. For instance, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) forecasts 99 elections, while Anchor Change predicts 88 elections in 82 countries using one approach and 109 using another. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) offers insights into elections across more than 60 countries, and The Economist anticipates elections in 76 countries, including local elections in places like Turkey and Brazil.

Despite these differing numbers, one thing is certain: the outcomes of these elections will shape the lives of more than half the world’s population, highlighting the critical role of their choice.

Yet, “Top Risks,” Eurasia Group’s annual forecast, has named 2024 the “Voldemort of years”: the annus horribilis, the year that must not be named.

With wars, autocratic regimes, and the far-right appeal dominating foreign affairs, the health of global democracy is fading more than ever. Leading global experts on political trends have issued urgent warnings about a looming crisis.

Part 1

The State of Global Democracy

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2023 revealed a concerning trend: Less than 8% of the world’s population live in a full democracy, while almost 40% live under authoritarian rule—a share that has been creeping up in recent years. The increasing incidence of violent conflict has badly dented the global democracy score and prevented recovery after the pandemic years of 2020-22.

The Democracy Index evaluates the state of democracy across 167 countries and two territories using a 0-10 scale. This Index assesses five key areas: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. High scores close to 10 denote “Full democracies,” while scores near 0 indicate “Authoritarian regimes.

Image: EIU report, Democracy Index 2023

“Three years after the covid-19 pandemic, which led to a rollback of freedoms around the globe, the results for 2023 point to a continuing democratic malaise and lack of forward momentum. Only 32 countries improved their index score in 2023, while 68 countries registered a decline. The scores for 67 countries stayed the same, painting a global picture of stagnation and regression. Most of the regression globally occurred among non-democracies, as “authoritarian regimes” became more entrenched and countries classified as “hybrid regimes” struggled to democratise.”

Joan Hoey, Editor of EIU’s Democracy Index REPORT

In the global spectrum, the contrasts couldn’t be starker. At the pinnacle of the Democracy Index for 2023, Norway reigns with a score of 9.81. Right behind it, New Zealand stands with a score of 9.61. Both countries are associated with strong electoral processes and an emphasis on social welfare. Norway’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for September 2025 and is yet to show the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war in Gaza, and the upcoming European Parliament elections on the increase in support for right-wing populists.

Conversely, at the very bottom of the Democracy scale, Afghanistan and Myanmar portray a harsh truth. Afghanistan, with a democracy score of just 0.26, faces severe challenges due to almost non-existent electoral processes and minimal civil liberties, all compounded by ongoing conflicts and governance issues. Myanmar is not far ahead, scoring only 0.85, as it grapples with military dominance and a significant suppression of civil rights.

On the brighter side, Greece was one of only four countries worldwide to achieve an upgraded classification, moving from a “flawed democracy” to a “full democracy” due to ongoing efforts by Greek authorities to enable diaspora voting and legalizing same-sex marriage despite the strong opposition from the church.

In contrast, Chile fell to the “flawed democracy” category, maintaining the overall number of “full democracies.” Additionally, Papua New Guinea and Paraguay advanced from “hybrid regimes” to “flawed democracies,” while Angola improved from an “authoritarian” regime to a “hybrid regime.”

From a broader regional standpoint, Western Europe, home to 15 of the world’s 24 “full democracies,” was the only region to see an improvement in its average score, rising from 8.36 in 2022 to 8.37 in 2023. This increase allowed it to surpass North America (US and Canada), which dropped from 8.37 to 8.27, as the highest-ranked region. The Middle East and North Africa (declining to 3.23 from 3.34) and Sub-Saharan Africa (falling to 4.04 from 4.14) were the poorest performers, with Mauritius (8.14) being the sole “full democracy” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Latin America and the Caribbean saw their eighth consecutive year of democratic decline, with their average score decreasing from 5.79 in 2022 to 5.68 in 2023. Central America experienced the most significant regression within this region, with notable declines in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. However, Costa Rica, maintaining a high score of 8.29 since 2022, remains an exception, along with Uruguay, as the only “full democracies” in Latin America.

In Asia and Australasia, which includes five “full democracies” (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan), the average score decreased from 5.46 to 5.41. Eastern Europe and Central Asia also saw a decline, with their average score dropping from 5.39 to 5.37.

Another report from Civicus Monitor, presented by Lysa John, Secretary General of the Civicus, during her speech at the Norad Conference 2024, joins in painting a grim picture: over 2.4 billion people worldwide live under regimes that systematically suppress dissent, leaving only 2% of the global population with entirely unimpaired rights of association, demonstration, and free speech. Not that surprising, if we consider that 40% live under authoritarian rule.

