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[Future Report] Democratization

Global Challenge 4: How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?

(c) 2021 The Millennium Project

Brief Overview

The long-term growth of democratization has declined over the past decade. About 70% of the world is governed by authoritarian regimes, up from 49% in 2011. Press freedoms have also declined, while toxic polarization has increased. The internet has become a new battle field of information warfare with millions of fake bots spreading disinformation turning “I don’t like, to I hate, to they are the enemy.” Better counters to disinformation need to be implemented. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to a decline in freedom.

Meanwhile, new Internet capabilities provide more access for greater participation in governance and are increasingly exposing corruption. Synergistically self-organized human rights movements for sustainable global democratic systems are taking place all over the world. At the same time, anti-democratic forces are increasingly using new cyber tools to manipulate democratic processes. according to Freedom House.

Although the perceptions and implementations of democracy differ globally, it is generally accepted that democracy is a relationship between a responsible citizenry and a responsive government that encourages participation in the political process and guarantees basic rights. NGOs like Transparency International and intergovernmental organizations like the Open Government Partnership (OGP) reinforce democracy internationally. The OGP connects 75 national and 15 subnational governments that have committed to 2,500 actions to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. Global trends, such as the increasing interdependencies, the changing nature of power, worsening polarization worldwide, growing mobility, and the increasingly urgent need to collectively address major planetary existential challenges demonstrate the importance of the organization’s work and democratization. However, democratization is threatened by increasingly sophisticated organized crime, terrorism, corruption, disinformation, and manipulation of elections and the electorate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,416 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2021 (including killed media workers, this number rises to 1,531). Out of all cases, 726 journalists have been killed with complete impunity. Most victims covered politics (49%), war (41.7%), human rights (22%), corruption (21.3%), and crime (18.2%). The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists adopted in 2012, outlines more than 100 areas of work in which different UN agencies and civil society groups intend to contribute to securing the safety of journalists, operating at the national and global levels.

Actions to Address Global Challenge 4:

  • Secure tamper-proof electoral systems.

  • Invest into R&D to anticipate and counter disinformation and information warfare.

  • Establish international standards and agreements for the digital world.

  • Implement global strategies to counter organized crime.

  • Establish and enforce measures to reduce corruption.

  • Promote transparency, participation, inclusion, and accountability in decisionmaking

  • Support research to get unfair influence of large sums of money out of politics.

  • Require and improve civics education in all forms of education.

  • Implement strong e-governance platforms.

  • Experiment with new democratic methods such as Liquid Democracy and Democracy 4.0.

  • Develop standards that support democratic values.

  • Produce cash flow projections for guaranteed basic income.

  • Implement UN treaties on minorities, migrants, refugees, and other less-privileged groups.

  • Include 10 lessons from Devex research: move forward incrementally when beginning a democratic transition; retain a positive and inclusive vision at all times; build coalitions; create and protect spaces for dialogue; focus on constitution building; manage eventual tensions; understand the importance of political parties; deal carefully with military, security, and intelligence services; recognize the need for real reconciliation and transitional justice; and bring the gender lens to democratic transitions.

Regional Considerations

Sub-Saharan Africa: Steady economic progress and growing stability in most sub-Saharan African countries, as well as a growing active civil society are increasingly developing democratic structures with pluralistic political engagement and better government accountability across the region.More and more countries are holding competitive and peaceful elections, and the freedom of expression and communication increases with the spread of the Internet and growing consciousness about civil rights and liberties. Freedom House found that 12% population lives in sub-Saharan Africa rated “free,” 49% lives “partly free,” while 39% with “not free” status in 2016. Furthermore, regarding freedom of media, 6% population lives in the area with “free” media, 54% with “partly free”, and 40% with “not free” press. Only 1% of the total population (1.02 billion) is enjoying free media.

Ethiopiahas experienced political upheavals in several years. Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the authoritarian ruling party of Ethiopia, implemented ethnicity-based political marginalization. The government tried to enforce plan to incorporate parts of the Oromia region surrounding Addis Ababa to the capital municipality in 2014. In response, the Oromo people-the largest ethnic group of Ethiopia-started protest to settle lacking political participation and persecution on ethnicity group. Security forces used excessive deadly forces against protesters, killing hundreds of Oromo people. The Ogaden Somali ethnic group and other minorities also experienced continued government suppression. According to Transparency International, some African countries including Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe improved their democracy by democratic presidential elections in 2016. Yet, other nations with stronger democracies in Southern and East Africa have failed to improve.

