How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?


A global consciousness and more-democratic social and political structures are developing in response to increasing interdependencies, the changing nature of power, and the need to collectively address major planetary existential challenges. The apparent efforts of some governments, elite powers, or religious extremists to stop the long-range trend toward democracy are countered by the rapid democratization of information and intelligence in the cyber-era. Synergistically self-organized human rights movements for sustainable global democratic systems are taking place all over the world. Regardless of the trigger—autocracy, political or religious repression, economic inequalities, or restrictions on civil liberties—increasing numbers of more globally conscious, media-savvy advocates of self-determination are taking to the streets and the Internet, exhibiting unprecedented power in resisting external coercion. This renewed democratic commitment and courage is contagious, inspiring others worldwide to take action and organize for fundamental structural changes.

Yet if these movements do not mature into more effective systems to implement new strategies to address the global challenges of our times, democratic gains could be lost. They can turn to anarchy or oligarchy and challenge the foundations of modern democratic ideals and practices. Unless present outdated institutional, legal, and governance systems evolve, new forms of authoritarian regimes, organized crime, political/religious extremism, corporatocracy, and restricted freedom of speech and individual access to new resources could counter long-term trends of democratization.

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.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has 168 States Party and 7 signatories. Nevertheless, according to Freedom House: 

  • world political and civil liberties deteriorated for the ninth consecutive year in 2014
  • 61 countries declined; 33 countries improved
  • only 40% of the world population living in 89 countries are rated as “free” and enjoying democratic values
  • 24% of world population lives in 55 “partly free” countries
  • 36% of the global population (about 2.6 billion people) lives in 51 countries rated "not free" (three more than in 2013) although over 50% of these people live in only one country: China.
  • the number of electoral democracies increased to 125 countries (the highest on record), representing 63% of the 195 countries assessed.

Mobilized through social media, young people are getting more politically active and inclined to vote. However, the relevance of representative democracy and the voting systems are increasingly questioned and should be adjusted to the speed of the Internet era. The EIU Democracy Index notes an increasing popular disappointment with democratic achievements, and a declining confidence in political and government institutions. Of the 165 countries and 2 territories assessed (comprising almost all of world population):

  • only 24 countries (12.5% of world population) are considered “full democracies”
  • 52 countries (35.5% of world population) are rated “flawed democracies”
  • 39 countries (14.4% of world population) are considered “hybrid regimes”
  • 52 countries (encompassing some 37.6% of the world population) are "authoritarian" regimes.

Freedom House found that press freedom continued to decline, reaching the lowest level of the past decade. Based on the 2014 assessment of 199 countries:

  • 14% of world population, living in 63 countries enjoys a relatively "free" media
  • 42% of the population lives in 71 countries with "partly free" media
  • 44% lives in 65 countries with a "not free" media environment.

Freedom House found that press freedom continued to decline, reaching the lowest level of the past decade. Based on the 2014 assessment of 199 countries:

  • 14% of world population, living in 63 countries enjoys a relatively "free" media
  • 42% of the population lives in 71 countries with "partly free" media
  • 44% lives in 65 countries with a "not free" media environment.

New national security regulations, intimidation by militant and criminal groups, and manipulation of news for economic or political interests by news-media owners or governments became the main impediments to objective journalism. The 2015 media freedom index computed by Reporters Without Borders also notes a worldwide decline in the freedom of information, with some 66% of the 180 countries surveyed scoring worse than the previous year. A regional assessment (on a score from 0 to 100; 0 representing total freedom and 100 no freedom at all) shows a score of:

  • 18.6 for Europe
  • 30.8 for the Americas
  • 35.9 for Africa
  • 42.6 for Asia-Pacific
  • 46.1 for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
  • 49.2 for the Middle East and North Africa

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,126 journalists have been killed since 1992, with complete impunity in 87% out of all cases; most victims covered politics (46%), war (38%), corruption (20%) and human rights (20%). 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.

Since an educated and truthfully informed public is critical to democracy, we have to learn how to anticipate and counter ideological disinformation, infoglut, censorship in its many forms, interest group spins of information, and future forms of information warfare.

While cyberspace has become the backbone for free-flow of information, the very heart of a free-society, it has also increased exponentially the quantity and quality of information that is stored about its users. Although most people voluntarily put their life and data online, many are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of growing surveillance at the behest of governments or private companies. What degree of monitoringis fair? How much is too much? Some argue that monitoring has to be regulated with clear indication of who has the right to monitor, how the information is used, where it is stored, and who has access to it. Public debate is necessary for citizens to understand the framework of the new threats in the cyber-era and the changing influences in global politics and the position of global actors, to create a climate of trust in the spirit of democracy.


