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Global Survey of Democracy Finds Both Sobering, Alarming Results

Democracy 2023-09-15, 12:08am



By Thalif Deen

More than half the world’s population is younger than 25. But the enormous quantity of young people does often not translate into qualitative influence about democratic decision-making processes, according to UNICEF. Meanwhile, a new poll commissioned by the Open Society Foundations finds that young people around the world hold the least faith in democracy of any age group, presenting a grave threat to its future. The Open Society Barometer is one of the largest ever studies of global public opinion on human rights and democracy across 30 countries—painting a picture of the attitudes, concerns, and hopes of over 5.5 billion people worldwide.

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 14 2023 (IPS) - The recent epidemic of coups in Africa — including military take-overs in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon– have triggered the inevitable question: Is multi-party democracy on the retreat?

The Open Society Barometer, an annual global survey from Open Society Foundations, launched September 12, reflects the positive and negative aspects of the state democracy worldwide.

The survey finds that young people around the world (Generation Z and millennials) “hold the least faith in democracy of any age group, presenting a grave threat to its future”.

Over a third (35%) of respondents in the 18-35 age group were supportive of a strong leader who does away with parliament and elections.

A large minority of young people surveyed (42%) feel that military rule is a good way of running a country. A similar number (35%) feel that having a strong leader who does not bother with elections or consulting parliament/congress is a good way of running a country.

This compares to 20% that support military rule and 26% that are in favor of a strong leader in the 56 plus age bracket.

Still, the report, The Open Society Barometer: Can Democracy Deliver? finds that the concept of democracy remains widely popular across every region of the globe, with 86% saying that they would prefer to live in a democratic state.

There is also widespread disbelief that authoritarian states can deliver more effectively than democracies on priorities both nationally and in global forums.

Commenting on the findings, Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, said: “Our findings are both sobering and alarming. People around the world still want to believe in democracy. But generation-by-generation, that faith is fading as doubts grow about its ability to deliver concrete improvements to their lives. That has to change.”

Asked for his reaction, Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders, told IPS: “It is good news that a huge majority of people say they consider it important to live in a democracy”.

At the same time, much less say they believe democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. This is a contradiction that requires more analysis, he pointed out.

“It is a warning that young people appear to be less convinced of democratic government. It must be understood better why this is the case.”

The state of civic education and better ways for political participation may be among the issues to be looked at. In general terms, it is clear that democratic governments need to perform better, Bummel declared.

The survey was described as one of the largest global opinion surveys on the status of democracy and human rights, reflecting the views of over 5.5 billion people.

Comprising public opinion data from 30 countries – including the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, China, Brazil, Japan, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, and India – the survey paints a surprising picture of the generational shift of young people lacking faith in democracy to deliver on their priorities.

The survey also finds that:

• Democracy remains popular across every region of the globe, but the poll found lower levels of support among young people, as the world faces multiple challenges (the ‘polycrisis’)—from poverty and inequality, to climate change—and patchy evidence that democracies are improving the lives of their citizens.

• Just 57% of young people (aged 18 to 36) believe democracy is preferable to any form of government, compared to 71% of older respondents; while 42% of young people are supportive of military rule, compared to 20% of older respondents (aged 56 plus).

• Overwhelming majorities support human rights, with an average of 72% of respondents identifying them as a “force for good in the world.” Yet, a significant minority (42%) believe that they are used by Western countries to punish developing countries.

• 70% of respondents around the world are anxious that climate change will have a negative impact on them and their livelihoods in the next year.

The findings also include:

• People support democracy. Only 20% consider authoritarian countries more capable than democracies of delivering “what citizens want.” At the international level, two-thirds (66%) of respondents feel that democracies contribute more to global cooperation. Respondents also believe firmly in human rights, with an overwhelming 95% rejecting the idea that it’s ok for governments to violate the rights of those who look different from themselves. Countries across every region, income level, and current type of governance maintained strong levels of support.

• As people feel the weight of multiple crises, over half (53%) of respondents think their country is headed in the wrong direction. Young people aged 18 to 35 are the most skeptical of democracy, with just 57% deeming it preferable to other types of government.

• Majorities in 21 of the countries polled fear that political unrest could lead to violence in the next year. Fear was highest in South Africa and Kenya (79%), Colombia (77%), Nigeria (75%), Senegal (74%), and Argentina and Pakistan (both 73%). Large majorities in some high-income countries also share this worry, including two-thirds of respondents in the United States and France. Forty-two percent of respondents believe the laws of their country do not keep people like them safe. This was particularly felt in Latin America, with significant majorities in every country: Brazil (74%), Argentina (73%), Colombia (65%), and Mexico (60%).

• Half of respondents (49%) say they have struggled to feed themselves at least once in the last year—a number that holds in states as dissimilar as Bangladesh and the United States—both with 52% of respondents. Especially large majorities in Sri Lanka (85%), Turkey and Kenya (both 73%) experienced this.

• The climate crisis is a high priority for citizens across low-, middle-, and high-income countries. Climate change was considered the top global issue by 32% of people in India and in Italy, followed by Germany (28%), Egypt (27%), Mexico (27%), France (25%), and Bangladesh (25%). Anxiety that climate change will personally affect respondents and their livelihoods in the next year was felt by 70% of those surveyed, and was markedly high in Bangladesh (90%), Turkey (85%), Ethiopia (83%), Kenya (83%), and India (82%), and lowest in China (45%), Russia (48%), and the UK (54%).

• Across the globe, corruption is considered the chief concern for people at a national level, with an average of 23% saying it is the most important issue facing their country. Countries in Africa and Latin America, such as Ghana (45%), South Africa and Nigeria (both 44%), Colombia (37%), and Mexico (36%) stand in stark contrast with Western Europe. In France and the UK, corruption is viewed as the main concern by just 7% of people; in Germany, just 6%.

• Poverty and inequality rank the highest (21%) among the issues that most directly impact people personally. This holds true in Senegal (the smallest economy surveyed) as well as the United States (the largest). Moreover, a majority (69%) believe that economic inequality between countries is a bigger challenge this year than last. This is most keenly felt in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

• Migration is highly visible but of low concern. Despite being front and center of political campaigns in many countries, just 7% of respondents said migration was their biggest concern at the global and national level. This suggests the salience of this issue is largely concentrated to political parties, and not among the public at large. The survey found that two-thirds (66%) of respondents want to see more safe and legal routes for migrants.

• A plurality of respondents believe China’s growing influence will be a force for good: nearly twice as many respondents believe this will have a positive impact (45%) on their country as a negative one (25%). However, there is a sharp contrast between the enthusiasm of lower income countries like Pakistan (76%), Ethiopia (72%), and Egypt (71%), and the overwhelming negativity of high-income democracies, where only small minorities register positivity about the rise of China, as is the case in Japan (3%), Germany (14%), Ukraine (15%), and the UK (16%). Somewhere in the middle, a quarter of Americans answered positively, while 48% felt it would be negative.

• People believe that a fairer international system would be more effective. 61% of those surveyed believe low-income countries should have a greater say in global decision-making—though, predictably, lower-income regions were more enthusiastic than Europe and the United States on this front. 75% believe that high-income countries increase their overseas aid, donate more money to the World Bank to support lower income countries (68%), and lead the way in reducing emissions (79%).

IPS UN Bureau Report