Statistics on Democracy


1. Total number of democracies in the world
2. Recent evolution of the number of democracies
3. Alternative system for the measurement of democracy
4. Self-identification
5. Length of tenure
6. Peaceful transition of power

1. Total number of democracies in the world

Most countries today are formal democracies. By the end of 2011, only these countries were considered autocracies: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan. Given that some of those are quite large, one in three people live in authoritarian systems (half of those in China).

Obviously, many so-called democracies are only partially or formally democratic. Even many of the autocracies mentioned above have regular elections, but they fail to respect other necessary characteristics of full democracies. Five of those did not even have elections during the last decades: China, Eritrea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Other countries, while formally democratic, also fail in numerous respects.

In 1900, New Zealand was the only country with a government elected by all its adult citizens. By the end of the century, there were ostensibly 120 electoral democracies in place (source).

People sometimes do not realize how total has been the normative triumph of some of the ideas typically associated with democracy, even if one thinks that democracy itself has not succeeded quite as spectacularly. Take, for instance, the norm that rulers of states should be selected through some process that involves voting by all adults in society (I’m being deliberately vague here) rather than, say, inheriting their position by succeeding their fathers. In 1788 there were only a couple of countries in the world that could even claim to publicly recognize something remotely like this norm. Most people could not vote, and voting was not generally recognized as something that needed to happen before rulers could rule; rulers could and did claim to have authority to rule on other grounds. Norms of hereditary selection structured the symbolic universe in which political competition took place, and defined its ultimate boundaries for most people (at least those who lived in state spaces). Yet by 2008 there were only four or five countries in the world that did not publicly acknowledge universal voting rights. (source)

global trends in wealth and democracy

The red is world GDP estimates produced by economist Brad De Long to show the exponential growth in human wealth over the past 200 years. The blue line plots the spread of universal suffrage across states in the international political system, as recorded in the Political Institutions and Political Events (PIPE) data set.

(source, more on the link between democracy and GDP is here)

Here’s a graph showing the number of democracies according to the two most cited democracy indices, Freedom House and Polity IV:

democracy indexes polity iv and freedom house


Both the Freedom House and Polity IV democracy indices are normalized so that zero corresponds to the least democratic and one corresponds to most democratic. Both figures are (unweighted) averages for balanced samples of countries, 164 for Polity IV, and 186 for Freedom House.

According to the Polity IV Project, autocratic or anocratic government was the rule until 1850, and democracy was a rare exception. (Anocracy is a regime-type where power is not vested in public institutions but spread amongst elite groups who are constantly competing with each other for power. Examples of anocracies in Africa include the warlords of Somalia. Anocracies are situated midway between an autocracy and a democracy.)

democracy polity iv statistics


The high number of autocracies after WWII is due to the Cold War. Today, more than half of the world’s countries (about 100) are democracies.

This graph focuses on Africa, where the Cold War had a particularly pernicious effect on governance:

african democracy statistics

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2. Recent evolution of the number of democracies

According to the latest report by Freedom House, the numbers of democracies have stabilized over the last years:

freedom house percentage electoral democracies

freedom house percentage electoral democracies

About two-thirds of countries are viewed as electoral democracies by Freedom House:

percentage of countries that are democracies


Freedom House also evaluates the level of protection of political rights and civil liberties in each state:

freedom house


This can also be viewed as a measure of democracy, in particular given the close relationship between democracy and respect for rights.

freedom in the world improvements and declines

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3. Alternative system for the measurement of democracy

Don’t forget that there are some problems with democracy measurement. I’ve already cited two different measurement systems, Freedom House and PIPE, but there are others as well. Every system produces other numbers. If every measurement system uses the same definition of democracy over time – and most measurement systems of course take care that they do – then the trends given above (how many more/less democracies are there?) may still provide some useful information. The levels, however (how many democracies are there) depend heavily on what you call a democracy. (I dealt with this issue here). Freedom House has been criticized for its methods and definitions, but the same can be said for other systems, for example Polity IV.

One less common but interesting measure of democracy is the Global Integrity Report. Some charts are available here.

This sample chart for instance assesses voting and elections integrity as well as regulations governing the financing of political parties and candidates:

global integrity index

There is also the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy which studies five general categories:

  • free and fair election process
  • civil liberties
  • functioning of government
  • political participation
  • political culture

Countries are ranked on a scale between 0 and 10, with 10 being the most democratic one (in the 2007 ranking, Sweden was the most democratic with a score of 9.88):

democracy index the economist

Here’s the 2010 EIU ranking of countries in Africa:

Economist Intelligence Unit African Democracy Ranking


Update: here’s the 2011 version, and you can clearly see some progress:

African democracy map


Democracy south of the Sahara may be sloppy and haphazard, but electoral contests and term limits are increasingly accepted as fixed rules, to be flouted at a would-be ruler’s peril, rather than distant ideals. Today only one African state, Eritrea, holds no elections. (source)

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4. Self-identification

Self-identification by countries isn’t the best measure of democracy, but it’s interesting nonetheless because it bears witness to the power of the concept. The following map shows the countries of the world that self-identify as a democracy in green, and the tiny minority that doesn’t in red (Vatican, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Fiji, Tonga and Brunei):

countries that self-identify as democracies

(source, click image to enlarge)

Now, compare this to the latest Freedom House scores, which helpfully but completely coincidentally have the same color codes:

freedom house scores for 2001 and 2009 map


This raises two related questions: why is there a difference between self-identification and reality, and why do countries think it is important to claim that they are democracies, even when the facts clearly belie this claim and the governments making the claim probably know better? Self-delusion can’t be excluded. Some governments probably have an excessively optimistic view of their country’s institutions and achievements. Some may have an excessively minimalistic view of democracy (but then again, Freedom House makes the same mistake…). Some may believe to have the support of the people and think that this is a sufficient condition. Some may hope that claiming the support of the people will allow them to get away with more on the international scene, or to get some beneficial treatment from other countries. And some may hope for a self-fulfilling prophecy effect.

What we can take away from this is that the idea of democracy seems to be very powerful. I just wish it was more than merely the idea that is powerful.

How do countries self-identify as democracies? Well, you can look at their constitutions:

The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848. …Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City). … [Of course] there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past. … Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (source)

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5. Length of tenure

The fact that a leader of a certain country holds on to power for a very long time isn’t necessarily a good indication of a lack of democracy in that country. However, it does put the burden of proof on those who believe that there is democracy. Normally, a democracy shows some form of rotation in office and where there is no such rotation, one can prima facie assume that there is no democracy. For example, only 9% of African elections ended in incumbent loss in the 2000s. Same stat elsewhere: 33%.

length of tenure as a measure of democracy


length of tenure


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6. Peaceful transition of power

The number of peaceful transitions of power is not a definitive indication of democracy – non-democratic regimes can also transition peacefully, and it’s not because Italy has a new government every x months that it’s more democratic. Still, it does tell us something:

peaceful power transitions

Perhaps the duration of a period without a non-peaceful transition would be better.

While in the 1960s and 1970s approximately 75% of African leaders were ousted through violent means (coup d’etats, rebellion),  in the period 2000-2005 this number had dropped to 19% (source).

coups and coup attempts 1950 2010

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14 thoughts on “Statistics on Democracy

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