More than 6 million people of the region are estimated as living in slavery conditions, with high prevalence in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Mauritania. The conflict in South Sudan continues with impunity, aggravating abuses against the population; UNHCR estimates some 1.95 million IDPs and 293,000 refugees for 2015. Islamist militants of Boko Haram has yet to be brought to justice for the horrific crimes and terrorization of civilians in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and the use of sexual violence as a weapon.

While democratic norms have opened up civil society, Africa is yet to experience “strong and vibrant civil society,” especially in organizing to demand better government, issues, policies, and programs. However, this might be changed by increasing numbers of educated, unemployed youth with mobile phones and Internet access.

Middle East and North Africa: According to Freedom House, 12 of 18 countries in the region are more repressive today than they were before the Arab Spring, and these 12 countries don’t include Egypt and Libya, which Freedom House thinks have improved since 2010.The Arab Spring has been followed by chaotic geopolitics, restless and sometimes violent movements. Nevertheless, among 12 nations, 5 countries in the region are rated “partly free”, and the other 12 countries are rated “not free” in the 2016 report. This indicates that 21% population of the total (286.7 million) lives in partly free society, and 79% still lives without freedom. In addition, regarding the media freedom, the vast majority of the population, 93% lives in the region without free media, and only 7% lives in the 3 countries with “partly free” media. Reporters without Borders notes that there are entire regions controlled by non-state actors where independent reporting or access to information doesn’t even exist. Iraq and Syria are the top deadliest countries for journalists.

Since the war began 2011, around 400,000 people have been killed. According to the 2016 fact sheet from UNHCR, 13.2 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection. UNHCR also found that the Syria crisis has displaced 4.81 million Syrian refugees into countries such as the Republic of Turkey, the Lebanese Republic, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There are an estimated 6.1 million internally displaced people within Syria.

Executions in Iran reached intolerable proportions; reportedly, at least 852 persons were executed in the period July 2013-June 2014, and more than 340 persons in the first months of 2015, including women and political prisoners. Saudi Arabia also increased its executions, reaching 87 by mid-2015, compared to a total of about 90 people in 2014.

In 2017, more than 2.9 million people live in modern slavery in the region. Victims were identified as “forced recruits” in state or non-state armed groups, and victims of “forced marriage” and “commercial sexual exploitation”.Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Qatar are not party nor signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Arab Spring/Awakening could open new perspectives, despite the violent response of some countries’ authoritarian regimes. Tunisia, which adopted a new constitution in 2014, might set the example for an emergent democracy in the Arab world. However, MENA has yet to resolve the security disaster across the region and bring about economic and social reforms for any burgeoning democracy to have a future. Meantime, empowering youth movements and civil society in the region, and creating job opportunities might be a better strategy for the West to help build peace and stability than violence.

Asia and Oceania: Progress of democracy in the region has been scattered over the past few years. In 2017, Freedom House reported that 38% of the region’s population is living in “free” status, 22% in “partially free,” and 40% of the population is living in “not free” status. India — the world’s largest democracy — shows further improvement with the growth of anti-corruption movement. However, it has yet to address concentrated power and increased centralization, and the cast system. Thailand had its status changed from “partly free” to “not free” due to the military coup of May 2014 followed by severe civil liberties restrictions. Only 5% of the Asia-Pacific’s population lives in the 14 countries with “free” media; 47% lives in 13 countries with partially-free media, while 48% (1.9 billion people) live in 13 countries with “not free” media. In China, one of the most restrictive media environment, the authorities imposed some of the region’s harshest penalties for online criticism, as censors focused more on the reputation of the Communist Party leadership.

Since China is home to about half of the world population presently living in countries rated “not free,” a modification of its status would change the worldmap of democracy. The former Google Chairman believes that will happen after the “Great Firewall of China” is opened. Yet, China has increased the crackdowns on freedom of speech and the Internet, and intensified ideological controls and censorship. It is estimated that over 7,000 death sentences are passed and over 3,000 executions are carried out per year. The Third Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress held in November 2013 reinforced promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics” but did not include any significant political or civil liberty reforms for the next decade.