Photo: Lysa John presenting the Civicus Monitor’s Rights Reversed Report at the NORAD conference in Oslo on February 1st 2024

To compare civic spaces worldwide and monitor changes over time, the Civicus Monitor assesses and assigns ratings to 198 countries and territories. Each country is categorized into one of five levels—open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed, and closed—based on how well it respects and protects key civic freedoms.

In a disturbing trend over the last five years, established European democracies known for robust institutions have not been immune to the global decline in civic freedoms, demonstrating issues typically seen in nations marked by political instability and historical repression.

 Image: Civicus Monitor – Rights Reversed 2019 – 2023

Since the inception of the Civicus Monitor’s global tracking of civic space conditions, Europe and Central Asia have consistently housed the largest proportion of populations enjoying the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. In 2019, this region stood out as the only one where the majority—58.3% of its inhabitants—lived in nations rated as open or narrowed, with nearly 20% residing in countries classified as open.

Fast forward five years, and these numbers have seen a significant drop; now, just over 10% live in open countries. Today, 54.3% of the region’s population find themselves in nations where civic spaces are obstructed, repressed, or outright closed, signaling a worrying contraction of civil liberties.

“Europeans should not take their civil freedoms for granted, they are changing much faster than we know,” said John.

Image: Civicus Monitor – Rights Reversed 2019 – 2023

Notably, four European Union (EU) countries—Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, and Slovenia—were downgraded from open to narrowed by 2023. This contraction is closely associated with increasing limitations on the right to protest and the criminalization of civil society activists.

Between 2022 and 2023, a particularly troubling trend emerged in the EU as governments increasingly cracked down on the climate movement.

Environmental activists, including Norway’s Fosen campaigners protesting wind farm developments, have faced arrests and intimidation across several nations. In Norway, the activists were forcibly removed from the parliament by the police.

Norway has a longstanding history of discrimination against the Sámi people. In June 2023, the Commission to investigate the Norwegianization Policy and Injustice against the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns released a comprehensive report detailing the Norwegian government’s historic efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples and minority populations. The report proposed steps for the government to foster Indigenous cultures and acknowledge the history of the Norwegianization policy.

Tensions between the Norwegian government and the Sámi have been escalating for years. In 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that the Fosen peninsula wind developments violated Sámi cultural rights. However, the government’s inaction following the ruling led to significant unrest. By 2023, protests led by Sámi youth were frequent, with the initial protest in February marking 500 days of government inaction.

Throughout the year, Sámi protesters intensified their efforts, culminating in the closure of 10 government ministries. This forced the Norwegian government to issue an apology to the affected reindeer herders and acknowledge its violation of their human rights. Despite these acknowledgments, the windmills remained operational at the end of 2023. However, the government reached a compensation deal with one of the two affected reindeer herding communities in December.

These developments are part of a broader pattern of conflict between the Norwegian government and the Sámi people. In previous years, there have been numerous instances of protests and legal battles over land rights and cultural preservation. The ongoing disputes underscore the complex and often fraught relationship between environmental policies, Indigenous rights, and government actions in Norway.

The situation in Germany is even more severe, where the Letzte Generation movement is under intense scrutiny. Known for their bold civil actions, such as blocking traffic and staging protests at airports and museums, these activists are now being investigated for allegedly forming a criminal organization.

The criminalization of humanitarian support is a growing concern, with civil society organizations (CSOs) and activists aiding migrants and refugees facing criminal charges under anti-money-laundering and counter-terrorism laws in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Additionally, the UK experienced a downgrade from narrowed to obstructed in 2023 following new laws that significantly increase police authority and restrict protest rights, challenging its status as a beacon of democracy.

Across the globe, the battle for civic freedoms is being waged with varying degrees of intensity and success, painting a complex and dynamic portrait of human rights today.

In the Americas, the landscape of liberty is marred by a stark decline. Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua stand out as nations where authoritarian grips tighten, severely constricting the air of freedom once breathed by their citizens. These countries, known for their stringent control over civic activities, continue to push the boundaries of repression, setting a somber tone for the region.

Targeted both by state and non-state actors worldwide, environmental activists now confront official measures to criminalize their protests and activities. Critical areas include Europe and the Americas, where environmental defenders are often prosecuted, threatened, or even murdered (current cases in Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico).

Image: Civicus Monitor – Rights Reversed 2019 – 2023

Moving to Asia and the Pacific, the scene shifts but the script remains distressingly similar. Here, authoritarian regimes wield repressive laws like bludgeons to silence any form of dissent and clamp down on civil society’s efforts to organize. Activists and organizations face an uphill battle against an ever-encroaching state apparatus, intent on quashing opposition to maintain control. In the Philippines, new anti-terrorism legislation has been used to tag civil society organizations and activists as “terrorists,” effectively criminalizing their advocacy work and leading to arrests and long-term detentions without trial.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is no stranger to turbulence, and its challenges with maintaining open civic spaces are exacerbated by ongoing political instability and conflict. Governments across MENA have doubled down on their efforts to monitor, control, and often suppress their populations, increasing surveillance, muzzling the press, and eroding the foundations of justice. In Egypt, the situation is particularly grim, with the government employing an extensive surveillance network to monitor activists and journalists, coupled with harsh penalties for those who are found to criticize the state, including lengthy prison sentences.

