Democracy's Shifting Fortunes

15 March 2023

First published in issue 1 of Democracy Delivered, the Centre for Research on Democracy's monthly newsletter on democratic trends and developments. 


How is democracy doing, globally? According to the V-Dem Institute's new Democracy Report, the number of democracies in the world - and the influence they exert - is on the decline.

A more democratic world isn’t simply an abstract ideal. There are significant socio-economic and security dividends to be had through the advancement of democracy globally, as outlined in another bit of V-Dem research - the Case for Democracy programme. 

These dividends are far from secure, however. For the first time in two decades, there are now more dictatorships in the world than there are liberal democracies. The level of democracy, on average, is down to where it last was in 1986. This is according to V-Dem's Democracy Report 2023, which is informed by over 30 million data points for 202 countries.

Based on this data, 72% of the world’s population now lives in an autocracy. This is a stunning increase of 46% within ten years. These include electoral autocracies (not-quite democracies) such as Turkey, Nigeria, and India, and closed autocracies (dictatorships) such as China, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

Beneath this global outlook, there are important regional variations. The Middle East and North Africa region remains the most autocratic, with 98% of people living in an autocracy. Closer to home, only 21% of Sub-Saharan Africans are reported to live in countries which are sufficiently democratic.

Turning our attention to the population centre of the world - Asia and the Pacific - things appear no better, with 89% of the region living in an autocracy. Given the poor circumstances that democracy seems to find itself in globally - with Western Europe and North America the exceptions - are the trends at least looking positive? No such luck.

The number of countries moving towards democracy now stands at 14,    down from 43 countries in 2022, and representing only 2% of the global population. The largest concentration of democratisation is in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Madagascar, Malawi, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia shining through.

By comparison, the number of countries moving towards autocracy is now 42,  up from 13 countries in 2002, and representing 43% of the global population. This autocratisation trend is evident even in democratic stalwarts, such as the United States. In India, the trend has been so severe as to shift the country into electoral autocracy. 

Alarmingly, this autocratision trend is altering the balance of political and economic power. Autocracies now account for 46% of global GDP, while world trade between democracies has declined from 74% at the turn of the century to only 47% in 2022. Democracies are also becoming increasingly dependent on autocracies for their imports and exports. 

These trade dependencies are a significant security risk for democratic countries, as illustrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Until Western Europe managed to shift its energy balance away from Russian fossil fuels, the world’s most infamous autocracy was able to inflict great economic pain on its democratic rivals. 

For those of us at CREDO, the V-Dem Institute's new report underscores the essential importance of advancing the principles and practices of democratic governance. Given the huge dividends to be gained from the expansion of democratic rule across the world, inaction in the face of increasing autocratisation is simply not an option.