The number of populist world leaders has fallen to a 20-year low. Studies show that democratic backsliding is more likely under populists
The number of populist leaders around the world has fallen to a 20-year low after a series of wins for progressives over the past year.
According to analysis from the Tony Blair Institute (TBI), the number of people living under populist rule has fallen by 800 million in two years.
The dramatic shift follows a run of victories for progressives and centrists, particularly in Latin America, where the notable defeat of hard right winger Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has set the tone for the entire region.
Furthermore, in the US midterm elections, people turned away from Trumpist candidates instead supporting more moderate Republicans.
The TBI found that the number of populists in power has fallen to 11, down from a near all-time high of 19 in 2020. However, it warned that “populism remains strong across Europe”, highlighting its rise in Italy and Sweden.
Populism is not always easy to identify, but it typically pits a nation’s ‘true people’ in a moral conflict against ‘outsiders’ – sometimes a ‘corrupt elite’ but often a minority ethnic or religious groups, too.
Studies have shown that democratic backsliding is more likely under populist rule, which often erode civil liberties, press freedom and checks on executive power.
Indeed, the 2022 Global State of Democracy Report notes a “decline in and stagnation of democracy around the world” coinciding with the recent march of populism.
“But contrary to what democratic pessimists may suggest,” the report added, “authoritarian countries and alternative systems of government have not outperformed their democratic peers.”
The dramatic shift follows a run of victories for centrists, particularly in Latin America
The biannual study is compiled by the Global State of Democracy Initiative. It measures the democratic performance of 173 countries. Each nation is analysed against key indicators, such as how representative the government is, how robust citizens’ rights are, and the strength of checks and balances on government. The data also includes surveys.
The latest report found declining public faith in democracy amid rising inequality, and recommends a renewal of the social contract between states and citizens to boost democracy.
“The core of any social contract is that citizens consent to be governed in return for certain core goods provided by those who govern,” it said. “Yet the ability of democracies around the world to provide key public goods to their citizens, and to close the gap between social expectations and institutional performance, is increasingly at risk.”
There are beacons of progress. The report praised Europe’s citizens’ assemblies, Canada’s Feminist Recovery Plan, and Latin America’s grassroots campaign groups, which have scored notable wins for employment rights and reproductive rights.
Meanwhile, a separate study by US academics strikes a note of cautious optimism. It suggests that democratic institutions have remained resilient despite challenges posed by authoritarian leaders.
The study was compiled by political scientists Anne Meng and Andrew Little, both associate professors at the University of Virginia, US. The duo eschewed the usual subjective analyses of democratic health and instead took a data-led approach, measuring three ‘key performance indicators’ of democracy, including executive constraints, media freedom and electoral turnover.
Democratic institutions have remained resilient despite challenges posed by authoritarian leaders
The latter, they argue, is “perhaps the most important indicator of democracy”. If incumbents keep winning, they reason, democracy could be under threat. But turnover rates, they found, have remained fairly constant since the late 1990s.
Their study is yet to be peer reviewed and relies on a narrow field of metrics, but overall it found “little evidence” of institutional global democratic decline over the last decade. Nonetheless, Little cautions against resting on our laurels.
“There’s always going to be politicians and leaders out there who think that by attacking democracy, they can increase their power or stay in office more easily,” he told Positive News. “We can stop these actions from happening, but they’re not going to stop themselves on their own. What stops them is people in civil society – be it through protesting, voting or other activism.”
Main image: A young man carries the Brazilian flag at president Lula’s inauguration in January 2023. Credit: AngelaMacario/iStock
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