by Stavrina Houssou, Columnist

Democracy is not the norm, historically. Systems that mildly resemble what we would call a democracy today are significantly rare in the overall human history, and rarer than one would think, during our contemporary history. Over the ages, monarchical or empyreal systems constitute the most common and -maybe surprisingly- the most long-lasting systems of governance any civilization has ever experienced. But for all intents and purposes, notions such as “Freedom”, “Representation”, “Self-determination”, that have been romanticized and idolized by people of all eras and geographic locations, are inextricably linked with Democracy’s greatest virtue; the highest possible insurance of the aforementioned -especially when compared to more authoritarian regimes.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for the year 2020, almost 70% of countries displayed a decline in their overall “democratic” score. That was a result of a number of factors, including COVID-19 lockdowns and strict impromptu measures that have been taken by governments worldwide. Consequently, the global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006 to 5,66/10.

After the end of the Cold War, many proceeded to declare the era as “the end of history”, addressing the irreversible victory of Western Democracy over all other types of regimes. Some thirty years later: wars and invasions- featuring amongst others democratic states-, questionable Intelligence operations, a profound global Economic Crisis, authoritarian states in the east bringing back vintage practices as torture and concentration camps, while western  civil society is boiling, are only a few of “the end of history’s” greatest moments. Could it be that Democracy is not the absolute, everlasting “contract”, which people viewed it as in the 1990’s?

The troubles that Democracy has faced in recent years have led many, ill-diagnose the symptoms of the until-recently “golden” form of governance and proceed to declare it, in its early deathbed. Without being, neither willfully blind nor overreacting nihilists, we can relatively safely deduce that what Democracy is currently facing is nothing else rather than a very common, but very alarming, recession. And recessions, more often than not, are overcome. That however, is not an entitlement, rather than a hard-earned right, because history has categorically not ended.

To proceed with an analysis of the findings of the Democracy Index 2020, it is imperative to firstly explain the five criteria that most democracy-grading indexes agree upon: pluralism & fair electoral process, functioning of governance, political participation, civil liberties and political culture. 

Having said that, a full democracy is a political system where there is legitimate, efficient governance, operating with appropriate checks and balances and a truly independent judiciary system, whose decisions are applied normally. In such environments there is protected pluralism and a sufficient amount of independent media, as well as fair, unprejudiced representation. Furthermore, every civilian enjoys civil liberties and fully respects fundamental political rights, while being surrounded by a fitting culture that promotes and ensures all of the above. That is a defining characteristic. A strong democratic culture, presupposes that a large portion of the population understand, value and protect their political environment. That, in its turn, promotes the individual responsibility of the great majority of the population to act accordingly to their civilian responsibilities. That is no small thing. 

Moving on, we must proceed to describe the other three systems in which the Democracy Index categorizes states. Firstly, there are flawed democracies; systems were fundamental democratic values and electoral processes are valid, but there are organic issues which reduce the overall efficiency of the model such as, limited freedom in the media, lower participation rates and most often than not, underdeveloped political culture. They are still considered democracies, although their democratic integration varies, with many practical consequences. Secondly, there are the so-called hybrid regimes, which constitute systems where electoral fraud is a norm, creating a state with no fair rule of law, judiciary and media dependent on political components, and more often than not, oppression of civil liberties and human rights. Lastly, authoritarian regimes exist in nations where there are systems resembling dictatorships or autocratic monarchies. There, political pluralism has been abolished or severely limited; if elections are held they are not fair or free; civil liberties are violated regularly; media is state owned or at least completely controlled, as is the judiciary

With all the aforementioned, what the last Index indicated is truly disturbing. Of the 167 countries, the Index takes into account, 56 of them are authoritarian regimes and primarily concern Asia, Africa and the Middle East. China, the financial centre of the world with a population of over one billion people, marks as the 151th in said category. What is more, 38 countries are categorized as hybrid regimes -with our neighbor, Turkey marking as the 104th, almost six spots before it passes the “doorstep” of the full on authoritarian regimes. Moving on, the other disappointing point is the overwhelming number of 51 countries are characterized as flawed democracies, 19 of which are member states of the EU, including Greece the “birthplace” of democracy in the 37th position. Only 22 are considered full democracies, with Norway as the traditional first place holder and including countries such as Sweden, Canada tying with Denmark, New Zealand etc.  

Even though population density suggests most people live under democratic regimes, the rising or authoritarian rule as well as quality decline of democratic performance, are enough to create valid concerns. Besides, the study showcases that although political participation has risen since 2008, civil liberties, the functioning of government, electoral process and pluralism have receded. In terms of functioning of government, the elements that led to its downgrading in the ranking system were questions linked to “popular perceptions of control; public confidence in government; and public confidence in political parties”.  The latest report notes a trend towards authoritarian rule in the non-OECD regions (such as Colombia, Chile, Latvia, Estonia etc), but also suggests a much greater concern on the growing democratic deficit in the developed world.

The pandemic certainly played a vital role to the eruption of social powers as well as the expression of certain states’ practices. But we cannot suppose that it did anything more than that. It applied pressures in certain key areas of states, – such as the healthcare system and a government’s respect and trustworthiness- and consequently, strong democratic systems persevered and problematic ones elapsed to social disturbance and higher death tolls. It is indicative that, despite 2019 being characterized as “The year of mass protesting” and with the COVID-19 crisis in full effect, in 2020 protesting and mass uprisings were only reinforced. That was particularly obvious in flawed democracies, as the USA, India and Greece, all of which faced uprisings for policy-opposing reasons. Moreover, what was rather doubt-inducing for our Western view of democratic superiority, was watching autocratic states “battling” the virus and actually winning compared to some of their democratic counterparts. 

It is imperative to realize anew that people are an intrinsic part of the democratic system; not in theory, not in our declarations or our social media activity, but in real, everyday life. In a nutshell, the 2020 Index and its subsequent link to the pandemic, gave us a wake-up call to how fragile our rights truly are. Even worse, having been accustomed to the full spectrum of democratic privileges and uninterrupted peace, our complete neglect of our civilian duties and awareness, left our democratic rule not as familiar as we would be comfortable with. Lack of knowledge and attention concerning our surroundings, often leads to that; imagining better circumstances and then proceeding to be violently disappointed and frustrated when one is hit by the realization of their unrealistic nature. 

It is quite cliché but, reminding ourselves basic democratic principles could mean the adverse impact of our neglect might not be utterly devastating. In Nelson Mandela’s words; “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”. As it has always been, Democracy’s greatest flaw is its greatest defender: the individual’s capacity to choose what is worthy of respect and protection.