Freedoms at risk: the challenge of the century
A global survey on democracy in 55 countries
Democracies today find themselves in a perilous situation, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled their moment of triumph. Externally, the current tensions between the democratic world and authoritarian regimes hark back to the Cold War. Internally, not since the 1930s have identity conflicts, populism, authoritarianism, racism and anti-Semitism undermined democratic societies to such an extent. For the democratic world, the combination of external and internal threats marks the obvious danger of the moment.
In the face of these major challenges, democratic societies still have one priceless asset that is illustrated in the results of our study: the citizens surveyed have confirmed their allegiance to freedoms and to democracy. Our data show that when they voice disapproval, more often than not, the object of their criticism is not the idea of democracy itself but rather the way in which democracy functions in their country.
This is the troubled context within which we have created the global survey Freedoms at risk: the challenge of the century, conducted in 55 countries. This survey was born out of close cooperation between the Fondation pour l’innovation politique (France), the International Republican Institute (the U.S.), the Community of Democracies (intergovernmental organization), the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Germany), the Genron NPO (Japan), the Fundación Nuevas Generaciones (Argentina) and República do Amanhã (Brazil).
The questionnaire was administered to 47,408 people, in each of the national languages, i.e. 45 languages for 55 countries: Albania, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kosovo, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.
PART I. WHO ARE DEMOCRACIES AFRAID OF
Among the authoritarian powers (China, Russia, Turkey), China is the one that most worries the democratic world. 60% of respondents consider China’s posture on the international stage to be “worrying”; 52% feel the same way about Russia and 37% about Turkey. The deterioration of China’s image is drastic when compared to our 2018 survey in 42 countries, where less than half (49%) of respondents found it to be worrisome.
The Americas in the face of Chinese ambition. Concern about China reaches unprecedented levels for Canadians (78%, versus 50% in 2018), Americans (72%, versus 59% in 2018) and Brazilians (55%, versus 39% in 2018). In Mexico, concern about China is less widespread (42%).
China is viewed negatively in the Asia-Pacific region. The impact of Beijing’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea is being felt across the entire region, leading to harsher public perceptions of China. New Zealanders (51%), South Koreans (54%), Australians (56%) and the Japanese (60%) are now opposed to the deepening of relations with China. However, both Filipinos (59%) and Indonesians (65%) want to see a deepening of their countries’ relationships with China.
China divides the European continent. Among Europeans (in EU Member States), concerns about China’s posture on the international stage have spread rapidly and are now shared by 60% of respondents, compared to 40% in 2018. Public opinion is more favorable to a deepening of relations with China in the Eastern European Union (64%) than in the Western European Union (59%).
A less influential Russia remains feared by its neighbors. Only a small minority (4%) of those surveyed named Russia as the most influential global power. Nonetheless, a majority (52%) of respondents still indicate that they are worried by its posture on the international stage.
Turkey is disorienting for Europeans. Turkey is the authoritarian power that the democratic world worries the least about: 37% of respondents say that they are worried about Turkey’s posture on the international stage. However, in the European Union, Turkey (63%) is the main cause of concern ahead of Russia (61%) and China (60%).
Younger generations are less afraid of authoritarian powers. The 18–34-year-olds are less worried about China (53%), Russia (44%) and Turkey (30%) than respondents aged over 60 (72%, 70% and 52% respectively).
The United States remains by far the most influential power. Citizens ranked the United States as the most influential power (70%), ahead of China (17%), Russia (4%), Japan (3%) and India (1%).
Compared to our 2018 survey, the image of the United States has improved significantly. In 2018, over half of respondents (56%) were concerned by the posture of the United States on the international stage. In the same countries, in 2021, a third (33%) of respondents are worried about the United States. This reaction can be seen within American society itself: although almost a third of Americans (30%) are still worried by their country’s posture on the international stage, this result is down by 13 points compared with 2018 (43%).
Public opinion is divided on the prospect of a new World War. The idea “that another World War will break out in the coming years” is considered likely by half the people surveyed (50%). There are very strong variations by country. Americans (59%), the Lebanese (58%) and Australians (57%) are above the global average. South Koreans (49%), the Japanese (48%), Israelis (47%) and Canadians (45%) are close to the global average. Only 38% of Europeans (EU) think a World War is likely, as do the British. On the European continent, Ukrainians (55%), Cypriots (54%), Greeks (49%), Poles (48%) and the French (44%) are particularly worried.
PART II. WHAT ARE DEMOCRACIES AFRAID OF
Concerns about security issues are widespread. The vast majority of respondents said that they were afraid of crime (89%), terrorism (83%), and, to a lesser extent but still in the majority, immigration (63%) and Islamism (59%).
Interpersonal mistrust is prevalent in democratic societies. 36% of respondents say they can trust most people, while 64% think you can never be too careful when dealing with others.
