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Japan, South Korea And Taiwan Upgraded To "Full Democracies" In The EIU's 2020 Democracy Index

  • Taiwan rose up the Democracy Index rankings by 20 places, to 11th place globally and 3rd regionally, making a spectacular entry to the “full democracy” category.
  • Hong Kong dropped down the rankings by 12 places, becoming a “hybrid regime” rather than a “flawed democracy”.
  • The region’s average score fell in 2020, mainly as a result of an unprecedented withdrawal of personal freedoms in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • In India and Thailand, democratic backsliding by the authorities and crackdowns on civil liberties led a further decline in their global rankings.

Democracy in sickness and in health? is the title of The Economist Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index report, which looks at the impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on freedom and democracy around the world. The Asia and Australasia region includes top-scoring New Zealand (9.25), which retained its 4th position in the global ranking (out of 167 countries), and persistent laggard North Korea (1.08) at the bottom of the global ranking in 167th place. The region’s overall score fell in 2020, but it now has five “full democracies” with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan moving up the rankings compared with 2019. Australia retains its “full democracy” status and high ranking (9th).

Japan and South Korea both returned to the “full democracy” fold for the first time since 2014. Taiwan attained “full democracy” status for the first time following a spectacular jump up the rankings. The January 2020 national elections demonstrated the resilience of Taiwan’s democracy, at a time when electoral processes, parliamentary oversight and civil liberties have been backsliding globally.

Democracy Index 2020, by regime type
 No. of countries% of countries% of world population
Full democracies2313.88.4
Flawed democracies5231.141.0
Hybrid regimes3521.015.0
Authoritarian regimes5734.135.6
Note. “World” population refers to the total population of the 167 countries covered by the Index. Since this excludes only micro states, this is nearly equal to the entire estimated world population.
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit.

For South Korea, a tiny improvement of 0.1 points was enough for the country to regain the status of “full democracy”. A deterioration in the country’s score for civil liberties was offset by an improvement in its score for functioning of government as public confidence in the government improved. Japan’s score improved from 7.99 in 2019 to 8.13 in 2020, putting it in 21st place globally. The change was also driven by an improvement in public confidence in the government and survey data also show that fewer Japanese now prefer rule by technocrats to rule by elected representatives. There were other positive developments for democracy, too. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, national elections took place peacefully in Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Sri Lanka, as well as in Taiwan.

Despite these upgrades, Asia’s average regional score deteriorated to its lowest level since 2013 as official measures taken to combat the coronavirus pandemic led to some of the most severe constraints on individual freedoms and civil liberties in the world. China, Singapore and others went much further than the rest of the world in tracking and policing their citizens and locking them down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, more than half of the countries in the region recorded a fall in their total score. However, the biggest country downgrades, for Myanmar and Hong Kong, were driven by other factors, including mass voter suppression in the former and a crackdown by the authorities on dissent in the latter. These factors led the two countries to fall down the global rankings by 13 and 12 positions, respectively, and Hong Kong lost its status as a “flawed democracy” and is now categorised as a “hybrid regime”.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand’s score regressed in 2020, including those related to the treatment of the opposition and to curbs on freedom of expression. In India, democratic backsliding continued under the leadership of Narendra Modi, a member of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who has introduced a religious element to the conceptualisation of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state. The authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic led to a further erosion of civil liberties in 2020.

Joan Hoey, Editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit's annual Democracy Index report, says:

“The symbolism of Asia gaining three new “full democracies” in 2020 and western Europe losing two (France and Portugal) was apt, as the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift in the global balance of power from the West to the East. Asia continues to lag behind the West in democratic terms having only five “full democracies”, compared with western Europe’s 13, but the region has, so far, handled the pandemic much better than virtually any other, with lower infection and mortality rates and a fast economic rebound. Asian governments reacted decisively (albeit deploying coercive powers in some cases), benefited from well-organised health systems and retained the confidence of their populations. By contrast, European governments were slow to act, some health systems came close to collapse and public trust in government declined.“

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2020 is available free of charge at: http://www.eiu.com/democracy-index

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