In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa presents contrasting narratives. While some countries in this region are making commendable progress towards expanding civic spaces and bolstering democratic governance, others find themselves backsliding into turmoil and repression. This dichotomy highlights the unpredictable journey of civic freedoms in an area as diverse as it is vast. Kenya, for example, shows a more positive trend, with recent legislative reforms aimed at enhancing transparency and reducing corruption, which have opened up spaces for civil society to engage more effectively with the government on public policy issues.

LGBTQI+ Individualsin Africa encounter strong repression and discrimination. The problems are simply innumerable, ranging from legal restrictions – such as those in Uganda and Malawi – to the forced closure of community centers as happened in Ghana. In many African societies today, same-sex relations are against the law, so sources of LGBTQI+ information are extremely limited.


Part 2

The Road Ahead

“Civil society plays a fundamental role in shaping a future that, today more than ever, needs multilateral approaches to ensure an inclusive, sustainable, and safe society for all. As a former civil society leader in my own country, Sierra Leone, I personally know the importance of the critical role civil society plays in representing and advancing the aspirations of people across countries, regions, continents, and around the world. I, therefore, encourage everyone to make their voice heard and collaborate towards meaningful outcomes for the more vulnerable populations of the world,” saidZainab Hawa Bangura, Under-Secretary-General and Director-General, UNON at the UN Civil Society Conference in Support of the Summit of the Future, held in Nairobi on the 9th of May. 

Photo: Tirus Wainaina, UNIS Nairobi

Her words resonate deeply as we consider the broader global context.

Each of the regions tells a part of the story of civic freedoms—a story of struggle, resilience, and the undying hope for a world where freedom is not just a privilege but a right.

Despite the overarching shadow of repression in the report, there are glimmers of resilience and progress that cannot be overlooked.  As John pointed out in her Norad speech: “The past five years have seen the adoption of several national human rights laws and action plans”.

Countries like Slovakia, Indonesia, and Taiwan have shown how significant progress can be achieved even under challenging conditions. In Slovakia, the enhancement of legal frameworks has been pivotal in creating a safer environment for civil rights activities. The government’s efforts to collaborate closely with civil society organizations have ensured that these groups’ voices are integral to policy-making processes, fostering a more inclusive and democratic society.

In Indonesia, establishing platforms for inclusive dialogue between the government and various civil society groups, including marginalized communities, has been critical in resolving conflicts and advancing human rights. The decentralization of governance has empowered local communities, enhancing transparency and accountability by allowing more active participation in decision-making processes.

Taiwan stands out as a beacon of civic freedom in Asia, maintaining high levels of press freedom, which allows journalists to operate without undue restrictions. Taiwanese authorities have also created safe environments for protests and assemblies, ensuring that citizens can express their views and demand changes without fear of repression. Additionally, Taiwan’s robust legal protections for human rights defenders and activists have ensured their safety and ability to carry out their work without harassment.

These best practices from Slovakia, Indonesia, and Taiwan illustrate how targeted efforts and inclusive policies can enhance civic freedoms and support the critical work of civil society organizations and activists. They demonstrate that, even in the face of significant challenges, it is possible to foster a more inclusive and democratic society, setting an example for other nations worldwide

Remarkably, even in nations where the scope for civil society is severely constricted, a robust organization emerges, particularly among the youth. It’s profoundly inspiring to see individuals, especially young people, like Nisreen Elsaim from Sudan or Payu Boonsophon, from Thailand, risking their lives to champion causes that resonate with the core of human rights.

“We have done it for centuries, against apartheid, the slave trade, and caste systems, for human dignity and freedoms. No one will ever be able to erase this from people’s heads and minds, because democracy and freedom are so deeply rooted in us, regardless of where we were born,” said Lysa John

Fighting against human rights abuses is a dangerous line of work even without the added burden of being a woman. In countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, even though dangers lurk at every turn for anyone who breaks these social taboos with an initiative of their own, women continue to take on very important tasks in social movements despite being threatened, arrested, or given stiff prison terms for their activism.

Moreover, these women often face unique challenges, including societal backlash, limited access to resources, and physical violence. Yet, their contributions are indispensable. They bring critical issues to the forefront, such as gender-based violence, education for girls, and reproductive rights, which might otherwise be overlooked in broader human rights campaigns. Their activism also fosters a sense of community and empowerment among other women, encouraging more to join the fight for justice.

