Nordic countries have topped the list of this year’s Democracy Index 2017, taking four out of five of the top spots. Norway came out top, closely followed by Iceland and Sweden.
New Zealand was the only non-Nordic country to feature in the top 5, building on its strong democratic history, having been the first country in the world to allow women to vote in 1893.
Gambia was given a special mention for being a “star performer” and was upgraded from being an “authoritarian regime” to a “hybrid regime”. It rose rapidly up the rankings after its first ever democratic transfer of power and the ousting of its long-standing dictator President Yahya Jammeh.
However, despite these highlights, the overall report is not positive about the world’s progress towards creating freer and fairer societies.
In fact, the index shows the worst decline in global democracy since the financial crisis of 2010-11, with freedom of expression being of particular concern.
The report looks at various democratic measures in more than 165 states and then classifies each country as full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime.
Although almost half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, only 4.5% reside in a full democracy. That is down from 8.9% in 2015, largely due to the US being demoted from a full democracy to a flawed democracy.
The US’s declining status is primarily due to a significant fall in people’s trust in the functioning of public institutions, a trend that was well established before the election of President Donald Trump. Other Western countries to fall into the “flawed democracy” category include France and Italy.
Meanwhile around one-third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule.
Various aspects of a democracy are assessed, including each country’s electoral process, civil liberties the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.
The lack of political participation has been especially thorny for developed countries in recent years, and a survey by Pew Research revealed a disjuncture between the high levels of public support for democracy across the globe and deep popular disappointment with the functioning of those democratic systems.
That, in turn, has led to the rise of populism and the ousting of a number of mainstream parties across Europe.
But while 2016 was notable for the rise of the populist parties, 2017 was defined by a backlash against populism, the report notes.
Perhaps that backlash might prompt a greater commitment to political participation in 2018 and see countries scoring more highly on the Democracy Index once again.