The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index classifies only 19 countries as having fully functioning democracies. 14 were in Europe.
Globally, democracy declined in 2017, according to the report. Only 4.5% of the world’s population now lives in a fully functioning democracy. Overall, the ranking shows a decline in the number of fully functioning democracies every year since 2008. In addition, more than half the countries in the latest figures saw their scores decline.
Once again Norway topped the Democracy Index global ranking in 2017. The Nordics occupied the top three spots, with Iceland and Sweden taking second and third place. New Zealand came in fourth and Denmark fifth. Finland and Switzerland were not far behind, in ninth place equal.
Low participation kept Switzerland from ranking nearer the top. With a perfect participation score Switzerland would rise to third place.
Scores of the top 10 countries are shown in the chart below.
Countries notably absent from the list of fully functioning democracies include the United States, France, Japan, Portugal and Italy. These nations were all classified as flawed democracies and all performed relatively poorly on the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.
The report highlights a decline in freedom of speech stating that freedom of expression is under threat from those who claim the right not to be offended. Many advanced democracies have introduced new laws to protect people from alleged offensive speech on social media. One consequence of this is that it allows dictators and authoritarians to justify their own curbs on freedom of expression in similar terms and to accuse the West of double standards when it criticises their clampdowns on freedom of expression, says the report.
In November 2017, Le News met Yves Leterme, twice Belgium’s prime minister during the country’s political crisis between 2007 and 2011.
Leterme now heads up International IDEA, a global organization supporting democracy. In contrast to the Economist Intelligence Unit, IDEA contests the current view that democracy is in decline, arguing instead that it has shown resilience. Taking data from 1975 to 2016, it shows how the percentage of democratic countries has risen from 30% to 68%.
IDEA does however acknowledge that democracy comes in many forms and that its survival is never guaranteed.
Regarding Switzerland, IDEA’s figures also point out its democratic weakness: low participation. In 2015, Swiss voter participation was less than 49%. By contrast, Norway had participation of 78%.
In addition, IDEA looks at direct democracy, pointing out risks associated with it: too many referendums may reduce both the efficient working of the polity and political stability. It also notes that while popular votes may influence political decision making indirectly, making leaders more responsive to the concerns of citizens and strengthening the legitimacy of political decisions, it can also allow prominent political figures of the party system to become leading actors in initiative and referendum procedures and electoral politics.
Chart showing country Democracy Index rankings since 2006 – The Economist (in English)