In addition to these localized efforts, many women activists are forging international alliances, leveraging global platforms to amplify their voices, and highlight the injustices they face. Social media has become a powerful tool in this regard, allowing them to bypass traditional barriers to communication and directly engage with a global audience. This interconnectedness has not only increased the visibility of their struggles but has also facilitated the exchange of ideas and strategies across borders, strengthening the global human rights movement.

Narges Mohammadi, Zeynab Jalalian, Nasrin Sotoudeh: the sacrifices made by these women are profound, often involving personal and professional risks. Yet, their unwavering dedication continues to inspire and mobilize others around the world. Their stories are a powerful reminder that the fight for human rights is far from over, and that every voice raised in protest adds to the collective push towards a more just and equitable world.

Solutions We Need

As global democracy faces increasing threats, EUI Democracy Index and the Civicus Monitor provide a roadmap for reversing this troubling trend. These reports emphasize that a multifaceted approach is crucial for strengthening democratic resilience and safeguarding civic space.

  • Strengthen Civic Space

Protecting the rights to free speech, association, and peaceful assembly is fundamental. Countries should aim to improve their civic space scores by ensuring these freedoms are upheld. This requires robust legal frameworks and the enforcement of protections for activists and journalists who often face harassment and violence​​​​.

In Gambia, civil society played a crucial role in the adoption of the Access to Information Bill by the National Assembly in 2021. This was a result of close collaboration between civil society and government departments

  • Balance Public Health and Freedom

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the delicate balance between safeguarding public health and preserving personal freedoms. Future responses to such crises must not infringe on democratic principles. Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that emergency measures are transparent, proportionate, and time-bound​​.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand used emergency decrees to ban protests. Such measures were lifted by September 2022, showing a transition towards balancing public health needs and personal freedoms.

  • Enhance Legal Protections for Human Rights Defenders

Governments need to enact and enforce laws that protect human rights defenders (HRDs) from harassment and violence. Establishing effective national protection mechanisms that respond to the needs of those at risk is crucial​​.

In Mongolia, the passage of a protection law for HRDs in 2021 was a major victory for the country’s civil society, ensuring the right to association and protecting activists from harassment​.

  • Promote Freedom of Expression and Information

Repealing laws that criminalize free speech and ensuring that any restrictions are in line with international standards is essential. Governments should also ensure reliable internet access and address censorship to allow the free flow of information​​.

In Bahrain, activist Nabeel Rajab’s conditional release from prison in 2020 came after years of civil society advocacy among diplomats and through raising awareness in the media​​.

  • Ensure Accountability for Abuses

Conducting independent, prompt, and impartial investigations into all cases of attacks on HRDs and journalists is necessary to ensure accountability. Those responsible for such attacks must be brought to justice to deter future violations​​.

In India, the Supreme Court ordered an independent inquiry into whether the government used Pegasus surveillance software to spy illegally on activists, journalists, and political opponents. This case was driven by civil society advocacy​.

  • Support and Fund Civil Society

Long-term, unrestricted funding for civil society organizations (CSOs) is vital, especially in countries with shrinking civic spaces. Support should be tailored to emerging social movements and youth activists, ensuring they have the resources and safety to continue their work​​.

Argentina’s feminist movements organized mass protests, leading to the legalization of abortion in December 2020. This landmark victory resulted from decades of advocacy and mobilization by civil society​​.

  • International Solidarity and Advocacy

Engaging in international campaigns to support activists and raise awareness of civic space violations can amplify local voices. Collaboration at the international level provides crucial support and visibility for those under pressure​​.

Human rights groups played a key role in bringing the authorities in Myanmar before the International Court of Justice for violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

  • Reinforce Democratic Institutions and Processes

Strengthening the integrity of electoral processes and ensuring that democratic institutions are transparent, accountable, and representative is essential. This includes addressing political participation to ensure all citizens have a voice in governance​​.

The Democracy Index highlights that Canada, despite its challenges, continues to function as a “full democracy” with mechanisms in place to address democratic deficits and engage in political reforms​​.

  • Combat Corruption and Improve Governance

Implementing robust anti-corruption measures and promoting good governance practices are critical for building public trust and ensuring that government actions serve the public interest​​.

The EUI report mentions the importance of robust anti-corruption measures. For instance, Romania has seen several positive legislative developments following successful civil society advocacy​​.

  • Address Socioeconomic Inequalities

Reducing socioeconomic disparities is crucial for maintaining democratic stability. Ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities helps build a more inclusive society​​.

Mass protests in Sri Lanka in 2022 led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presided over a climate of repression against activists, journalists, and critics. These protests were driven by widespread socioeconomic discontent.

We have entered a year marked by significant challenges, yet there is hope in these difficult times that will inspire the best in us.

2024 is a crucial wake-up call.