Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 14, No. 4, April 2018
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Democracy in Retreat

Keith Zeff

Originally published by
Fifty Years Perspective, 11 March 2018


The 2017 Democracy Index of 167 countries records
the worst decline in global democracy in years.

In the 10th edition, the 2017 Democracy Index of 167 countries records the worst decline in global democracy in years. Compared to their 2016 scores, 89 countries experienced a decline in their total scores, compared to 27 that recorded improvements, while 51 remained unchanged.

The survey is conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit. It ranks each country on 60 indicators, such as: Is there universal suffrage for all adults? Is the process of financing political parties transparent and generally accepted? Is there freedom of expression and protest? Is the legislature the supreme political body, with a clear supremacy over other branches of government? Each indicator is worth one point. Indicators answered by Yes or No receive one point or no points. Many indicators provide for grey areas where a half point can be assigned in accordance with detailed guidelines.

Total scores are converted to a 0 to 10 scale, and each country’s score places it within one of four types of regimes: Full democracies; Flawed democracies; Hybrid regimes; Authoritarian regimes. Since the first survey 12 years ago, the first and fourth types in 2017 include fewer countries, while the middle two types have more countries:

In 2006 In 2017
Full democracies     26     19
Flawed democracies     54     57
Hybrid regimes     33     39
Authoritarian regimes     54     52

The trend since the first Democracy Index in 2006 is described as a “democracy recession,” affecting even some of the older western democracies. Its main manifestations are:

  • declining popular participation in elections and politics
  • weaknesses in the functioning of government
  • declining trust in institutions
  • dwindling appeal of mainstream representative parties
  • growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies
  • widening gap between political elites and electorates
  • decline in media freedoms
  • erosion of civil liberties, including curbs on free speech

Western European democracies dominate the list of the highest-ranked democracies in 2017. The top ten democracies, in order, are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Australia, Finland and Switzerland. Of the 19 democracies considered “full democracies,” 14 are in Western Europe. The remaining five are New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Mauritius and Uruguay. The United States was the 20th full democracy until falling into the “flawed democracy” category in 2016, when the Index recorded a serious decline in public trust in U.S. institutions.

In addition to the U.S., seven other countries considered full democracies in 2006 had been downgraded to flawed democracies by 2017. They are Belgium, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Japan and Portugal. Uruguay improved from flawed democracy in 2006 to full democracy in 2017.

The 2017 edition of Democracy Index includes a section devoted to media freedom and freedom of speech. In a Washington Post opinion piece Fareed Zakaria cited Turkey as “the world’s foremost jailer of journalists,” astonishing for a democratically elected government. He also notes Hungary’s turn from wholehearted adoption of democracy to taking over public broadcasting to ensure favorable coverage. Public media are also under attack in long-standing democracies in India and Israel.

The Democracy Index regards freedom of expression as essential for democracy to take root and flourish. The quality of democracy in any country may in large measure be gauged by the degree to which freedom of speech prevails. Societies that do not tolerate dissent, heresy and the questioning of conventional wisdom cannot be “full democracies”.

The Democracy Index ranked only 30 countries as having fully free media. The 97 countries rated as “unfree” or “largely unfree” represent more than half of the world’s population.


Keith Zeff is retired from two careers, first as a city planner for eighteen years, and later as a commercial real estate researcher for twenty-seven years. His education includes undergraduate degrees in architecture and a graduate degree in political science. His vocation and his avocation have been characterized by an interdisciplinary approach to decision-making. His concern for the future, both physical and social, plus his concern for the future of his eleven grandchildren, led him to research the complexities of globalization, geopolitics, and sustainability. Citing the frequent assertion by politicians that, “I am doing this for my children and grandchildren,” he decided to infer two generations with the title Fifty Year Perspective.

"Everything that rises must converge."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)


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