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One in two countries in democratic decline, finds study

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Last year, global democracy experienced a backlash in almost half of all countries, in the form of attacks on rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, or biased elections, according to a new report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

85 out of 173 countries saw a decline in at least one indicator of democracy between 2017 and 2022, finds the latest Global State of Democracy report, published on Tuesday (2 November).

The decline was observed from one pole to the other, affecting countries such as Brazil, Canada, and South Korea, as well as EU member states, such as Hungary.

This is the sixth consecutive year of decline and the longest downward trend in democracy since IDEA began collecting data in 1975. And despite having the best democratic performance in the world, Europe is no exception to this deterioration.

Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK are among the countries that have experienced a "worrying deterioration" in a number of key indicators, mainly related to the rule of law and freedom of the press.

Between 2017 and 2022, four times as many countries experienced a downturn in press freedom than made progress.

Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands have suffered from worsening media self-censorship, the report stresses, following concerns about the surveillance of journalists and increasing towards against them.

Greece, where freedom of expression has fallen for the fifth year in a row, is also facing a high-profile scandal involving the government and intelligence services in extralegal hacking and surveillance of journalists.

Even the European Parliament has faced its own challenge ahead of the 2024 elections, with the 'Qatargate' corruption scandal raising concerns about foreign interference in the European legislative process.

The other major category in which Europe saw a deterioration was the rule of law, mainly in Hungary and Poland, but also in other EU countries such as Austria.

Austria has dropped eight places, to 36th, in the rule-of-law rankings, fuelled by concerns that the country needs to improve rules governing the outside activities of ministers and state secretaries.

Meanwhile, Hungary fell six places to 64th, where the rule of law dispute has long been an issue, highlighting the EU's limited ability to monitor its "(non-)democratic trajectory", even after the EU froze billions of euros in funds for Hungary and Poland, and announced legal action to ensure the independence of their judiciaries.

"Both countries remain generally unswayed in their direction, beyond some minor changes in approach," the report notes, adding that both eastern countries have experienced significant setbacks in five key indicators over the past five years.

Despite this situation, the long-standing gap between the Nordic and Western countries and the Baltic states and central Europe has started to narrow.

Central Europe was the epicentre of democratic growth, becoming the second-best performing region in terms of rule of law.

Moreover, in Estonia, women's representation in parliament set a new record for the country following the elections of March 2023, surpassing Norway and Finland in representation. Latvia also made a big leap up the global representation rankings.

"While many of our formal institutions are showing signs of weakness, we can nevertheless hope that these less formal counter-powers, whether journalists, election organisers or anti-corruption commissioners, will succeed in thwarting authoritarian and populist tendencies," secretary general of IDEA International Kevin Casas-Zamora said.

Since 2017, Europe has also been the region with most protests, from people taking to the streets against fuel prices or the cost of living crisis, to mobilisations against corruption or the violation of rights protections.

Mass mobilisations that can lead to positive results, as shown by Poland, where civil society organisations organised demonstrations that led the government to withdraw plans to further restrict access to safe and appropriate abortion in the country.

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