How Many People Live in a Political Democracy Today?
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How Many People Live in a Political Democracy Today?

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How Many People Live in a Political Democracy Today?

Governments come in all shapes and sizes, but can ultimately be divided into two broad categories: democracies and autocracies.

Using the Regimes of the World classification system developed by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan Lindberg and data from V-Dem, it’s estimated that 2.3 billion people—about 29% of the global population—lived in a democracy in 2021.

By contrast, 71% of people lived under what can be considered an autocratic regime. In fact, the number of people considered to be living under a type of autocracy is at its highest total in the last three decades.

To see how this split has changed over time, the chart from Our World in Data, which uses data from the aforementioned sources, highlights how many people have lived under political democracies versus autocracies since the 18th century.

Forms of Political Democracies and Autocracies

First, let’s look at the four types of political regimes shown in the chart, based on criteria from the classifications of Lührmann et al. (2018):

  • Liberal democracies: Judicial and legislative branches have oversight of the chief executive, rule of law, and individual liberties.
  • Electoral democracies: Hold multiparty de-facto elections that are free and fair, have an elected executive, and institutional democratic freedoms such as voting rights, clean elections, and freedom of expression.
  • Electoral autocracies: Hold de-facto elections; democratic standards are lacking and irregular.
  • Closed autocracies: No elections are held for the chief executive or no meaningful competition is present.

It’s important to note that this is a fairly stringent and specific classification system. Many countries consider themselves an electoral democracy or strive to appear as one, but are still considered autocratic based on this criteria.

Using this categorization scheme, 34 countries can be considered liberal democracies, 55 are electoral democracies, 60 are electoral autocracies, and 30 are closed autocracies as of early 2022.

Over 200 Years of People Living in a Political Democracy

Many political systems around the world have made clear transitions in the last two centuries, but even in the last decade they’ve shifted substantially.

In 2010, the global population was split about 50/50 between democratic and autocratic regimes. Since then, there has been a clear trend towards autocratization.

Year
% Democracy
% Autocracy
202129.3%70.7%
201050.4%49.6%
200053.6%46.4%
199041.4%58.6%
198034.1%65.9%
197034.9%65.1%
196035.2%64.8%
195018.1%81.9%
194010.4%89.6%
193017.9%82.1%
192012.0%88.0%
19103.7%96.3%
19003.6%96.4%
18903.5%96.5%
18803.5%96.5%
18700.4%99.6%
18600.3%99.7%
18500.2%99.8%
18400.0%100.0%
18300.0%100.0%
18200.0%100.0%
18100.0%100.0%
18000.0%100.0%

Note: Missing regime data not included

Though modern democracies have roots in the 1700s and 1800s in Europe and the United States, governments have only more recently been able to check the boxes of the stringent democratic criteria highlighted above.

According to the data, liberal democracies and electoral democracies only emerged in Switzerland and Australia in the 1850s and in France in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian war.

Following both World Wars, the number of democracies in the world increased, spreading across Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. After the Cold War, countries across Eastern Europe also adopted democracies, with the total populations shown in the table below.

Year
Liberal Democracy
Electoral Democracy
Electoral Autocracy
Closed Autocracy
20211.05B1.25B3.51B2.05B
20101.16B2.34B1.75B1.70B
20001.06B2.22B1.02B1.82B
1990865.52M1.33B999.81M2.12B
1980722.40M796.11M957.93M1.97B
1970632.53M655.49M439.89M1.96B
1960334.08M730.90M528.14M1.43B
1950217.75M239.01M306.07M1.76B
194074.46M156.01M113.89M1.87B
193089.64M274.29M67.96M1.60B
192070.22M152.50M275.10M1.36B
191020.74M41.46M261.16M1.34B
190013.70M40.82M222.36M1.25B
18906.00M40.19M179.48M1.11B
18805.03M38.73M158.42M1.05B
18704.41M0188.65M992.35M
18603.80M083.33M1.08B
18502.38M0113.98M1.03B
18400062.01M1.04B
18300047.54M986.50M
18200037.75M921.85M
18100025.74M847.04M
18000022.00M805.81M

Note: Missing regime data not included

On the flipside, it’s estimated that 5.5 billion people live in autocratic countries.

Electoral autocracies make up the majority of this total, with 3.5 billion people or about 45% of the global population today. Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela are considered electoral autocracies, as well as India since 2019.

Closed autocracies are the second-most common, and in the last decade, the number of closed autocracies rose from 25 to 30 countries.

One report estimates that as much as 20% of European countries are autocratizing as of 2021, including Hungary, Greece, Poland, and Croatia.

Changes in Political Systems

What countries became more autocratic in 2021, and why?

Coups, involving the overthrow of a government in power, played a large role behind the most recent autocratic shifts. Of the five coups that occurred in 2021, four​​—Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Myanmar—became classified as closed autocracies. Meanwhile, Nigeria, Tunisia, and El Salvador became classified as electoral autocracies.

