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A Global Reality Check for Leaders of Democracies, Where ‘Faith Is Running on Fumes’

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Participants at the 2d session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, May 31, 2023. A new global survey on democracies conducted in 30 geographically diverse countries and polling 36,344 people, found that among other trends, younger people hold the least faith in democracy of all age groups. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Although people across the world maintain faith in democracy, “that faith is running on fumes” for younger generations, a new survey found, published by the Open Society Foundations, which focuses on justice, human rights and democratic governance.

Launched in September, the survey provides gist for “The Open Society Barometer: Can Democracy Deliver?,” a report studying global opinion on human rights and democracy through polling done with 36,344 people in 30 geographically diverse countries, carried out from May to July 2023. The survey covered a combined population of more than 5.5 billion people.

Young people who were surveyed hold the least faith in democracy of any age group, “presenting a grave threat to its future,” the report said. The highest rate of respondents, 96 percent, who said it was important for them to live in a democratically governed country were based in Ethiopia and Türkiye. The lowest was in Russia, at 65 percent.

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Just 57 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds think democracy is preferable to any other form of government, compared with 71 percent of respondents 56 and older. The younger cohort also feel that army rule, at 42 percent, is “a good way of running a country.” In Egypt, 63 percent of everyone polled agreed with that contention, the highest rate of people reacting to this topic. In the United States, 29 percent believe that is the case.

Polling also revealed that 36 percent of respondents think that authoritarian governments are better than democracies at keeping crime low.  But only 20 percent of respondents think authoritarian countries can deliver “what citizens want.” The survey found that although 86 percent of people want to live in a democratic country, “they are less convinced by its current performance.”

The general shift in preferred political structures is attributed to the so-called “polycrisis,” a new term to describe, as the barometer says, the “cascading and connected crises we find ourselves in,” during which “forms of climate, economic, technological, and geopolitical turmoil have grown and reinforced each other to a degree never seen before.”

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Participants across all age groups were asked to rank the contemporary issues they think governments should prioritize, concluding that human rights (72 percent) should be at the top, with economic and social rights ranking above civil and political rights for every country surveyed except Bangladesh. In that vein, 84 percent of respondents supported action to help countries struggling with debt, notably by giving more money to the World Bank. Seventy-two percent think that human rights have been a “force for good” in the world, and 71 percent agree that “human rights reflect values that I believe in.”

Lower-income countries think most positively about human rights as a “force for good”: 88 percent of those polled in Bangladesh and Nigeria elicited the highest response; the lowest rate was in Germany (51 percent) and in Japan (45 percent).

Given the current climate crisis, rising income inequality and growing distrust of politicians, the barometer asks: Can democracy deliver? Seventy percent of the respondents were “anxious” that climate change would affect their lives next year. It ranks as the most important issue facing the world today, alongside poverty and inequality. Corruption is seen as the biggest national problem.

“Trust in national and local politicians was low in most of the countries polled,” the survey said. Migration is a highly visible but low concern: just 7 percent of respondents said the matter was their biggest worry; and two-thirds of those polled wanted to see more safe, legal routes for migrants.

On questions of power and politics, respondents in most high-income countries think their governments should increase aid overseas, but they were not as agreeable about letting poorer countries have a say in decision-making. Regarding “equity and justice,” little progress has been made in the countries surveyed. Polling found that respondents in Sri Lanka, for example, struggled the most to eat in the last year.

The 30 countries surveyed reflected a mix of national-income levels, with most in the lower-middle-income category. The mix of countries also included members of such global coalitions as the G20, the “nonaligned countries” and the “vulnerable 20.” Yet there was no specific question posed in the survey regarding gender equality.

As to “fear of political unrest leading to violence” in their country in the next year, respondents in Kenya and South Africa presented the highest agreement to the statement, at 79 percent. Not much farther down, the rate for the US — where a presidential election is to be held in 2024 — was 67 percent; for France, 66 percent.

The purpose of the survey and the accompanying report, the barometer said, is to provide a “global reality check” for leaders of democratic societies. Mark Malloch-Brown, the president of Open Society Foundations and a former United Nations deputy secretary-general, hopes that the report will be used as a clarion call to leaders of democratic nations: “Generation-by-generation, [faith in democracy] is fading as doubts grow about its ability to deliver concrete improvements to their lives,” he said.

Editor’s note: PassBlue is a grantee of Open Society Foundations.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the status of democracy's leaders?

Arthur Bassas is a researcher and writer who graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland, majoring in international relations and terrorism. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and speaks English and French.

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A Global Reality Check for Leaders of Democracies, Where ‘Faith Is Running on Fumes’
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Mamo
Mamo
8 months ago

It is a good survey for me. But how democratic leaders govern/ rule/ undemocratic individuals and societies? And why democratic societies are ruled by undemocratic leaders? Currently, democracy, democratic leaders and democratic societies are facing various problems.

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