Democracy Index 2013: Global Democracy At A Standstill, The Economist Intelligence Unit's Annual Report Shows

03/21/2013 04:49 pm ET

While some of the most oppressive parts of the world have made significant gains in democracy in the past year, the overall pace of democratic change remained stagnant in 2012. That is the conclusion of The Economist Intelligence Unit's recently published annual report on the state of global democracy for 2012.

"In 2012 global democracy was at a standstill in the sense that there was neither significant progress nor regression in levels of democracy worldwide," Laza Kekic, the main editor of the report, said in a press release.

The Democracy Index analyzes 165 independent countries and two territories to show the status of regional and worldwide democracy. The index uses five criteria: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each nation is categorized across gradient levels of regimes: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most democratic countries are found in Scandinavia, with Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark occupying the first four spots on the list, and New Zealand rounding out the top five.

Overall, half of the world lives under a democracy of some form. However, only 15 percent of countries enjoy full democracy and nearly a third of the world's nations are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

The reasons for such disappointing numbers vary between regions. The report writes that some countries in the West are struggling to maintain long-established democratic systems due to political infighting, declining participation, and the sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of national security. The U.S., for example, ranks 21st on the list, behind such democratic bastions as Uruguay, Mauritius, and South Korea. The lowest scores Washington received were in the categories of political participation and functioning of government.

Meanwhile, the global financial crisis that started in 2008 has precipitated the erosion in confidence in democracy, particularly in Europe. Five Eurozone countries (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland) experienced a decline in their democracy score from 2011 to 2012, with the crisis in Greece and Italy dramatically highlighted by severe austerity measures and the replacement of democratically elected leaders with governments dominated by technocrats.

The most significant change occurred in the Middle East and North Africa. From 2011 to 2012, three countries in these regions (Libya, Egypt, and Morocco) transitioned from authoritarian to hybrid regimes, with Libya experiencing the greatest democratic gains among all countries studied in 2012. Yet the regions also remain some of the most oppressive in the world, with 12 of 20 countries ruled by authoritarian leaders.

Despite all that, the report is optimistic for the growth of democracy around the world. The developments in the Middle East and North Africa show the potential for change, even as the political wave that was expected to result from the Arab Spring has yet to be fully realized. The report points to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as examples of how "long-serving, geriatric leaders" may suffer revolt at the hands of "young and restless populations." Elsewhere in the world, in countries like Zimbabwe and Cuba, long-standing, autocratic leaders are unlikely to remain in charge. As the report states, "The longer ageing autocrats hang on to power, the more out-of-touch and corrupt their regimes tend to become, and the more of an anachronism and an affront they become to their peoples."

Take a look at the 25 most democratic countries in 2012:

Democracy Index 2012

To read the entire report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, click here.

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