Confidence in elected governments is damaged due to abuse of executive power, impunity, and growing power of lobbying. The interests of many economic elites’ monopolizing natural and other resources can undermine of political institutions. 80 people own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world population. The World Bank estimates hat worldwide bribery is between $1 to 1.6 trillion annually, not including other forms of corruption. How many government decisions could this buy? Conservative estimates of organized crime's annual income are over $3 trillion.


Are an informed public, independent judiciary, and a free press enough to prevent the slide of a democracy toward a plutocracy? Can traditional forms of democracy withstand these threats or will the growing global consciousness and new communications tools give birth to more advanced forms of democratic governance?

Demographic shifts and population dynamics compounded with economic volatility, natural disasters, political turmoil, and increasing extremism and organized crime require a new global legal framework for migration. Many refugees are not covered by the Refugee Convention or are landing in countries that do not offer protection. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that almost 1% of the global population (about 73 million people) are refugees or IDPs. UNHCR annual report shows that worldwide, at the end of 2014, some 59.5 million people were displaced due to conflict and persecution. The organization  estimates that at mid-2015, the worldwide population of concern has been over 42.9 million, including about 11.9 million refugees and over 23.9 million IDPs protected or assisted by UNHCR. The Global Slavery Index reveals that 35.8 million people live in modern-slavery conditions worldwide, while the ILO found that about 21 million people are victims of forced labor.

Old ideological, ethnic, and nationalistic legacies have to be addressed , and religiously discriminatory laws, including those against atheists and nonreligious should be abolished. If addressed too strongly, old conflicts can re-emerge; address too weakly and the legitimately of new regimes threatened. New strategies have to be developed to prevent radicalization, particularly of young people. However, when fighting a philosophy or ideology, there has to be another one to replace it, respecting complex systems of values (beyond the rhetoric about a freedom that does not resonate with them), backed by better socio-economic opportunities. Sustainable democracy in a globalized world implies shared perceptions of justice and security, as well as accountability. and international statutes adjusted to protect the rights achieved and the trend towards democracy, while established democracies should not forget that democracy can be corroded or lost.

Good citizenship should be a duty, not an option, but in order to facilitate good citizenship, governments must actively attempt to open a more distributed dialogue and a more transparent policy implementation platform. Laws and institutions benefiting the majority, while ensuring individual rights, and a strong civil society to enforce accountability are critical to counter the concentration of power, media monopolies, and impunity. USAID observes that developing countries that have ineffective government institutions, rampant corruption and weak rule of law have a 30%-45% higher risk for civil war and extreme criminal violence than other developing countries.


Amnesty International notes a 28% increase in death penalty in 2014 compared to 2013, to a total of 2,466, although the real number is difficult to know, since China--which carries out thousands of executions a year, more than the rest of the world combined--keeps the numbers state secret. However, the number of countries performing executions decreased from 42 in 1995 to 22 in 2014, and 140 countries have a total abolition in law or practice, signaling a moving away from this most barbarian infringement of human rights.


Some factors helping the evolution of more global democratic systems include legitimate tamper-proof election systems with internationally accepted standards for election observers; a better educated world public with open access to information; economic freedom with guaranteed basic income to all people; more democratic institutions; knowledge diplomacy; data sharing; more efficient international regulations that are globally binding and enforced; as well as the growing number and influence of international NGOs. This is the topic that needs our constant and increased attention. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has 122 states parties and 139 signatories, increasing the international potential for accountability and reduce impunity. New political parties, such as the Pirate Parties in about 70 countries (including post-Arab-Spring Tunisia) promote direct democracy and participation in government, civil rights, transparency, and free sharing of knowledge and information.


More participatory democracy may grow from e-government to we-government. The e-generation is more borderless and wants to design new worlds. Petitions circulating around the world are beginning to influence decisions and hold governments and large organizations accountable through public participation rather than just relying on national judiciary systems. News is independently reported or validated. Some argue that access to the Internet should become a human right (as are libraries) as a tool for an informed public, freedom of expression, and association. The Resolution "Right to privacy in the digital age" adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2013 is calling on all countries to take measures to end activities such as electronic surveillance, interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, which violate the fundamental “tenet of a democratic society.” Yet enforcement of such international directives might remains problematic, as they could interfere with nation-states perspectives.

Since democracies tend not to fight each other and since humanitarian crises are far more likely under authoritarian than democratic regimes, expanding democracy is sine qua non for building a peaceful and just future for all. Meanwhile, international procedures are needed to assist failed states or regions within states, and intervention strategies need to be designed for when a state constitutes a significant threat to its citizens or others.