Democratic societies are undermined by mistrust and the fear of “no longer being able to resolve our disagreements peacefully”. A significant minority (44%) of respondents think that in the coming years “citizens will no longer be able to resolve their disagreements peacefully and will resort to violence more often”, compared to 56% who think that, in the coming years, citizens “will be able to resolve their disagreements peacefully without resorting to violence”.
Half of respondents (47%) are in favor of the “right to have a firearm in one’s home for self-defense”. This opinion is more commonplace among under 35s (52%) than over 60s (40%), and is also more widespread in certain countries (84% in the United States, 76% in Nigeria and 68% in Serbia) than in others (32% for the EU average, 26% in France, 21% in South Korea and 15% in Japan).
Fear of economic downgrading is a major concern. The rising cost of living (90%) is a common concern, right before the fear of an economic crisis (89%). Respondents also worry about social inequality (85%) and unemployment (84%). Overall, the rising cost of living is a greater cause for concern (90%) than climate change (81%).
Public ambivalence towards social media. On the one hand, social media are looked upon unfavorably by an overwhelming majority, who believe that they “are bad because they facilitate the spread of false information” (73%); on the other hand, they are also considered to be “good because they help people get informed” (83%).
The public wants digital platforms to be more regulated. Overall, three-quarters of respondents (73%) believe that Big Tech – or the GAFAM – have too much power in terms of information and public debate and that their governments should be able to control them more.
Manipulation of information and foreign interference. Most respondents (88%) condemn the disruption of electoral campaigns by foreign powers using the Internet and social media.
PART III. IN A FRAGILE DEMOCRATIC WORLD, ATTACHMENT TO THE EUROPEAN UNION IS GROWING STRONGER
Attachment to the European Union is growing. A majority of Europeans (EU) surveyed (52%) see their country’s membership of the European Union as “a good thing”. This is 3 points higher than in our 2018 survey (49%) and 7 points more than in 2017 (45%). Only a minority (18%) believe that their membership is “a bad thing”. A third (30%) responded that it is “neither good nor bad”.
Citizens see the euro as a protector of their assets. Anti-euro rhetoric, which has long been adopted by populists, is now perceived as a threat to the material assets owned by Europeans. Illustrating this, two-thirds of Eurozone citizens (64%) say that they want to keep the European currency. One in four (28%) would prefer to switch back to their national currency but believe that this would not be possible. Only a small minority (8%) believe that it would be both preferable and possible to abandon the euro.
Europeans trust European institutions more than national ones. Within the European Union, levels of trust in the European Commission (47%) and European Parliament (47%) are relatively high considering the discredited status currently surrounding political institutions. This result is all the more striking if we compare it with the national institutions in Member States: on average, 41% of Europeans (EU) said that they trust their national government, while 44% trust their national parliament.
The Western Balkans: between European aspirations and weariness. In the Western Balkans, a majority of respondents view their country’s potential ascension to the European Union as a good thing (54%). Meanwhile, 29% believe that it is “neither good nor bad”, while 17% see it as “a bad thing”. The results show significant contrasts between the various countries. While most Albanians and Kosovars are positive about their accession to the European Union, only one in two Macedonians and one in three Serbians share this opinion. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s ethnic partition may be a significant factor behind this, respondents living in Serbian regions, such as Republika Srpska, are more negative about potentially joining the European Union: 40% believe that this would be “a good thing”, while 18% see this as “a bad thing” and 42% replied “neither good nor bad”.
Support for a European army is reinforced. More than half (55%) of Europeans (EU) surveyed are in favor of forming a common army in addition to their national armies. The populations most in favor of a European army live in regions with high geopolitical tensions (82% in Kosovo, 75% in Albania and 72% in Greece).
Brexit: a contrasting judgment on a historic decision. Across the European Union, half of citizens (47%) expect the United Kingdom to be worse off outside the European Union, 28% responded that the UK will be “neither better nor worse off without the European Union”, and 25% that the UK will be “better off without the European Union”. When asked how they view their country’s future, half of British respondents (48%) believe that their country will be worse off without the European Union; only one-third (33%) think that it will be better off, while 19% do not expect Brexit to have any impact on the country.
PART IV. THE DEMOCRATIC IDEAL RESISTS
Out of the six different types of regimes presented, 36% of respondents supported “being led by a strongman who does not have to worry about parliament or elections” and 25% supported “having the armed forces govern the country”. 25% of respondents who support the idea of a strongman find China’s posture on the international stage reassuring (compared to 18% on average), 28% have the same view of Russia’s posture (as opposed to 20%) and 28% find Turkey’s posture reassuring (compared to 19%). Similarly, among those who believe that having the armed forces govern the country would be a good thing, 28% feel reassured by China, 32% by Russia and 34% by Turkey.