The Global Slavery Index 2016 estimates that two of thirds (around 30.5 million) of the estimated 45.8 million people in modern slavery are living in Asia-Pacific region; countries with the highest number of people living in conditions of slavery are India with 18 million, China with 3.3 million, and Pakistan with 2.1 million, while North Korea has the highest prevalence, with more than 4% of the population estimated enslaved.

In South Asia, repression of political and civil liberties is aggravated by increasing ethnic and sectarian conflicts, mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In an effort to curtail access to information, and freedom of expression and the press, Nauru enacted restriction to the Internet and social media, and a $6,500 visa fee for foreign journalists. ASEAN’s strict policy of non-interference — allowing members’ abuses without consequences — is considered one of the causes of the deepening humanitarian crises of refugees in Southeast Asia, in spring 2015. In addition to over 2,000 people that have landed, there are thousands estimated stranded at sea as a result of a crackdown on human traffickers by the three main destination countries: Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Most migrants are Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar, a country with critical human rights abuses. In 2016, there were some 1.5 million Myanmar people of concern to UNHCR, and more than 925,000 people were stateless and 375,000 were IDPs.

Europe: All 28 EU countries are rated “free” and the region has the best freedom of the press score. The EU Parliament is the largest transnational democratic electorate in the world and political and fiscal integration helped the spread and development of democracy across Europe. In 2012, The European Citizens’ Initiative enacted allows citizens to initiate legislative proposals if backed by one million citizens. Governments across the continent are increasingly involving citizens in local and legislative development and most EU countries have a relatively good E-Government Development Index score. A code of conduct adopted in December 2011 requires members of the European Parliament to disclose their financial statements and meetings with lobbyists. The 2016 Eurobarometer survey shows that the Europeans have a higher trust in the EU (33%) than in national governments (28%). However, the proportion of EU citizens who do not trust the European Union has remained stable (55%.)

The Eurozone crises and the rise of nationalist and anti-EU parties might challenge further integration. The Scottish 55% pro-EU vote in the September 2014 referendum created a precedent, but is also signaling that stronger and more equitable institutions and policies are needed to keep the EU together. The EU needs a coherent migration policy to integrate the growing number of immigrants and asylum seekers and avoid increasing nationalism and extremism in some regions. As of 2017, around 4.7 million people have immigrated to one of 28 EU countries. In such EU countries, international migration could be a way to solve specific labour market shortage. Turkey, which hopes to join the EU, is yet rated “partly free”, and its “not free” press environment continues to deteriorate.

Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia 131 out of 176 countries assessed (though improving from 154th place in 2010, 136th in 2014). Despite the 2008 anti-corruption measures adopted by the Russian government and the country’s adherence to several EU and international anti-corruption legal frameworks, reportedly, corruption is rampant in Russia, affecting all aspects of the society and undermining its democratic development. Its law to prevent aggressive behavior of demonstrators is seen as another effort to restrict civil liberties. There are speculations that the Eurasian Economic Union (modeled on the EC) might lead to further integration towards a political, military and cultural union.

Controversy over Serbian political crimes continues and the ethnic tension between Slavic and Albanian populations began intensifying in several countries in 2015. Corruption, autocracy, and lack of progressive institutions also hinder the democratization process in most Central and East European (non-EU) countries.

Latin America: Rampant corruption and violence are the gravest impediments to development of democracy in the region. Freedom House rated 22 countries in the region “free,” 10 “partly free,” and only Cuba (1% of the region’s population) as “not free.” But Venezuela became the second “not free” country in the region in 2016. In 2015, only 2% of the region’s population is living in the three countries rated as having “free” press (Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Suriname); some 813 million people live in 15 countries with “partly free” media, while over 185 million people live in the 5 countries with no free media (Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela). Media freedom in the region was still threaten in 2016; the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, targeted journalists who covered a corruption of his administration with threats of prosecution. Additionally, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico remain as the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.Significant declines were noted in Honduras, Peru, and Venezuela, while Mexico’s score is the lowest over the past 10 years, due to a new telecommunications law.

