Early in the New Year is report card time on democracy. Organizations monitoring the state of democracy worldwide assess the condition of democracy during the preceding calendar year in nearly all the world’s countries. The oldest, most influential of these is Freedom House, which has assessed democratic progress since 1972. One of the newest, most comprehensive and sophisticated indices is the Varieties of Democracy project (or V-Dem) based in the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
I rely on other major indices, including Polity IV and the Mo Ibrahim Index, established by a wealthy Sudanese industrialist, but find most compelling in Freedom House and V-Dem is the relative clarity of their methodologies enabling the reader to understand the individual scores they assign. Freedom House relies on in-country researches to score 25 specific indicators from 0 to 4, which are then aggregated in scores for seven dimensions of political rights and civil liberties producing overall scores of 0 to 100, on the basis of which countries are grouped as free on political rights and also free on civil liberties (Groups 1 and 2 on each), partially free (Groups 3-5) or unfree (Groups 6 and 7). V-Dem uses 3000 experts to score individual countries, relying upon Item Response Theory from Bayesian statistics to standardise coder estimates on specific indicators concerning democracy in turn to permit numerical scales on each of some 350 indicators from 0 to 1.00.
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The clarity and sophistication of the Freedom House, V-Dem and other systems undergirds their shared overall judgment that there is both good news and bad. On the one hand, overall a great many countries have benefitted from the post-Cold War political liberalisation surge to become significantly more democratic over the last three decades than they were before. On the other hand, since about 2005, both Freedom House and V-Dem, and other indices, register significant democratic retreats. Diminishing democracy has been evident not only among newer, post-Cold War democracies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere but, especially recently, even in among older democracies.
Freedom House estimates Kenya retreated from a score of 66 in 2005 placing it in group 3 on both political rights and civil liberties to 48, dropping to group 4 on both measures, in 2018. But the oldest contemporary democracy, the United States, has also slipped from a score of 93, placing it in Category 1 on both in 2005, to 86 in 2018, dropping to Group 2 on political rights for the first time. Sub-Saharan Africa countries averaged 49 in 2005, dropping to 43 in 2018. Relative smaller countries have been consistent democratisation leaders in the region, including Cape Verde, Sao Tome, Benin, Ghana, and Senegal, joined by South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia among larger countries.
Without free and fair elections there is no democracy. At the same time, it is also evident that goof elections alone do not a democracy make
What accounts for receding democratisation dating fairly clear from about 2005? Commentary on this sobering trend has been more extensive than on its causes. However, several contributing factors have recently come into clearer focus. First, without free and fair elections there is no democracy. At the same time, it is also evident that goof elections alone do not a democracy make. More countries have elections than ever before and, as V-Dem notes, performance has generally improved, particularly under international scrutiny and, to varying degrees technical support.
Other essential dimensions of democracy have received less visibility and scrutiny, e.g., civil society, the rule of law, freedom of association and expression, and legislative and judicial checks on executive power. As a result, country presidents of less-than-wholehearted democratic commitment have learned they can chip away at these somewhat less visible aspects of democracy with little pushback, domestically or internationally.
The V-Dem project is unique in systematically measuring the quality of crucially important, if somewhat less visible dimensions of democracy. In addition to centring on clean elections and requisite freedom or association and expression, V-Dem measures the extent of equality before the rule of law, legislative and judicial checks on executive power, the extent of media freedom, the extent of equal protection of the law and equal access to health care and education, the extent of civil society participation in politics, and the extension of democracy to regional and local levels, and, finally, the extent and quality of deliberation and consultation on policy issues with a view to the common good. Overall, for 2017 V-Dem ranked Kenya 96th of 178 countries on the breadth scope of economic and social as well as political rights, 103rd on electoral process, 128th on egalitarianism, 42nd on participatory processes, and 139th on deliberative quality.
The lesson is clear: the keys to restoring, sustaining and advancing democracy and freedom worldwide are continued vigilance by citizens, comprehensive and detailed scrutiny of democratic performance by scholars and practitioners, and sustained international commitment to the cause.