China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic may have strengthened public support for the acceptability of authoritarian power among certain people. Half of our survey’s respondents (51%) agree with the idea that “authoritarian governments are more efficient than democratic governments in dealing with pandemics, such as the Covid-19 crisis”, while 49% disagree with this statement.
There is significant support (62%) for a political system based on experts. However, we found that the idea of “having experts decide what is best for the country, rather than the government” has not increased in popularity as a result of the pandemic of Covid-19. In 2018, in the 42 countries surveyed, 57% of respondents believed that this form of government was a good way of governing; in 2021, the average figure for these same 42 States was 58%.
The efficiency of voting is questioned. While there is widespread support for voting, its actual usefulness is up for debate for a significant minority (29%), who believe that “voting is pointless because politicians do not care about the will of the people” (compared with 71% who believe that “voting is worthwhile because elections can make a difference”).
Transparency of the electoral process raises doubts. Globally, 43% of respondents believe that the electoral process is not transparent in their country. There are large disparities between countries. In Northern Europe, most of the people in Norway (87%), Finland (86%), Denmark (84%) and Sweden (83%) believe that the electoral process in their country is transparent. Strong results can also be seen in Switzerland (85%), New Zealand (82%), Canada and Cyprus (81%), but also for Australia (79%), Israel (77%), South Korea (75%), the Philippines and the United Kingdom (72%). Nigeria has the lowest average (21%) of all the countries surveyed.
The idea of voting rights being dependent on knowledge is most popular among the younger generations. Half of under 35s (52%) approve this idea, compared with 31% of people aged 60 and over.
Crises related to corruption undermine democracies. They fuel distrust and lead to widespread suspicions: 16% of respondents believe that “all of the people who govern our country are corrupt”, while half (50%) believe that “most of them are corrupt”. Just one-third (33%) believe that only “a few of them are corrupt”.
Politics and media: the double crisis of representation. The majority (60%) of respondents agreed with the statement: “Most of the time, when politicians speak, I feel like they are discussing issues that do not concern me”. This crisis of political discourse must be assessed in relation to a similar crisis of the same magnitude: that of the media. While the majority of citizens (56%) do not trust the media, half (50%) also agreed with the statement: “Most of the time, when I look at the news in the media, I feel like they are discussing issues that do not concern me”.
Despite being indispensable to democracy, political parties are overwhelmingly rejected. When asked “Would you say that your ideas are represented by the political parties in your country?”, more than four in ten people (44%) do not feel represented by any party, while less than a third (29%) believe that they are represented by one party and one in four (27%) feel represented by several parties.
More than half of respondents (57%) are in favor of the death penalty. Opinion and legislation are generally in agreement: in average, in the 11 countries surveyed where the death penalty still exists, 60% “strongly support” and “support” death penalty. In the 44 countries surveyed where the death penalty has been abolished, 51% “oppose” and “strongly oppose” the death penalty.
Abortion rights are being challenged. Overall, 45% of respondents said that they are opposed to abortion rights. While a majority (55%) are in favor of them, there does not seem to be any guarantee that these rights will be maintained across the generations: for instance, half of 18–34-year-olds (50%) are against abortion rights, compared with 33% of people aged 60 and over.
The State should give businesses more freedom. The democratic world has a positive view of globalization. Nearly two-thirds of respondents view it as “an opportunity” (65%) rather than a threat (35%). Our findings also reveal an attachment to economic liberalism, defined here as limiting the government’s role in the economy and strengthening the freedom of enterprises: 58% believe that “the role of the government in the economy should be limited and the freedom of enterprises should be strengthened”, while 42% would like to see a stronger role for the government and increased control over enterprises.
Criticism of the functioning of democracy in the name of democracy. On average, half of citizens (50%) believe that democracy works poorly in their country. More women (52%) than men (47%) say their democracy is not working well, as do 18-34-year-olds (54%, compared to 44% for those aged 60 and over). The working and middle classes are also more critical (53% and 54% respectively think that democracy works poorly) than the upper classes (39%).
Widespread approval for representative democracy. Out of the six different types of regimes presented, the representative democracy model (“having a democratic political system with an elected parliament that runs the government”) is the most widely supported (81%), followed by the direct democracy model (70%) defined as “having citizens decide what is best for the country, rather than the government”.
Citizens reclaim their attachment to freedoms. In the democratic world, two-thirds (67%) of respondents chose the following answer: “Even if it made the government more efficient, I would not accept having fewer freedoms”. One-third of respondents (33%) chose the following option: “I would not mind having less freedom if it made the government more efficient”.
Attachment to freedom is almost unanimous. Respondents believe in the importance of the ability to protest (83%), the ability to take part in the decision-making process (95%), the ability to vote for the candidate of your choosing (96%), having the right to say what you think (96%) and having freedom of the press (94%).