For the past six consecutive years, more countries have been experiencing declines in their democratic quality than have been improving.


Since International IDEA published the first Global State of Democracy (GSoD) in 2017, successive reports have tracked democratic trends across a tumultuous period. During this time, producing the GSoD Indices and accompanying reports has frequently been a process of documenting democratic decline and stagnation while picking out bright spots that could portend a reversal of fortunes. There have been dispiriting and tragic outbreaks of civil war or state collapse in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Myanmar and Sudan. The GSoD Indices have also documented the entrenchment of authoritarianism in Belarus, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Russia, Venezuela and elsewhere. Even the quality of established democracies has eroded, with executive powers trying to suppress countervailing institutions (CIs) so as to hoard power.

The complex array of problems facing the world includes climate change, migration, war and political violence, as well as growing levels of inequality despite many millions of people being pulled out of poverty. To that list is now added a completely new set of multipronged threats associated with the growing normalization of artificial intelligence.

For the past six consecutive years, more countries have been experiencing declines in their democratic quality than have been improving, with 2021 the worst year on record. As the worst of the pandemic waned, Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world, with its impact extending to the cost of living, food supplies and security. The war continues today, testing the resilience of democratic powers in the face of naked aggression.

The Global State of Democracy 2023 provides an update, looking primarily at changes between 2017 and 2022. But this Report also argues that countering democratic declines depends on innovative ways to bolster the institutions, movements and organizations that keep power distributed between the branches of government and ensure that people’s priorities are presented to and heard by decision makers. Specifically, this Report examines the role of CIs in what have been the most important recent global and regional advances and declines in key indicators of democracy.

Countervailing Institutions

CIs are the set of governmental and non-governmental institutions that balance the distribution of power between the branches of government and ensure that popular priorities regularly and consistently feature in decision making.

They encompass what are traditionally understood as ‘checks and balances’ within the formal structures of government (between the executive, legislative and judicial branches), but they go beyond this in important ways, focusing more on the balance of power between the people and the government than on power-sharing within government.

They also include myriad organizations, institutions and popular movements that act to protect equal access to and public control of decision making, such as civil society and other political institutions (ombuds offices, anti-corruption commissions, electoral management bodies or EMBs, ethics bodies, etc). While ‘checks and balances’ refer solely to the three branches of government (Gordon 1999), CIs include the organizations, groups and bodies that help control power from outside the structure of the government (Bulmer 2019).

Independence is critical. Threats to these institutions’ independence are the first signs of attacks on democratic integrity, irrespective of whether such institutions are formal (such as the judiciary or EMBs) or informal (such as civil society). Such threats may take the form of institutionalized coercion and power being held by one person (Western Asia), or state capture (Central Europe). A critical focal point is the courts, which are stepping in around the world as parliaments in many countries where there is a struggle to check executive power. The courts’ ability to maintain the balance of power in government, though, is highly dependent on judicial independence and the rule of law, both of which have experienced notable declines around the world.

Cross-institutional collaboration is also key. Institutions do not operate in a vacuum and even the most effective among them cannot claim sole credit for successes. They depend on the support of other institutions with different comparative strengths and skills. Key examples include: the joint efforts of civil society, the courts and the legislature (in some cases) to protect and further gender and sexual rights around the world; the collaboration between independent media, civil society and voters in Slovenian efforts to bolster the independence of its public broadcaster; and the work of civil society, free media and the anti-corruption commission in Malaysia in the fight against corruption there.

These issues are especially pressing as people struggle under the daily burden of the high cost of living, compounded by the threat of an international debt crisis that could risk the social programmes that so many people, especially the most vulnerable, depend on (Hamill-Stewart 2023; New York Times 2023).

Democracies and the CIs that are central to their functioning must rise to meet these new challenges all over the world. The CIs are the gears of democracy, with actors changing their speed as needed to maintain an equilibrium between power and voice in democratic states. Just as a bicycle rider shifts gears to more easily climb hills, ride faster or coast through a particularly peaceful stretch of road, democratic systems rely on various CIs exerting more or less influence, depending on the nature of the political terrain, to keeping democracy on a steady path forward.

Countervailing institutions


It is important to note that CIs exist in non-democratic states as well. In fact, research shows that, even in ancient monarchies, the public was able to act as a check on unjust rule by threatening to withhold labour or violently rebel (Satia 2023). As recently as late 2022, the Chinese Government eased a strict Covid-19 lockdown policy in response to widespread protests (Huang and Han 2022).

An important difference, however, is that CIs in non-democratic contexts may not be equally protected by law and therefore may not be able to be relied upon when needed. Government-operated non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) are an example of how groups that may appear to be independent, and thus able to check government power, are not always as they seem. GONGOs have been documented in all regions of the world (openDemocracy 2003; Matvienko 2021). They demonstrate the importance of undergirding the de jure and de facto independence of groups that are meant to be wholly separate from the government.

Key Indicators

The remainder of this report analyses the work of CIs through key indicators in the GSoD dataset, as follows:

  • the performance of legislatures is measured through scores for Effective Parliament;
  • the performance of the judiciary is measured through scores for Judicial Independence and/or Predictable Enforcement;
  • the integrity of elections and the performance of EMBs are measured through Credible Elections;
  • the work of fourth-branch institutions like anti-corruption and human rights commissions is measured through Absence of Corruption, Civil Liberties and Civic Engagement;
  • the work of the media is measured through Freedom of the Press; and
  • the work of civil society organizations is measured through Civil Society.