The big challenges for the region are the institutional weakness for addressing social and political demands of people, as well as the interlinkages of organized crime, businesses, and government corruption. The “war” against the drug cartels and their internal wars, mainly in Mexico, caused thousands of victims and internally displaced persons and reduced civil liberty. Although in many parts of Mexico, the political power vacuums are being filled by ambitious criminal organizations,the civil society is getting increasingly engaged and demands transparency and accountability, setting the stage for a more democratic system. But the efforts to combat organized crime lead to serious human right violation; Human Rights Watch 2017 reports remarks that extrajudicial killing, torture, and enforced disappearance have threaten citizens. In Peru and Ecuador, the governments have used excessive power and violence to stop protests against mining projects.

As of 2016, some 1.8 million people in the Latin America and Caribbean are estimated enslaved. Human trafficking is widespread in Mexico, Brazil, and other countries in Central America. However, a sense of solidarity of the people and increased influence of civil society organizations, constitutional reforms supported by the majority of the population in Bolivia and Ecuador for strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as examples of democratic governance set by Chile and Brazil are helping to strengthen democratic processes. Many left-leaning or populist governments such as in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela have been re-elected due to their focus on the poor majority. Cuba began easing state surveillance, access to the Internet, and political discussions, as well as opening access to foreign travel and self-employment.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) continues to foster Latin American integration as a strategy for the region’s future stability. At its 3rd summit, held in January 2015, the 33 participant countries adopted a package of 26 declarations that serve as a framework for further social, economic, and political development of the region.

North America: A little half of the US electorate voted in 2016 and 31% of Americans polled couldn’t get time off of work to go vote.The US intelligence community identified Russian initiated fake news, computer hacking, and voter-targeting is responsible for increasing political polarization. Although state and municipal governments in the U.S. are seen as increasingly effective in implementing programs on a more by-partisan basis, there is growing uneasiness about local ordinances being pre-empted by state governments motivated by economic or political interests that are not necessarily reflecting the best interest of the local population. The U.S. presidential race in 2016 cost $2.65 billion; a little less than $2.76 spend in the 2012 election.

The 2012 election was the most expensive election in history. This is because of the impact of the Supreme Court decision “Citizens United,” which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend their money on advocacy for or against candidates.Limits on political contributions is a crucial issue to curb corruption and protect democracy. Non-party outside groups, called PAC(Political Action Committee)s, and non-profit groups such as social welfare organizations can receive unlimited amount of contributions and also be able to spend their money if they declare to use it independently from candidate’s campaigns.

U.S. is ranked 23 as of press freedom and the controversies around WikiLeaks and the revelation about NSA procedures continue. In 2015, the legislation has been passed to reform the Patriotic Act and NSA’s surveillance powers over bulk collection of U.S. phone data. USAID, the White House and other U.S. agencies and organizations have several programs dedicated to support democracy and the rule of law around the world, but after the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters, the legitimacy of U.S. military intervention to counter autocracy is questioned. Meantime, the OPEN Act bill — for a censorship-free Internet while protecting the rights of artists and innovators — is using online crowd sourcing for improvements.

Canada is considered the most successful democratic multiethnic model; however, recent changes to regulations for charity organizations and fraud investigations concerning the last federal election and some high-ranked officials question the healthy future of Canadian democracy. Although opposed by 56% of Canadians (by 75% of the 18-35 years old), Bill C-51 Anti-Terrorism Act has been passed by the House of Commons and might become law, raising concerns over civil liberties and the respect for Canadians’ opinions and values.

Concerns also persist in Canada and the U.S. about electoral processes, the concentration of media ownership, powerful lobbying, and political corruption. Nevertheless, in Alberta’s 2015 elections, the NDP won an overwhelming majority, ending a 44-year dynasty of the conservative party.

Although the Occupy movement might have run out of steam, it expanded way beyond North America, entering the global consciousness, questioning the abuses of financial power and encouraging the exploration of new concepts of political economy and democracy.

Graphs expressing the global situation:

Graph: Evolution of Countries’ Democracy (1972-2014)

Source: Freedom in the World reports by Freedom House, with Millennium Project compilation

Freedom rights (number of countries rated “free”)

Source: Freedom House, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast; graph from the 2015-16 State of the Future


Writer: The Millennium Project of USIA Council Member Jerome C. Glenn


NOTE: USIA People have their own views and opinions that are not necessarily the USIA, and vice versa.


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