This Challenge will be addressed seriously when strategies to eliminate threats to democracy are in place, when at least less than 10% of the world lives in nondemocratic systems, when Internet and media freedom protection is internationally enforced, when enforcement institutions function without political, economic, or other interference, and when all citizens exercise their rights to elect and be elected.


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.

Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region experiencing a slight improvement in its overall score of media freedom for 2014. Yet only 3% of the population lives in the 4 countries rated with "free" media, 58% lives in 25 countries with "partly free" media, while 39% of the region's population lives in 21 countries with "not free" press.Freedom Housefound that 12% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lives in 10 countries rated “free,” 48% lives in 18 countries “partly free,” while 40% lives in the 21 countries with “not free” status. Over the past year, notable improvements were in Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau (which also had their media status changed from "not free" to "partly free"), while Burundi and Uganda declined from "partly free" to "not free" due to increased repressions against political and civil liberties. Equatorial Guinea, a high-income country, has the world’s largest gap between its per capitawealth and its human development score. The Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance adopted by the African Union in 2007 and in force since 2012, has been ratified by 23 countries by the end of 2013.

Some 5.6 million people of the region are estimated as living in slavery conditions, with high prevalence in Mauritania (4% of the population, the world's highest), followed by DRC, Sudan, CAR, and Republic of Congo, each with over 1% prevalence. 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.

Human Rights Watch notes that South Africa continues to struggle with corruption, socio-economic and political rights, freedom of expression, and weak state institutions. Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, and others are still mired in authoritarian regimes masking as democracies.

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: This is the region with the worst political rights and civil liberties in the world and it showed regress over the past years. Some of the lowest rated countries are in this region: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.The Arab Spring has been followed by chaotic geopolitics, restless and sometimes violent movements. Nevertheless, in 2014, Tunisia has joined Israel as a Country rated “free”, becoming the first Arab country with this status. These two countries encompass 5% of the regions population; another 10% lives in 3 “partly free” countries, while 85% of the region’s population (over 349 million people) lives in the 13 “not free” countries. The vast majority of the population, 93% is living in countries with no free media; 5% lives in the 3 countries with partly free media, and only 2% of the population is living in the region's single "free" media country, Israel. 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.

So far, at least 220,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict and some 12.2 million people need humanitarian assistance through the country. UNHCR estimates that the population of concern in the region is over 11.3 million, including some 7.8 million IDPs and 2.6 million refugees.

An estimated 2.2 million people live in modern slavery, with prevalence of over 1% in Qatar, Syria, UAE, and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Qatar are not party nor signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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.

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. For 2014, Freedom House rated 16 countries (encompassing 38% of the region's population) as “free,” 14 as “partially free,” while 42% of the region's population is living in the 9 “not free” countries. 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.

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 2014 estimates that over 23.5 millionpeople of the Asia-Pacific region are enslaved; the countries with the highest number of people living in conditions of slavery are India with 14 million, China with 3.3 million, and Pakistan with 2.1 million, while Uzbekistan has the highest prevalence, with 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. At mid-2015, there were some 1.5 million Myanmar people of concern to UNHCR, of which more than 810,000 people without citizenship and some 120,000 refugees in neighboring countries.


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 andpolitical and fiscal integration helped the spread and development of democracy across Europe. The European Citizens’ Initiative enacted in 2012 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 autumn 2014 Eurobarometer survey shows that the Europeans have a higher trust in the EU (37%) than in national governments (29%), and that support for the EU is increasing, with 39% having a positive image of the EU, versus 22% that have a negative one. However, only 40% of the Europeans surveyed feel that their voice counts.

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. If current trends continue, by 2050, some  20% of Europe's total population might be Muslim, which could challenge Europe's generally secular and democratic values. Turkey, which hopes to join the EU, is yet rated "partly free", and its "not free" press environment continues to deteriorate.

Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia 136 out of 175 countries assessed (though improving from 154th place in 2010). 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--mostly related to illegal trafficking--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.” However, 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). 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. Human Rights Watch reports that in Peru and Ecuador, the government used excessive power and violence to stop protests against mining projects.

Some 1.3 million people in the LAC region are estimated enslaved, with the highest prevalence in Haiti, at 2.3% of the population. 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: In Canada and the U.S., increasing political polarization and brinkmanship, and new surveillance measures are affecting public confidence in the North American democracy at home and internationally. The 114th U.S. Congress -- in power until January 2017 -- is one of the most diverse in American history, with 20% female and over 17% non-white. 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 cost of America’s presidential race reached a record $2 billion and efforts to "get the money out of politics" continually fails.

U.S. is ranked 49 as of press freedom and the controversies around WikiLeaks and the revelation about NSA procedures continue. New 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 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


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