Meanwhile, Austria, Portugal, Ghana, and Trinidad & Tobago shifted from liberal democracies to electoral democracies, as the transparency of laws and enforcement waned.

Moving in the opposite direction, both Armenia and Bolivia started being classified as democracies in 2021.

Current Obstacles

Reinforcing the current shift to autocracies is increasing polarization around the world. Research shows that political polarization is linked with democratic decline. Since 1950, 26 of the 52 instances of countries facing deep polarization saw their democratic systems downgraded.

At the same time, misinformation reinforces polarization. With democratic institutions facing headwinds, it remains unclear if current autocratic trends will continue.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Politics

Which Countries are the Most Polarized?

This chart plots polarization for various countries based on the Edelman Trust Institute’s annual survey of 32,000+ people.

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Which Countries are the Most Polarized?

How do you measure something that’s made headlines for half a decade but is still difficult to quantify? We’re talking about polarization.

Even within the social sciences, polarization covers everything from racial segregation, to labor skill levels, to class divide, to political ideology.

How Do You Quantify Polarization?

Edelman’s data on which countries are the most polarized comes from survey results asking respondents two very simple questions:

  • How divided is their country?
  • How entrenched is the divide?

The questions help bring to light the social issues a particular country is facing and the lack of consensus on those issues.

Plotted against each other, a chart emerges. A country in the top–right corner of the chart is “severely polarized.” Countries located closer to the lower–left are considered less polarized.

In the report, Edelman identifies four metrics to watch for and measure which help quantify polarization.

Economic AnxietiesWill my family be better off in five years?
Institutional ImbalanceGovernment is viewed as unethical and incompetent.
Class DividePeople with higher incomes have a higher trust in institutions.
Battle for TruthEcho chambers, and a low trust in media.

Following Edelman’s metrics, countries with economic uncertainty and inequality as well as institutional distrust are more likely to be polarized. Below, we look at key highlights from the chart.

Severely Polarized Countries

Despite being one of the largest economies in Latin America, Argentina is the most polarized country surveyed by a large margin. Foreign loan defaults, a high fiscal deficit, and now surging inflation have created a perfect storm in the country.

43% of the Argentinian respondents said they will be better off in five years, down 17 percentage points from last year.

Along with fiscal upheaval, Argentinians are also dealing with enduring corruption in the public sector and abrupt policy reversals between governments. Only 20% of those surveyed in Argentina said they trusted the government—the least of all surveyed countries.

Here are all six of the countries considered to be severely polarized:

    🇦🇷 Argentina
    🇨🇴 Colombia
    🇺🇸 United States
    🇿🇦 South Africa
    🇪🇸 Spain
    🇸🇪 Sweden

In the U.S., heightened political upheaval between Democrats and Republicans over the last few years has led to strengthening ideological stances and to an abundance of headlines about polarization. Only 42% of respondents in the country trust the government.

And in South Africa, persistent inequality and falling trust in the African National Congress also check off Edelman’s metrics. It’s also second after Argentina with the least trust in government (22%) per the survey.

Moderately Polarized Countries

The biggest cluster of 15 countries are in moderately polarized section of the chart, with all continents represented.

    🇧🇷 Brazil
    🇰🇷 South Korea
    🇲🇽 Mexico
    🇫🇷 France
    🇬🇧 United Kingdom
    🇯🇵 Japan
    🇳🇱 Netherlands
    🇮🇹 Italy
    🇩🇪 Germany
    🇳🇬 Nigeria
    🇹🇭 Thailand
    🇰🇪 Kenya
    🇨🇦 Canada
    🇦🇺 Australia
    🇮🇪 Ireland

Some are on the cusp of being severely polarized, including economic heavyweights like Japan, the UK, France, and Germany. On the other hand, smaller economies like Thailand, Kenya, and Nigeria, are doing comparatively better on the polarization chart.

Less Polarized Countries

Countries with fair economic outlook and high trust in institutions including China, Singapore, and India are in the bottom left sector of the chart.

    🇮🇩 Indonesia
    🇨🇳 China
    🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates
    🇸🇬 Singapore
    🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia
    🇲🇾 Malaysia
    🇮🇳 India

It’s interesting to note that of the seven countries in that sector, three are not democracies. That said, there are also more developing countries on this list as well, which could also be a factor.

Looking Ahead

Edelman notes that polarization is both “cause and consequence of distrust,” creating a self-fulfilling cycle. Aside from the four metrics stated above, concerns about the erosion of civility and weakening social fabric also lead to polarization.

Edelman polarization quote

As global events unfold in 2023—including looming worries of a recession—it will be fascinating to see how countries might switch positions in the year to come.

Where does this data come from?

Source: The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer

Data note: Survey conducted: Nov 1 – Nov 28, 2022. Survey included 32,000+ respondents in 28 countries. Russia was omitted from this year’s survey. See page 2 of the report for more details.

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