Emboldened by the COVID-19 pandemic, autocrats are strengthening their grip around the world as democracy steadily loses ground.


If you live in a country fully committed to democratic freedoms, count yourself a member of a small minority: just 8.4% of the world’s population.

More than four times as many are ruled by autocrats who trample civil liberties and do not tolerate dissent.

These sobering statistics are drawn from a 70-page report by the Economist Intelligence Unit on the state of democracy around the world. The organisation’s Democracy Index 2020 is one of two recently-published annual reports that have tracked a steady decline of democracy since 2006.

The other is from Freedom House, a Washington-based research group primarily funded by the U.S. government.

Using slightly different methodologies, the two organizations come to the same conclusion: Democracy is under siege and autocrats are in the ascendance.

COVID-19 has emboldened autocrats.

“Across the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime),” the Democracy Index said.

It puts part of the blame on the coronavirus pandemic, which has cleared the way for autocratic-leaning leaders to widen their powers and to curb freedoms to prevent the spread of disease.

Freedom House echoed the gloomy assessment.

As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” This marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, the group said.

Coups by stealth threaten democracy.

No early end is in sight for what political scientists call a democratic recession. That became evident with a military coup in Myanmar on February 1, a day before democratically elected members of the country’s ruling party were due to be sworn into office.

In Myanmar, too, the coronavirus served as a pretext for anti-democratic action: breaching COVID-19 restrictions was among the reasons the military gave for arresting the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Win Myint.

Military coups on the pattern of the one in Myanmar—armoured vehicles and soldiers in the streets, the radio broadcasting martial music, the internet shut down—have been relatively rare in the past few decades. What appears more threatening to the future of democracy are coups by stealth, the gradual undermining of democratic institutions.

If this is left unchecked by alert citizens, activists and democracy-promoting social media influencers, the result can be what the American political scientist Yascha Mounk calls “pseudo-democracies,” or leadership by elected authoritarians. How they subvert democratic values is laid out in an incisive analysis entitled “How Democracies Die.”

Prompted by the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and written by Harvard professors of Government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the book explains why they and other political scientists fear for the future of democracy.

Democracy can end with a whimper and not, as in the Myanmar coup, with a bang, they write.

“For many citizens, the assault on democracy may at first be imperceptible,” they said. “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps. Each individual step seems minor.” Yet the insidious steps end up weakening institutions such as the judiciary, the press and long-standing political norms.

“To better understand how elected autocrats subtly undermine institutions, it’s helpful to imagine a soccer game. To consolidate power, would-be authoritarians must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage.”

In the eyes of Trump critics, the former U.S. president had considerable success in “capturing referees” by tilting the balance in the Supreme Court towards conservative judges, by choosing an attorney general who promoted his agenda, by declaring the press “enemies of the people” and by undermining faith in America’s electoral system.

Only 23 full democracies

In Europe, the leaders of Poland and Hungary have used similar tactics to establish illiberal democracies, where elections are held but citizens lack civil liberties and are cut off from political decision-making.

The EIU’s Democracy Index divides the 167 countries it examined into four categories—full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes—and ranks them according to electoral process and pluralism, governance, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.

The report rates just 23 countries as full democracies. Norway ranks the highest, followed by Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Ireland and Australia. China, the world’s most populous country, ranks close to the bottom of authoritarian regimes, lower even than Russia.

Proponents of democracy say China and Russia are prime examples of authoritarian rule. But as Stanford political sociologist Larry Diamond, a leading scholar in democracy studies, put it: “China, Russia and their admirers are making headway with a new global narrative, hailing strongman rule—not government by the people—as the way forward in difficult times.”

Most Chinese are satisfied with the Beijing government.

Officials of both countries pointed with glee to the chaotic events in Washington on January 6 when an angry crowd of Trump followers stormed the Capitol—the seat of the federal legislature—to try to overturn the result of the 2020 election which Trump lost to Joe Biden.

Five people died in the assault, which dented America’s image as a bastion of democracy. It bolstered the Chinese government’s portrayal of its system of central control as superior to democracy.

Inside China, that message has fallen on receptive ears. The government has won praise for its handling of the pandemic, which state media have contrasted with the confused and erratic approach of the Trump administration to fighting the virus in the United States.

A series of online surveys conducted by the China Data Lab of the University of California, San Diego, found a “remarkable growth of favorable opinions of the Chinese government and declines in favorable opinions of the U.S.” A long-term study by Harvard University’s Ash Center also found broad levels of satisfaction with the Beijing government.

All of this shows that the oft-quoted assessment of democracy by Winston Churchill, a great statesman of the 20th Century, is not universally shared around the globe: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. How would you classify the country you live in?
  2. Name a country where strongman rule appears effective?
  3. What do you think is essential for democracy to function?

Bernd Debusmann began his international career with Reuters in his native Germany and then moved to postings in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the United States. For years, he covered mostly conflict and war and reported from more than 100 countries. He was shot twice in the course of his work: once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria. He now writes from Washington on international affairs.

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Health and WellnessDemocracy is under siege as autocrats advance amid COVID-19