Global State of Democracy Indices data reveal that democratic performance around the world remains steady, and that—despite worrying declines in some areas—the democratic gains made between the 1970s and the 2010s have not been erased. Global averages across all categories remain in the mid-range, with Participation scores at the higher end and Rule of Law scores at the lower end.
Some countries’ advances in Absence of Corruption in 2022 were particularly encouraging.
A deep-dive into the Rule of Law category sheds light on important lessons for the future of democracy. Rule of Law has experienced significant variation in the factors that it is made up of, with contraction and expansion seen across all of them and in all regions. In many cases, legislatures have proven unable to check the executive by exercising oversight. In some cases, they have also failed to carry out the work related to driving policy agendas forward.
Despite difficulties and even threats, however, courts and fourth-branch institutions have stepped in to fill that space in several instances. Maintaining and growing the independence of these institutions is of critical importance going forward, especially in the face of increasing state capture around the world.
These important countervailing institutions are not alone, however, nor should they act alone. Cross-institutional collaboration is vital, with mutual support helping to build and protect a context for democratic reform and progress. Key illustrations of this kind of cooperation include: the joint efforts of civil society, the courts and the legislature to protect and further gender and sexual rights in countries as diverse as Finland, India and Mexico; the collaboration between independent media, civil society and voters in Slovenia’s efforts to bolster the independence of its public broadcaster and the work of civil society; and free media and the anti-corruption commission in Malaysia in the fight against corruption there. Part of this ‘outside’ pressure could come from regional bodies, which have thus far been largely limited to setting norms and standards of governance. More political will is needed for these bodies to play meaningful roles as countervailing institutions.
Public mobilization is also crucial and the data suggest a continuing trend towards interested and enthusiastic participation. People continue to make their voices heard, taking to the streets and to social media to protest against economic declines, restrictions on rights, and policies they consider to be unfair and unrepresentative.
Unfortunately, their efforts are often hampered by governments that are threatened by such actions. Indeed, there have been continuing declines in Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, and in Personal Integrity and Security around the world. Finding new and innovative ways for people to engage will be the key to addressing the challenges ahead.
The gears of democracy continue to turn, although it may be that the centre of democratic machinery is shifting away from the traditional core institutions of representation to other bodies, organizations and movements. It is critical for stakeholders to consider how this shifting centre has an impact on their own decision making, especially as these new bodies do not necessarily have the support or protection necessary for them to continue in their roles.
People must remain in charge of the levers that activate and steer democracy in the direction of their will. It is up to all of us to protect and defend that public control that lies at the heart of any democratic system.